As Segway Retires, Its Inventor Gears Up to Grow Organs
Dean Kamen, inventor of the soon-to-be obsolete Segway, has assembled a team to mass-produce human organs for transplant
Over the past 20 years the Segway has become ubiquitous on city streets and industrial campuses, in malls and even on wooded trails. The electrically charged, stand-and-ride personal transporter, an oft-parodied icon of the Silicon Valley tech world, quickly gained popularity among law enforcement and security agencies, as well as recreational tour operators around the world.
But the time for the original self-balancing standing scooter has come to a close. According to All Things Considered, Ninebot, the company that now owns Segway, will retire the device on July 15. But its creator, Dean Kamen, has bold new plans.
Kamen made a name for himself as an inventor of medical devices, including the insulin pump. Initially, the Segway grew out of his work on a self-balancing wheelchair. When the Segway launched in December 2001, Kamen “believed the new device… would transform cities, replacing cars and their pollution with residents gliding down green streets, each one on a segway,” writes Liz Brody for OneZero. He told Time magazine it would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”
Despite their widespread use, Segways never became the mobility machines of the future that Kamen dreamed, and in fact, have been criticized for being the cause of countless accidental injuries and deaths. But these incidents did not deter Kamen who, Brody writes, “is still busy inventing.” Kamen currently holds more than 440 patents in the United States and internationally. And, if successful, his next bright idea, unlike the Segway, might actually have a positive impact on human health: Kamen is now in the market to mass-produce human organs.
More than 110,000 people in the U.S. alone are in need of an organ transplant, and each day 20 people die waiting for a replacement organ. Those who do receive transplants can be at high risk of their body rejecting the organ. For those suffering from failing organs, some hope sprang in the 1990s when scientists began engineering human tissues.
Significant progress has been made in the field since the ‘90s, and just last year researchers from Tel Aviv University announced they were the first to bioprint a human heart, reports FreeThink’s Kristen Houser. Using methods similar to those employed when 3-D printing solid objects from digital models, bioprinting uses living cells to create computer-generated tissue grafts.
Mass availability of lab-grown organs may seem far off to some, but Kamen is poised to spearhead production when the time comes. In 2016, Kamen teamed up with Martine Rothblatt, the head of biotech company United Therapeutics, who was, at the time, working on growing artificial lungs. According to OneZero, the two had already begun collaborating when they heard about a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) grant opportunity for a scalable process of manufacturing human organs. Kamen and his collaborators won the $80 million DOD grant to manufacture replacement tissue and organs on-demand.
"We need to essentially make the printing press for the world of regenerative medicine,” said Kamen at the time.
The grant kickstarted the formation of Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI), a nonprofit consortium of around 170 companies, institutions and organizations from across the country, which works hand-in-hand with Kamen’s BioFabUSA. With a staff and board of directors boasting FDA, Microsoft and Boston Scientific alumni, the group has continued to contribute and raise additional funds, and set up shop in a New Hampshire millyard.
This collaboration is what could enable Kamen to have the world-transformative impact he’s hoped for. While other endeavors in the field have been siloed—with policy, robotics, organ and stem-cell research, and biotech engineering all operating more or less independently—none have yet achieved the “printing press” factory model that Kamen described.
“When you’re in this industry and you’re thinking about scale, you can’t go to Home Depot,” Michael Lehmicke, director of science and industry affairs at the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, told OneZero. “What’s unique about ARMI, is they’re thinking of how you would actually scale the system when it is fully commercialized.”
Of course, while some have been critical, or at the very least skeptical of Kamen’s work in the past, Gizmodo’s Joanna Nelius, for one, is intrigued by the latest prospect.
“I had knee surgery to replace my torn ACL over 10 years ago, but the cadaver tendon used to replace it disintegrated inside my joint, so I’ve been living without that connective tissue for a decade,” she writes. “All that’s left are two screws that once held it in place, one burrowed into my tibia and the other in my femur. If Kamen’s vision comes true, then perhaps in the future I’ll have my own printed tissue put in its place.”