IT - G.I.N.G.E.R

Architects Will Build Cities Around it


What Is 'IT'?
by PJ Mark

Source: Inside

January 9, 2001

Steve Jobs quoted on accomplished scientist's new device: 'If enough people see the machine you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it. It'll just happen.'

A venerable press pays $250,000 for a book on project cloaked in unprecedented secrecy. EXCLUSIVE

Book Proposal Heightens Intrigue About Secret Invention Touted as Bigger Than the Internet or PC

Harvard Business School Press executive editor Hollis Heimbouch has just paid $250,000 for a book about IT -- but neither the editor nor the agent, Dan Kois of The Sagalyn Literary Agency, knows what IT is.

All they do know: IT, also code-named Ginger, is an invention developed by 49-year-old scientist Dean Kamen, and the subject of a planned book by journalist Steve Kemper. According to Kemper's proposal, IT will change the world, and is so extraordinary that it has drawn the attention of technology visionaries Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs and the investment dollars of pre-eminent Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, among others.

Kemper -- who has been published in Smithsonian, National Geographic and Outside among others -- has had exclusive access to Kamen and the engineers at his New Hampshire-based research and development company, DEKA, for the past year and a half. He tags the proposed book as Soul of the New Machine meets The New New Thing and won over his agent and publisher with e-mails describing the project in carefully couched language. He also included an amusing narrative of a meeting between Bezos, Jobs, Doerr and Kamen.

In the proposal, Doerr calls Kamen -- who was just awarded the National Medal of Technology, the country's highest such award -- a combination of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Doerr also says, a touch ominously, that he had been sure that he wouldn't see the development of anything in his lifetime as important as the World Wide Web -- until he saw IT. According to the proposal, another investor, Credit Suisse First Boston, expects Kamen's invention to make more money in its first year than any start-up in history, predicting Kamen will be worth more in five years than Bill Gates. Jobs told Kamen the invention would be as significant as the PC, the proposal says.

And though there are no specifics in the proposal as to what the invention is, there are some tantalizing clues. Is IT an energy source? Some sort of environmentally friendly personal transport device? One editor who saw the proposal went as far as to speculate -- jokingly (perhaps) -- that IT was a type of personal hovering craft.

Consider the following items, culled from the proposal:

The ''core technology and its implementations'' will, according to Kamen, ''have a big, broad impact not only on social institutions but some billion-dollar old-line companies.'' And the invention will ''profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide. It will be an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities.''

IT will be a mass-market consumer product ''likely to run afoul of existing regulations and or inspire new ones,'' according to Kemper. The invention will also likely require ''meeting with city planners, regulators, legislators, large commercial companies and university presidents about how cities, companies and campuses can be retro-fitted for Ginger.'' The invention itself is as interesting as the inventor. Kamen -- ''a true eccentric, cantankerous and opinionated, a great character,'' according to the proposal -- dropped out of college in his 20s, then invented the first drug infusion pump; he later created the first portable insulin pump and dialysis machine.

Kamen, an avid aviator who commutes via a helicopter, is also the founder of FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- a nonprofit organization that encourages young people to pursue studies and careers in math and science. He's a single man obsessed with his work and out of touch with popular culture. According to the proposal, Kamen was seated at a White House dinner next to two people he'd never heard of: Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty.

Kamen's most recent invention is the iBot, an off-road wheelchair that can climb stairs, cover sand and gravel and rise to balance on two wheels. A prototype iBot was showcased by wheelchair-bound journalist John Hockenberry at last year's TED conference in Monterey, Calif.; the demonstration was greeted by wild applause.

IT/Ginger won't be revealed until 2002, the proposal says. No one has seen the project except Kamen, Kemper, the engineers and the investors -- which include Doerr, a partner in the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which helped launch Netscape, Amazon, Juniper Networks, Excite, and @Home, among others; and Michael Schmertzler, managing director of Credit Suisse First Boston. Others who have seen the invention and signed confidentiality agreements include minor investors Paul Allaire, CEO of Xerox; and Vern Loucks, recently retired CEO of Baxter. Bezos, Jobs and writer/venture capitalist Randy Komisar sit on the advisory board. Kamen retains 85 percent of his new company, according to the proposal.

Why the secrecy? Kamen fears, as he states in a letter to Kemper that is included in the proposal, that ''huge corporations'' might catch wind of the invention and ''use their massive resources to erect obstacles against us or, worse, simply appropriate the technology by assigning hundreds of engineers to catch up to us, and thousands of employees to produce it in their plants.''

But such secrecy may have been enough to turn publishers away. ''The Internet changed the world, too'' said one editor who considered the project, ''but books about it don't really sell.'' As for the quarter-million-dollar price tag for North American rights: on the one hand, it doesn't seem to be a lot for a book about an invention which has mesmerized such well-known technology moguls. On the other, $250,000 is a lot to pay for a story about a product that hasn't been seen, defined or named.

''We were well aware of Kamen,'' says book editor Heimbouch, who says she's been publishing in this technology circle for a long time. (The bestselling The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur by Komisar is hers.) So jumping on board for the book wasn't such a dilemma. Besides, says Heimbouch, Harvard Business School Press had intended to approach Kamen about doing a book anyway. ''He's an inventor of great technologies that make people's lives better,'' she says.

Harvard Business School Press, a division of Harvard Business School Publishing, is a wholly owned, nonprofit subsidiary of Harvard University. The Sagalyn Agency retains all but North American rights to the book.

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