Dean Kamen has some awfully impressive accomplishments under his belt. The self-taught inventor has made millions on such breakthrough devices as a stent to keep arteries clear and a portable dialysis machine for kidney patients. So will he notch up another win with his latest project, the much-hyped Segway Human Transporter?
Well, don't throw away your walking shoes just yet. A year after the Segway was unveiled in a flurry of cover stories and network morning-show appearances, the scooter finds itself with more detractors than customers. Consumer and health advocates warn of possible injuries and rising obesity. City governments worry about chaos on their sidewalks. And key execs are heading for the exits. All that before the scooter is even available to consumers.
Workers at businesses and municipalities that have tested the transporters aren't exactly sending in rave reviews, either. "You can't keep warm if you're not walking," says a postal worker in Concord, N.H. "You end up like a frozen popsicle on a stick."
In the latest sign that all is not well with the privately held Segway LLC, its president, George Muller, the highly regarded former president of Subaru America, resigned in late December after less than a year on the job. Muller said he left because he decided he didn't want to uproot his family by moving closer to the company's Manchester (N.H.) headquarters. That may be. But his resignation also came right after Vernon R. Loucks Jr., a close friend of Kamen's and former CEO of Baxter International Inc., was named CEO. Says Muller of his next move: "I'd like to have the top job."
Muller's departure comes as a blow to the company, which was counting on his automative sales-and-marketing expertise to help launch the Segway. And it follows earlier turmoil at the young company. The prior president and three senior marketing execs have quit in the past two years. "I was disappointed that he left," says Kamen of Mullers. "He has a lot of experience with dealerships, marketing, and distribution, and sooner or later, the company has to go there."
Make that later. Kamen says the planned March launch of sales via Amazon.com Inc. remains on track. The online retailer will be the exclusive seller of the scooter, which will retail for $4,950 on the site. The company has no plans as yet to sell the Segway in stores. "Should we sell it like consumer products or cars or jet skis or snowmobiles?" says Kamen. "It's not clear, so we're looking at various options."
Until the company figures that one out, it seems to be placing its hopes on selling to the cash-strapped local governments that have dissed the vehicle as a potential hazard. In December, San Francisco banned it, while Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and other California cities are considering similar action. Some big states, including Massachusetts, New York, and Texas, have yet to make the scooter legal on their sidewalks. And though its top speed is 12 mph, pending legislation elsewhere would restrict it to 7 mph.
Cover stories and morning talk shows put the Segway on the map a year ago. But its chances of becoming the little scooter that could look increasingly iffy. By Faith Keenan in Boston