© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Segway inventor's private companies reap millions from the federally funded nonprofit he runs

Dean Kamen stands in front of a crowd of people sitting at tables. He is speaking into a microphone.
Todd Bookman
/
NHPR
Dean Kamen speaks to employees and supporters of ARMI in June 2023. Kamen has served as the nonprofit's executive director and, simultaneously, its landlord.

More than $215 million in federal money is pouring into ARMI, a nonprofit that promises to revolutionize medicine and revitalize Manchester, New Hampshire. At least $34 million is flowing through ARMI to for-profit companies controlled by its executive director.


The federal government is spending money to turn the same Manchester, N.H., mill buildings that once churned out cotton textiles into the site of a revolution in healthcare.

It’s pouring $215 million in public money into the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, or ARMI, a nonprofit organization that aims to one day help grow replacement human tissues and organs — a medical breakthrough so transformative that it could save countless lives if it succeeds.

But at least $34 million of the project’s funding is flowing through ARMI and into a constellation of for-profit businesses controlled by the nonprofit’s executive director: Dean Kamen, a prolific inventor and New Hampshire icon best known for developing the Segway scooter.

Kamen has been the public face, loudest booster, top executive and board chairman of ARMI since it launched in 2016. But his financial connections to the nonprofit have received little public attention. An investigation by NHPR and APM Reports examined tax documents, financial audits, business filings and property records to demonstrate for the first time just how much Kamen is benefiting from the largely government-funded nonprofit organization he runs.

Kamen is both ARMI’s executive director and its landlord, collecting millions of dollars in rent from the nonprofit for the space it leases in his mill buildings. The government is also funding a $25 million renovation to a building Kamen acquired earlier this year that will be home to ARMI’s manufacturing space. And Kamen’s for-profit company, DEKA, is far and away the top recipient of ARMI’s multimillion-dollar grant program. Kamen’s private business interests and the nonprofit he runs are so interwoven that two of ARMI’s top executives are actually on DEKA’s payroll. The complex web of connections is unusual and calls for more transparency, according to three experts in nonprofit governance who reviewed ARMI’s public tax filings at the request of NHPR and APM Reports.

“If an organization isn't overly transparent, it naturally will raise questions about whether the commitment to the public purpose is as strong as the public would like it to be,” said Brian Mittendorf, a professor of nonprofit accounting at The Ohio State University.

“If an organization isn't overly transparent, it naturally will raise questions about whether the commitment to the public purpose is as strong as the public would like it to be."
Brian Mittendorf

The NHPR/APM Reports investigation also raises questions about Kamen’s track record in overcoming the kinds of problems that ARMI seeks to solve: turning cutting-edge science into mass-market products. Many of his inventions — including a bionic arm for amputees, a stair-climbing wheelchair, a water purification device and, of course, the Segway — have received lots of media hype but have fallen short of Kamen’s lofty predictions.

Despite that mixed record of commercial success, Kamen has still found plenty of support from political allies, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, whose daughter is a highly paid ARMI contractor.

Kamen declined an interview request for this story. In a written response to a detailed list of questions, ARMI disputed some of the investigation’s findings and praised Kamen’s leadership.

“ARMI would not have existed without the vision and support of Dean Kamen,” Jennifer MacDonald, ARMI’s chief operating officer said, adding that the nonprofit “operates with the highest ethics in everything we do.”

In response to written questions about the institute’s decision to not disclose certain financial transactions on its tax forms, ARMI said that it was reviewing the matter with its financial and legal advisors.

ARMI also said that the rents it has paid Kamen’s private real estate companies are “all at or below market rates,” and that it conducts surveys of comparable properties before engaging in leases.

The nonprofit also said that a significant portion of the grants it has awarded to the Kamen-owned DEKA were selected by the federal government and were “merely administered” by ARMI.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration, a major government funder of ARMI, said that it is aware of Kamen’s roles as both executive director and landlord, and that the federal agency performs “necessary due diligence to ensure that conflicts of interest are avoided or, if one exists, that steps are taken to ensure it does not impact the goals and purposes of the grant award, avoids unjust enrichment.”

Kamen Part 2
Listen to part 2 of the audio feature.


Following the money

For Kamen, 72, the government-backed project is the culmination of a long career in science and engineering. He found early commercial success with breakthroughs in medical devices, including a precision wearable pump for medicine and an advanced home dialysis machine. He’s used his business prowess to cultivate close relationships with elected officials across political parties for decades – from Manchester City Hall, to the New Hampshire governor’s office, to the U.S. Senate.

His wealth has allowed him to pursue a passion for aviation, including occasionally commuting from his home in Bedford to the Manchester millyard via helicopter (a 5-mile trip), and offering flight instruction to employees at his company, DEKA. In the 1980s, Kamen purchased a private island off the coast of Connecticut and jokingly declared independence from the United States. He’s known for wearing a bomber jacket and blue jeans, a phone clipped to his belt. He minted his status as a celebrity inventor in 2001, when he rolled out the Segway personal transport device on national television. (Kamen served on NHPR’s Board of Trustees from 1987 to 1992.)

Over the years, he’s used the political and financial capital he’s acquired to attract government support and media attention to his projects.

So, when U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo came to Manchester earlier this summer, Kamen was there to greet her.

On July 14, 2023, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo toured ARMI's facilities in the Manchester millyard. She was joined by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.
Todd Bookman
/
NHPR
On July 14, 2023, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo toured ARMI's facilities in the Manchester millyard. She was joined by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.

In 2022, Raimondo’s agency awarded funds to ARMI as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative. Kamen, along with both U.S. senators from New Hampshire, joined Raimondo on a tour of the facility, peering into sanitized rooms where scientists in white lab coats worked on computers.

“What I saw this morning just totally blew me away,” Raimondo said afterward.

ARMI is fueled by federal money. Here's how it adds up: Raimondo’s Economic Development Administration is spending $44 million to accelerate Manchester’s regenerative medicine industry, with nearly $35 million going directly to ARMI. The U.S. Department of Defense gave ARMI $80 million in seed money in 2016 and an additional $31 million in 2020. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has pledged or already given another $69 million to ARMI, bringing the total federal funds awarded or pledged to the project to $215 million.

ARMI has used that money to fill offices and laboratories stretching across a massive campus of red brick buildings on the banks of the Merrimack River in Manchester, once home to the largest textile mill complex in the country. Those buildings are also owned by Kamen, who began acquiring the real estate decades ago, when much of the millyard sat vacant.

“I come up here, and it was kind of a dark, empty set of buildings,” Kamen told Raimondo during her visit. “This entire millyard was empty. And I said, ‘I don’t think they appreciate what they have.’”

Between its founding in 2016 and its most recent annual audit in 2022, ARMI has paid more than $3 million in rent to Kamen’s for-profit real estate companies. That same audit projected that ARMI will pay Kamen’s real estate ventures more than $60,000 per month for the next five years — totaling nearly $4 million. The audits are available to the public because ARMI spends more than $750,000 a year in federal money.

Kamen appears to be benefiting from another set of real estate deals, as well. The $44 million award from the Economic Development Administration to help solidify the field of regenerative medicine in Manchester included nearly $25 million to construct labs and high-tech manufacturing facilities. After negotiations to rent a state-owned armory building in Manchester fell apart due to escalating costs, and no other locations were identified, that money will now be spent renovating a massive building owned in part by Kamen. After the taxpayer-funded renovations are complete, ARMI will then pay Kamen’s for-profit company to lease the space.

Real estate is just one way Kamen’s business interests intersect with ARMI’s nonprofit mission.

As part of the Build Back Better award, ARMI is spending $2.4 million in federal money to help construct a new electric helicopter landing pad in the millyard, so it can one day potentially whisk organs to patients at regional hospitals.

A Vermont-based start-up called Beta Technologies, which builds futuristic electric helicopters, is listed as a “partner” in the project’s grant application, which NHPR obtained through a public records request. What isn’t mentioned is that Kamen serves on Beta’s board of directors, according to securities filings, and has a financial stake in the company.

An ARMI spokesperson acknowledged that its grant application made no mention of Kamen’s role at BETA but said she believed the nonprofit had disclosed it to the EDA “through direct communication.” That agency told NHPR that it has no record of such a disclosure.

In response to written questions, the ARMI spokesperson said that the landing pad contract would be subject to a competitive process and had not yet been awarded.


ARMI shares staff with and gives grants to Kamen’s flagship business

For the past 40 years, the main vehicle for Kamen’s business ventures has been his research and design company DEKA. Founded in 1982, DEKA’s original mission was to focus on medical innovations of the kind that got Kamen started, but the ambitions soon grew beyond medicine.

“Dean continues to push DEKA to be a place where no idea seems too big and where creativity and crazy cool gizmos reign supreme,” the company’s website reads.

With over 600 engineers on staff, companies hire DEKA to solve complicated engineering challenges from its headquarters in some of the same mill buildings ARMI is leasing. The company has also rolled out Kamen’s many inventions, including medical infusion devices, the Segway, advanced wheelchairs and prosthetics, all of them premised on the idea that they could transform the world.

“I don’t work on a project unless I believe it will dramatically improve life for a whole bunch of people,” Kamen told NBC News in 2003.

DEKA is also now heavily intertwined with ARMI’s day to day operations, according to tax records and audits.

ARMI was founded in 2016 by a group of current and former DEKA employees, according to documents on file with the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office. The two organizations also continue to share key staff through an arrangement referred to as a “government cost-share agreement” on ARMI’s tax forms. Its audit describes that arrangement as an “integral part of ARMI activities.”

In spite of the intricate lattice connecting ARMI to DEKA, the tax documents describe the for-profit company as an “unrelated third party,” a characterization that ARMI said its auditors accepted but that it is now reviewing with its legal and financial advisors following questions from NHPR and APM Reports.

The connections between DEKA and ARMI extend to the nonprofit’s grant programs. ARMI oversaw more than $27 million in grants between 2017 and 2021, according to its publicly available tax records. The largest recipient of those grants was DEKA. Along with a related limited liability corporation, it was awarded $6.4 million over the three most recent years. No other grant recipient came close to that amount. The next largest award was $1.5 million, which went to Trailhead Biosystems Inc., a company that grows human cells in a laboratory outside Cleveland. In 2022, ARMI awarded just under $5 million in grants to what are described in its financial audit as “related parties,” but it isn’t clear how much of that money went to DEKA.

In a statement, ARMI noted that $3.6 million of the grants awarded to DEKA were “done directly” by the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services, and that ARMI is merely administering that funding to DEKA. Other grants awarded to Kamen’s private companies, the nonprofit said, were subject to review from an advisory council composed of ARMI’s members.

ARMI oversaw more than $27 million in grants between 2017 and 2021, according to its publicly available tax records. The largest recipient of those grants was DEKA.

The overlapping of DEKA and ARMI can also be seen in the payroll of the two organizations. Nonprofits have to disclose the compensation of their highest-paid employees. But since some executives at ARMI get their paychecks through the for-profit DEKA, their salaries aren’t public. ARMI’s chief administrative officer James Scott and treasurer Brendan Duffy are also employees of DEKA, and are listed as receiving no compensation from ARMI on its tax forms. (Scott also got his paycheck from DEKA when he previously served as ARMI’s chief operating officer, according to tax records.) Kamen, who owns DEKA, also receives no pay from ARMI for his time spent in the role of executive director, and neither does his deputy executive director, Maureen Toohey, who previously served as DEKA’s general counsel. Toohey’s law firm is headquartered in a Manchester mill building owned by Kamen. Graham Chynoweth, who served as ARMI’s chief membership officer in its early days and worked for DEKA at the time, also received no salary from ARMI, according to tax documents. (Chynoweth is a member of NHPR’s board of directors.)

ARMI said that borrowing DEKA employees allowed it to “more quickly stand up the institute,” and that they are now relying less on individuals employed by Kamen’s private companies after hiring key staff.

The close ties between Kamen's private business and his work for ARMI raise potential concerns, according to nonprofit experts who examined ARMI's records for this investigation.

“It isn't healthy for the nonprofit to allow any one person to have so much power — or for so much power to be centralized to one person that it's impossible for the organization to make decisions independently,” said CharityWatch Executive Director Laurie Styron, an expert in nonprofit accounting and governance, after reviewing ARMI’s publicly available records.

Annual audits have raised no alarms about ARMI’s compliance with accounting rules. Mittendorf, the OSU accounting professor, said that the publicly available tax filings do show “a pretty tangled web of relationships here.”

Mittendorf said that doesn’t signal wrongdoing, but “it is a sign that it's very important to have guardrails to ensure that any of the resources that are held in this nonprofit entity are used for the public purpose and not for private benefit.”

 ARMI lab in Manchester, NH
Todd Bookman
/
NHPR
Work space at ARMI, the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, based in Manchester, NH.

ARMI’s board of directors, tasked with overseeing Kamen’s work as the executive director, consists of topflight talent from the fields of medicine and engineering. But all of those board members also have connections to Kamen and organizations linked to him. That includes Martine Rothblatt, the CEO of United Therapeutics, a publicly traded biotech company valued at more than $10 billion with a portfolio of approved treatments and a research arm dedicated to trying to grow human lungs in a lab.

Its subsidiary, Lung Biotechnology, leases 75,000 square feet of office space at another millyard building owned by Kamen. Rothblatt currently serves on the board of FIRST, a youth robotics nonprofit that Kamen also founded. And like Kamen, she is listed as a director at Beta Technologies, the helicopter start-up.

John Abele, the founder of Boston Scientific, a biotech company that helped pioneer the use of stents, also served on FIRST’s board before joining ARMI’s board of directors. Dr. James Weinstein, who led Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center before moving to a position at Microsoft, was a donor to FIRST before joining ARMI’s board, according to a FIRST annual report.

Those board members didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

In a statement, ARMI described its board of directors as “one of its biggest assets from the beginning; the board’s vision and expertise helped ARMI earn the trust of funders and potential members and provided sage counsel along ARMI’s journey.”

The nonprofit said its board members are “familiar with laws, rules and regulations relating to ethical business conduct and conflicts of interest.”

In response to a question about Rothblatt’s ability to provide independent oversight of Kamen, given their financial relationship, ARMI said that it is “currently investigating whether further disclosures are appropriate regarding our board members with our financial and legal advisors.”


Lack of disclosures on tax forms raises questions

While ARMI is a nonprofit organization, it does not solicit charitable donations from the general public, because it is organized in a way that’s more akin to a chamber of commerce than a university or public radio station. Two-thirds of its budget comes from federal grants, according to its most recent audit, which includes the contribution of staff time and equipment by its members, most notably DEKA. When it comes to just the cash flowing through ARMI, 91% of it came from the federal government, according to its tax filings.

While its financial statements disclose these contributions, there are other transactions ARMI’s audits and tax forms don’t spell out, including the financial ties between Kamen and Rothblatt, and that the “related party” it pays rent to is Kamen.

Nonprofits can disclose such transactions with what the IRS calls “interested persons” in what’s known as Schedule L of its annual tax disclosure forms, though the rules around when such disclosures are required are complex. Still, transparency advocates argue nonprofits, especially those reliant on government funds, should err on the side of more disclosure.

“I guess I'll put it this way,” said Mittendorf from Ohio State University. “A real estate transaction between a company owned by an executive director and the organization which that person is the executive director of, it almost certainly should be disclosed in Schedule L. That's sort of the purpose of it.”

Styron from CharityWatch said that without disclosures, there is no way for taxpayers to determine if ARMI is getting its money’s worth.

Brick mill building with a black and gold sign reading "150 Dow Street."
Todd Bookman
/
NHPR
Kamen and a business partner purchased 150 Dow Street earlier this year for $23 million. The federal government is funding a $25 million upgrade of the building, which ARMI will then lease and use as manufacturing space.

“If this property happens to be the amount of space that the nonprofit needs in an area that's advantageous for the nonprofit's mission and they're getting the space at below-market rate, then that ticks all the boxes for this to be a good transaction on its face,” Styron said.

ARMI said that it has conducted surveys of properties to ensure it “always received lease terms that are at or below comparable market rates.”

When asked why it hasn’t completed a Schedule L disclosure form, ARMI said that its auditors did not recommend any further disclosures for its rent payment, but that it is “currently investigating this with our financial and legal advisors.”


Kamen has history of big hype, with mixed results

The federal government is flooding ARMI with money in the hopes it will help solve a problem: How can companies turn the whiz-bang science of regenerative medicine into a commercially viable industry?

A breakthrough in a university laboratory doesn’t guarantee a product will ever reach the market. There’s a complicated regulatory environment as well as the logistical challenges of actually manufacturing delicate human tissues.

“How do you manufacture this material [at] scale, so that not just 10 patients, but literally 10,000 patients could benefit from it?” asked Dr. Stephen Badylak, a surgeon and researcher based at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute, an ARMI member, who has been working on tissue engineering since the 1980s.

Enter ARMI. The institute is not focused on basic research, but is instead aimed at growing the industry’s capacity by offering member organizations support services, including in regulatory compliance, business development and technical guidance.

Kamen knows firsthand the challenges of taking a space-age invention and making it commercially viable. But his track record of successfully launching mass-market products in recent decades has arguably seen more misses than hits.

He made early breakthroughs in his career on devices like an automated syringe that could deliver precision doses of medicine, including insulin, to patients. He also helped revolutionize dialysis by crafting a smaller, simpler machine that could be used at a patient’s home, rather than in a clinic.

But it was the Segway that made Kamen a celebrity of sorts. He launched the motorized device in 2001 with the salesmanship and bravado that have been the hallmarks of his career.

“People that live in cities, people that only want to move around a small community, shouldn’t be using a 4,000 pound machine to move their 150-pound ass around town,” Kamen said in a video promoting “Ginger,” an early codename for Segway. When the first Segway was finally unveiled live on Good Morning America, he predicted the two-wheeled personal transportation device would transform urban life.

Inventor Dean Kamen leans to initiate a turn as he demonstrates his Segway Human Transporter, a one-person, battery-powered scooter, unveiled in this 2001 file photo, in New York.
Suzanne Plunkett
/
AP
Inventor Dean Kamen leans to initiate a turn as he demonstrates his Segway Human Transporter, a one-person, battery-powered scooter, unveiled in this 2001 file photo, in New York.

But the roughly $5,000 price tag and general awkwardness of the Segway, however revolutionary, stymied its acceptance. The machines never caught on with a mass audience, and today they are rarely seen on the streets of America’s cities — outside of tour groups and mall cops. Kamen sold the Segway business in 2009 to James Heselden, a British entrepreneur. A year later Heselden died after falling off of a cliff while riding one of the devices.

For Kamen, there has been a string of inventions since the Segway that also garnered media attention but struggled to find commercial success. The Slingshot, described on DEKA’s website as a “small box of hope,” uses a heat exchanger and evaporator to filter drinking water using “low levels of electricity.”

A 2015 documentary about the product hailed the invention as a way to provide clean drinking water to remote parts of the globe. Former president Bill Clinton appears in the film, joking about Kamen asking him to drink fetid water after it was run through the Slingshot. “I’m still here,” Clinton said. “It works.”

Press releases touted Coca-Cola’s partnership on the project. However, it isn’t clear how many Slingshots are currently in use around the globe providing water to people in need.

The Inter-American Development Bank, which helped oversee an initial test of the product in Paraguay, told NHPR that it pulled the plug after a year, citing “sustainability challenges related to service provision.” A spokesperson for Coca-Cola said it ultimately never used the Slingshots in its campaign to bring water and basic necessities to distressed communities.

ARMI referred inquiries about Kamen’s inventions to DEKA, which did not respond to questions, including whether any Slingshots are currently in use around the world.

Another Kamen invention, the iBot wheelchair, first launched publicly in 1999, provides its users with two groundbreaking features. First, the seat lifts up several feet, giving users the ability to meet peers at eye level. The iBot can also use its four-wheel system to climb up and down stairs, a revolutionary accomplishment for those who use a wheelchair.

“There was a lot of buzz about it — real lot of buzz in the wheelchair world,” said Bob Vogel, a journalist who covers the industry for New Mobility magazine. He also uses a wheelchair after breaking his back 38 years ago.

After iBot’s initial release, however, it failed to gain much market share, with fewer than 1,000 sold over its first seven years in production. Vogel noted that “even seeing one outside of a photo was really rare. I don't think I saw one for maybe the first five years they were out.”

The chair, which was launched through a partnership with Johnson & Johnson, faced regulatory issues and a steep price tag, which was only partially covered by insurance. Vogel said the first commercial rollout was ultimately discontinued by Johnson & Johnson. Years later, Kamen relaunched the iBot out of the Manchester millyard, and invited Vogel to test ride the new edition.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, right, talks with inventor Dean Kamen as over 110,000 pounds of personal protective equipment (PPE) from Shanghai, China, delivered to protect medical workers and first responders fighting the COVID-19 virus outbreak, is unloaded from a cargo plane at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa
/
AP
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, right, talks with inventor Dean Kamen as over 110,000 pounds of personal protective equipment (PPE) from Shanghai, China, delivered to protect medical workers and first responders fighting the COVID-19 virus outbreak, is unloaded from a cargo plane at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

“The standing mode is the one that just blew my mind,” Vogel said. “And to this day, it's a thing that I think about.” Vogel praised Kamen’s dedication to the machine, and the impact it can have on its users. But Vogel himself hasn’t been able to purchase an iBot: Its recommended price tag following the 2017 relaunch, he said, was $30,000, more than a Honda Accord.

“Nobody's figured out a way to make that less expensive,” he said.

Kamen frequently appears at events in the iBot, rolling onto conference stages. In 2003, during its initial launch he told NBC News that “if this thing works, and works right, we’re going to liberate millions of people to do things that they couldn’t even think about doing before.”

But today, it isn’t clear how many iBots are being used by customers. The Department of Veterans Affairs told NHPR it has provided just 34 iBots to former service members. DEKA didn’t respond to a request for comment on the iBot — or say whether it has met Kamen’s initial ambitions for the device.

A different set of challenges face another medical device developed in part by Kamen’s company. The LUKE Arm is a robotic prosthetic device that provides amputees a broader range of motion and more dexterity with their artificial hand than other prosthetics. It has received funding from DARPA, the research and development branch of the Department of Defense, as well as plenty of media coverage, including by NHPR. Since 2017, it has been available to qualifying veterans through the VA, but it requires a detailed process to fit each user. The arm’s weight has proved a challenge for at least one user, Junius Moore, a North Carolina barbecue restaurateur who lost his left arm above the elbow in a 2016 car crash.

Moore said that the weight of the device has made wearing it on hot days or during certain tasks unmanageable. When NHPR reached him, he said he was wearing a different prosthetic that day.

“I know now that I probably shouldn't be picking up 50-pound cases of chicken with the LUKE arm,” he joked. Still, he praised the device as “a huge step forward” for prosthetics. According to the VA, 10 former service members have been fitted with LUKE Arms, all of them donated. (DEKA did not respond to questions about the LUKE Arm.)


Allies in high places

During her 2002 State of the State address before a joint session of the New Hampshire Legislature, then-Gov. Shaheen made a request.

“Some may scoff at Dean Kamen’s Segway, just as 90 years ago, horse and buggy loyalists assumed that the automobile was a fad,” Shaheen told lawmakers. She then asked them to pass a bill to allow people to ride Segways on New Hampshire sidewalks, as long as they didn’t exceed 15 miles per hour.

“It is in New Hampshire’s interest for Segway to succeed,” she said.

Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, center, and Dean Kamen, left, inventor of the Segway human transporter, join with others for a news conference regarding "ED in '08", Monday, June 4, 2007, in Manchester, N.H. The goal of "ED in '08" is to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
Cheryl Senter
/
AP
Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, center, and Dean Kamen, left, inventor of the Segway human transporter, join with others for a news conference regarding "ED in '08", Monday, June 4, 2007, in Manchester, N.H. The goal of "ED in '08" is to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)

Less than a month later, lawmakers had a bill on Shaheen’s desk, which she signed into law.

Two decades later, Shaheen represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate, and she continues to use her position to help Kamen. That includes the minting of a 2021 commemorative coin in honor of Christa McAuliffe, a Concord social studies teacher selected to go to space aboard NASA’s Challenger, which exploded in 1986 shortly after liftoff. Kamen’s robotics nonprofit, FIRST, was given $10 for every silver coin sold, thanks to legislation sponsored by Shaheen, generating $600,000, according to the United State Mint.

Their relationship also helped solidify the $44 million Build Back Better grant money, according to Commerce Secretary Raimondo. During her visit to Manchester this summer, she joked about the nudging she received from Shaheen during the application process.

“We had hundreds of applicants, and you guys rose to the top,” Raimondo told an audience of ARMI employees and backers. “Now I will say I heard a lot from Sen. Shaheen, so maybe that had something to do with it, but we’ll leave that aside,” she said to laughter from the crowd.

Stefany Shaheen, the senator’s daughter, has been a paid consultant for ARMI since 2018, earning $120,000 annually, according to tax records. When asked if that was an appropriate relationship given the senator’s advocacy for ARMI, Shaheen responded that her daughter “was being paid by ARMI, not by the government.” Tax records show ARMI’s operating budget is largely funded by federal grants.

“So many different government agencies at every level have not only risen to the occasion to make this thing real, but they have put their shoulder to it."
Dean Kamen

Kamen’s career has intersected with the political world in other ways. During the early days of the pandemic, Kamen emerged as an unlikely government contractor after he secured medical supplies including masks and gowns during a global scramble. On Easter Sunday of 2021, Kamen, along with New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Sen. Shaheen, held a press conference at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. Bearded, and riding an iBot onto the tarmac, Kamen described how he worked his supply chain in China to acquire gloves and gowns. He fronted the money and cajoled a friend, FedEx CEO Fred Smith, to loan him an airplane.

For more than a year, Kamen continued to acquire medical gear and sell it to both the state and federal VA, ultimately billing the government more than $83 million. He did so through a compensation arrangement not available to any other New Hampshire vendor, as previously documented by NHPR. Kamen declined to say at the time to what extent he profited from his time as a vendor to the government.

Kamen has also pushed for at least two separate tax breaks for ARMI and its members. In 2018, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a bill giving regenerative medicine companies with substantial operations in the state an exemption from paying business taxes through 2027. While the measure received bipartisan support, it was criticized by some fiscal conservative groups for favoring some industries over others. (The state Department of Revenue Administration has previously declined requests to obtain data on the number of firms receiving the tax break.)

More recently, Robert Tuttle, Kamen’s longtime business associate, appeared before Manchester’s Board of Aldermen to request a tax break related to the purchase of 150 Dow St., another millyard building that ARMI will lease and use as a manufacturing space for its members. Kamen told the Union Leader earlier this year that he and Tuttle purchased the building themselves rather than placing the $23 million financial burden on ARMI.

Kamen and Tuttle’s company received roughly $500,000 in tax credits through a state program aimed at rehabilitating historic structures.

During a public hearing in May, Tuttle told Manchester officials that ARMI would need to have its lease for the building reviewed by the federal Economic Development Administration, as that agency is administering the grant.

“Any lease that would be associated with the economic development funds would be reviewed by the government,” Tuttle said. “It is in its final stages right now.”

The Economic Development Administration told NHPR that it has not yet received a copy of the lease agreement between ARMI and the Kamen-controlled company that owns 150 Dow St., and that no review has been undertaken.

Despite his long-running ties to both federal and state politicians, Kamen has occasionally teased bureaucrats for bogging down projects.

“I think like most of you, I like to make fun of big, slow, inefficient government,” he said during an event hosted by ARMI this summer in the millyard. But he went on to praise both the Department of Defense and Commerce Department, as well as local and state officials, for their willingness to invest and back ARMI.

“So many different government agencies at every level have not only risen to the occasion to make this thing real, but they have put their shoulder to it,” he told the audience.

This story was produced with APM Reports as part of the Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country.

 

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.