Dean Kamen’s new machines

April 11, 2013, 11:12 AM UTC
Dean Kamen with a 19th-century British steam engine, which he bought from the Henry Ford Museum and installed in his home.
Photo: Robyn Twomey

Dean Kamen is perhaps best known for what some say is his greatest flop: the Segway. Though it didn’t transform mass transportation the way Kamen had hoped, the Segway didn’t stop this prolific inventor from pursuing even more ambitious inventions. Today he is working on a water-purification system for the developing world and a new kind of home furnace. The furnace he based on an early-19th-century engine. The purifier should start reaching rural villages and saving lives later this year. Kamen, whose engineering company, DEKA, is located in a refurbished 19th-century textile mill in Manchester, N.H., originally made his fortune inventing sophisticated devices for delivering medicine — such as the portable dialysis machine. (The medical-supply giant Baxter has sold more than 500 million of this product worldwide.)

Kamen is famously restless, flitting around his labs and challenging his engineers. In a rare moment, the inventor sat down with Fortune’s Brian Dumaine in his corner office, decorated with photos of Albert Einstein and original artwork by his father, a comic book illustrator in the 1950s. Kamen discussed his inventions, robotic prosthetics for wounded veterans, the state of science education in America, and a recent visit by a very interesting guest.

Q: One of your favorite Einstein quotes is “Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.”

A: Well, think of it this way: A lot of good people are doing good work trying to treat disease in the developing world; they’re trying to solve that problem. But 1 billion people today don’t have access to clean water, and 50% of all chronic human disease is caused by water-borne pathogens. Now we know how to prevent a lot of that disease.

You’re referring to your new, portable water-purification system, the Slingshot?

Yes. It works. So how can we not give it to the world? Not doing that is not only economically idiotic — 50% of the hospital beds could be emptied. It’s tragedy when someone dies of cancer or Alzheimer’s or some other disease we don’t know how to cure, but if you knew how to prevent disease and didn’t, it’s not only a tragedy — it’s inexcusable.

What was your eureka moment with Slingshot?

Everybody thinks inventors run round shouting eureka. Over my career the overnight successes I’ve had were all 10 or 20 years in the making. With the Slingshot it was an even more gradual process.

How does the Slingshot work?

We’re doing what nature does, only on a little smaller scale and a little faster. We suck the dirty water into the Slingshot, we heat it up and turn it into a vapor — just like the sun does — then we turn it back into a liquid.

I understand you put your urine in the machine and drank what came out the other end.

That’s right.

How will you distribute them?

First I tried the international medical companies and even the U.N., but they weren’t the right fit for the product. Then it occurred to me that there’s only one organization that can get a product to any village in the world: Coca-Cola.

So how did you get Coke?

I just decided Coke would be my partner. The problem was, Coke didn’t see it that way at first. When I met with them about distributing the Slingshot, they told me, “We know who you are, and by the way, we’ve got problems of our own.” They told me that they now have 120 different soft drinks — Coke with caffeine, Coke without caffeine, Diet Coke with caffeine. They knew about my background in the medical field and my work in precisely measuring and delivering fluids, and they wanted me to solve their problem.

Did you?

I told them what you need is the world’s largest inkjet printer that has cartridges of all your ingredients, and you can mix them precisely into a cup in real time. I’ve spent 30 years learning to mix sterile medical solutions that have to be blended 10 times more accurately than what Coke needed, and in quantities of 1/100th the amount. Could I apply this technology to soft drinks? Yes. Do I have a passion to get up in the morning and do only that? No.

So you made a deal.

Actually, we made two deals. I had an opportunity to meet with [Coke CEO] Muhtar Kent, who, in his annual report, had written, “We are the water stewards of the world” and meant it. This guy is already highly motivated to bring the world clean water. So I knew I had a partner. The fountain product, known as Freestyle, is rolling out now. The Slingshot has been field tested in Africa, and we’re ramping up manufacturing.

What kind of progress have you made?

The model is going to be for Coke to give them to woman entrepreneurs in the villages. It costs only a few cents to make each gallon of clean water, and each Slingshot can produce 250 gallons a day. These women can turn it into an ongoing business.

You’re working on another invention called the Revolution, based on a Stirling engine, which was, I believe, patented in 1816. That doesn’t sound very high tech.

Actually it’s very high tech. A Stirling engine isn’t really an engine — an engine conjures up making smoke and making noise, and nobody wants that. What we have is an appliance. It’s in a small cabinet the size of a dryer and sits in your house, humming in your corner like your hot-water heater. This appliance is connected to your gas line — it can also operate on oil, wood, even cow dung — and turns on and makes less noise than your furnace. And it turns the gas into two things: electricity and heat/hot water. It’s nearly 90% efficient in turning fuel into these two products.

How would you sell this to your dear old aunt?

I’d tell her there are more and more blackouts these days, and your husband, who’s on a respirator, doesn’t want to lose power. With the Revolution, when you lose your electricity, you won’t lose your heat and hot water, and your pipes aren’t going to freeze.

I understand you cut a deal with the New Jersey energy company NRG to distribute the Revolution. What does NRG get out of it?

NRG can make a deal with its customers where they can remotely tap into everyone’s system and buy some power from customers to meet demand during peak usage times like hot summer afternoons when everyone’s air conditioning is humming. For each 10,000 customers who have Revolutions, NRG could avoid turning on or building a 100-megawatt plant.

About the Segway, I have to ask: You sold the company in 2009. Did the scooter not sell as expected? Or was it overhyped?

I’ll give you some data, and you decide. If you want to call the Segway a terrible failure — and some people have — consider that the company that now makes them has done a half a billion in sales. It’s also the best-known brand in a category called transportation. Anywhere you go in the world you see them, and there are 100,000 of them out there. You might say that’s a failure. I don’t think it is.

Then you can say it was overhyped, but you can’t blame anyone for that. I think the biggest mistake in retrospect was the pricing. The goal was to sell it for under $2,000. I couldn’t tell you why we didn’t hit that target. By the time it came to market, the price was too high [over $4,000].

You’re also doing work with artificial arms and hands for returning vets. At a recent TED talk you pulled out a model of a wooden boat and said that a vet using one of your robotic hands built it.

These are high-performance, beautiful machines, and people love them.

How’s the rollout going?

Well, the FDA is slowing up the process. It is taking the position that the arm so outperformed a hook that you can’t compare it to a hook. They want us to do clinical trials, which are costing the government millions of dollars and delaying getting the arms to the veterans who need them.

We read that America is falling behind in science and engineering, that our schools are failing in this area, and that lots of tech jobs go unfilled. Where are we?

Even in this bad economy, my company, DEKA, has 30 unfilled positions. Most of the jobs of the last century you could do if you had a high school education. Today most jobs require more sophisticated skills, and most of the exciting new industries that are evolving — proteomics, genomics, nanotechnology — they all require technical backgrounds. I believe that schools were never a place that created passion. It was our culture that gave you the passion to do what you wanted to do with those basic skills.

You were a college dropout.

Look, 100 years ago the heroes were Thomas Edison and Wilbur and Orville Wright. They were entrepreneurs taking reasonable risks and creating a whole new future. Now, ironically, as a result of our ubiquitous technology, Americans have shifted from becoming the conspicuous creators of everything to becoming the conspicuous consumers of everything.

So this notion is what led you to create First Robotics, your science contest for high-schoolers where they make robots that compete with one another?

If you have an entire generation of kids growing up who are immersed in a culture that creates superheroes from the worlds of sports and entertainment and nothing else, then these kids will work hard to emulate the skill sets of those role models. The problem is very, very few kids will ever make it in those fields.

We started this thing in 1988 in a gym in Manchester, N.H., with 28 teams. This year we’ll have more than 23,000 schools from about six countries competing. We have 120,000 corporate volunteers and 3,500 corporate sponsors. I’m working with will.i.am and his i.am.angel foundation to try to get First into every school in the country.

Do you have metrics that show that it is actually effective?

The Ford Foundation gave us a grant for a yearlong study to see whether First worked. Seventy-seven percent of female First Robotics alumnae were in college, 68% of African-American alumni, and 78% of Hispanic alumni — all above the national averages for those groups.

Bill Gates recently visited. What did you talk about?

We talked about First. We talked about the water project and how his foundation could help leverage it. We talked about clean power and better medical projects for the developing world. I think there’s a lot of ways we can work together.

Gates said your lab was like a cross between Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Edison’s.

Considering it was Gates — who has been just about in every interesting place — that was very cool.

This story is from the April 29, 2013 issue of Fortune.

This month in Laguna Niguel, Calif., Fortune hosts the fifth annual Brainstorm Green conference as part of our continuing coverage of corporate sustainability. These stories explore some of the cutting-edge ideas driving green technology. After you’ve read them, we think you’ll come to the conclusion that today business and environmentalism are vitally intertwined.