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October 06. 2012 7:47PM

Dean Kamen's Slingshot heard 'round the world


Inventor Dean Kamen is shown with the original, right, and revamped models of the Slingshot water purification system. (COURTESY)
MANCHESTER — Dean Kamen beams with the pride of a new parent as he taps on the side of what looks like a dorm-room refrigerator with a water dispenser in the lower left-hand corner.

New Hampshire's best-known inventor and engineer is showcasing the Slingshot — a portable, low-power water purification system that's been in development at Kamen's DEKA Research and Development Corp. in the Manchester millyard for the past decade.

What Kamen calls a 10-year science project could now become a global reality, thanks to a multimillion dollar partnership with Coca-Cola announced on Sept. 25.

Known worldwide as a visionary for inventions such as the Segway personal transporter, Kamen minced no words in his enthusiasm for the Slingshot. “We're going to build the world's coolest piece of technology to solve the biggest world problem,” he said.

The problem is a lack of safe drinking water in developing nations. Kamen has been convinced for years that the Slingshot is the answer, but he has not had the resources and partnerships needed to mass produce the machine and deploy it by the thousands in places such as Africa, where 300 million people have limited access to potable water.

“For years, we looked for a partner who could help us get the Slingshot machine into production, scale it up, bring down the cost curve, and deliver and operate the units in the places where the need is the greatest. Now we have that partner with Coca-Cola,” Kamen said.

The machine's name is derived from the biblical battle between David and Goliath, in which the shepherd boy defeats the giant with a slingshot. Known for both his technical and marketing savvy, Kamen delights in explaining the metaphor.

“The Goliath of the 21st century for millions of people is bad water,” he said, “and all those little villages need a slingshot to deal with that Goliath. The 21st-century slingshot is right here.”

It boils and evaporates water from any source — rivers, oceans, even raw sewage — then allows the pure water to condense and be collected. Earlier versions were much larger and required more electricity. The smaller pre-production model can produce 10 gallons of clean water an hour while consuming less than 1 kilowatt of electricity, less than the power needed for a handheld blow dryer.

It can be plugged into any wall socket or be powered by solar cells, batteries or DEKA's own Stirling electric generator, which runs on biogases such as methane from local waste sources.

Coke enters the picture

Creating a device that delivers clean water from almost any source is one thing. Getting them built and deployed in sufficient numbers to have global impact is another. That's where Coke comes in, Kamen said. “We went from big companies to foundations; we went from foundations to the World Health Organization, and they all said, 'This is a big idea; it's fantastic, but we can't do the part you're not doing.'”

Then DEKA began working with Coke on new technology for vending machines. The result was the Coca-Cola “Freestyle” soda fountain, sort of a jukebox offering every beverage Coke makes and some combinations that are not even available in bottle form. More than 10,000 of the freestyle machines, offering 127 flavor combinations, are in the field already at places such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

“We figured if we exceeded their expectations on this commercial partnership, we would get their attention,” Kamen said.

It worked. Coca-Cola is committing millions to the development, production and deployment of the Slingshot machines in what it calls a long-term global clean water partnership.

The beverage company and DEKA will also partner with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Africare to bring the technology to Latin America and Africa. The IDB focuses on assistance to developing nations in the Caribbean and Latin America, while Africare, founded in 1970, has provided more than $1 billion in assistance to 36 nations on the continent.

Kamen is convinced that all the pieces are in place to bring a decade-long dream to reality, combining DEKA's technology with Coke's expertise in logistics and the “on-the-ground” connections of the IDB and Africare.

“Wherever you go in the world, there is one product you can buy — a Coke,” Kamen said. “They have figured out how to build the most effective distribution system for a product that has to sell for pennies in the most remote places in the world.”

First looks

The Slingshot has gotten a lot of attention since it was first unveiled in the earlier part of the last decade. It was featured on “60 Minutes II” in 2003, and in 2006 celebrities including U2 lead singer Bono and actress Angelina Jolie offered support, as Kamen began work on a nonprofit corporation to push the project forward.

“We're still in the process of doing that,” Kamen said. “But with Coke as a partner, we think we ought to do it on a different scale.”

The newest version of the Slingshot was on display at the Coca-Cola pavilion during the summer Olympics so that Coke personnel could demonstrate its potential to a worldwide audience and measure the feedback. Coke Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent was on the stage with former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative plenary session in New York two weeks ago, where Clinton expressed his own enthusiasm for the emerging partnership.

Before finalizing the deal, Coke and DEKA conducted 2011 field trials of the Slingshot at five schools in Ghana, providing more than 140,000 liters of water to 1,500 schoolchildren over a six-month period. The next step is to have 50 units of the production version built by a contract manufacturer in central Massachusetts. The first of those is expected to roll off the assembly line next week, with all 50 completed by the end of the month.

Twenty will be brought to DEKA to be put through rigorous testing, while 30 will be field-tested by Coke in South Africa, Mexico and Paraguay. If the tests prove out, the machine could move into mass production by the middle of 2013.

Kamen said Coke stands ready to invest “tens of millions of dollars” to build the manufacturing equipment needed for mass production that could ultimately put 1 million to 2 million Slingshots online.

“Water is the lifeblood of our business, and our commitment is to ensure we're doing our part to replenish the water we use and give it back to communities around the world,” Kent said. Coke has set a goal of “no net loss of water” in the production of its beverages by 2020.

“We are now at the point where even the skeptics would have to say, 'Wow, this could actually have a major impact on global health,'” Kamen said.

The project could also have an effect on the local economy, contributing to continued growth at DEKA, which had 100 employees in one floor of one building on Commercial Street 10 years ago and now has 400 employees occupying multiple buildings at the revitalized mill complex. The company was founded in 1982.

“Almost every product we've ever developed, we stay involved with,” said Kamen, whose inventions have ranged from the Segway to innovative medical devices that had game-changing effects .

“I tilt at windmills,” he said, “and sometimes, you get them.”

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Dave Solomon may be reached at dsolomon@unionleader.com.

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