NEW YORK--In technology circles, Dean Kamen is probably best known as the guy who invented the Segway.
But Kamen, also the creator of an array of medical devices and the founder of a worldwide organization that encourages students to study science, is perhaps most passionate about solving third-world health problems as basic as getting access to drinkable water and electricity.
Now he thinks cell phone manufacturer Nokia may be able to help out.
Thursday morning, Nokia is expected to announce its "Calling All Innovators" competition, a global contest that will split up to $150,000 among several winners. The contest, Kamen hopes, will help get two devices he's built--one that purifies and even desalinates water and another that can generate electricity from a variety of fuel sources--into mass production and make it easier to distribute and manage them throughout the world.
The unlikely Nokia partnership is part of what Kamen views as a bottoms-up approach to solving global health programs. While large international agencies and governments may be focused on big projects like building dams, Kamen believes going straight to the people who need it the most can be the right answer.
"Expecting big government to do this is a fool's errand," Kamen said in an interview here at the Web 2.0 Expo at the Jacob Javits Center. But asking a consumer electronics company that can enjoy some positive publicity and stir enthusiasm for its devices in the process of doing some good may be a more reasonable pursuit.
Kamen's devices are meant to be distributed directly to small communities where they're needed the most. The water purification system, for example, can clean up to 1,000 liters of water per day--that's more than enough for the needs of 100 people. One of the electrical generation devices can generate all the energy needed to power one of those devices with enough left over to provide basic electrical needs for that same community.
Kamen believes the devices could be built for less than $2,000 each once they get into mass production. The trick, of course, is getting them into mass production.
That's where the Nokia contest could help. The contest is split into three categories: Eco-Challenge, Emerging Markets, and Technology Showcase. The Eco-Challenge is designed to create an application that could help consumers, for example, manage their environmental impact. The Technology Showcase is exactly that: It asks for the best single application that runs on a Nokia mobile device.
The Emerging Markets category probably cuts closest to Kamen's aspirations: It asks developers to build applications that could, for example, improve access to weather or health information, create a micropayment system to pay for the distribution of those Kamen devices, even help monitor those water and electrical devices once they're distributed.
It may sound overly ambitious, but Kamen takes inspiration from the mass distribution of cell phones in countries such as India and groundbreaking micro-loan programs that have helped entrepreneurs and communities in poor countries. (He's not the only one looking toward cell phones as an answer. A 2007 CNET News series featured several similar efforts). He joked that in his "ever-optimistic perspective," he'd like to think developers will embrace his project as enthusiastically as they do more mercantile efforts.
"We need smart people to focus on the real issues," Kamen said. "In a free culture, you get what you celebrate."