Five years after its ballyhooed launch, his Segway gets more use from tourists and digerati like Steve Wozniak than from urban commuters. Far from untangling traffic jams and ushering in an era of greener cities, the electric scooter suffered a sweeping recall this fall.
But wait and see, Kamen says. His stair-climbing iBot robo-chair, which inspired the Segway and allows its users to "stand" 6 feet tall, became available this month for disabled veterans to buy under federal health plans.
The maverick inventor is preoccupied with even bigger matters these days--like serving clean water to some billion people who would die without it each year. Pour sewage into his Slingshot device, and out comes drinking water as safe as Evian.
Kamen hopes to deliver this, as well as an offgrid source of electricity in dishwasher-size boxes, throughout the developing world through microfinancing. In the meantime, the college dropout is striving to wean the youngest generation off a pop culture diet and give kids an appetite for technology through the sports-like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) science tournaments he founded.
Kamen still spends some free time on his tiny island off the coast of New York state, where he prints money with the value of pi. Although he seceded from the United States after running into red tape to erect a wind turbine, don't call him a tree hugger.
We caught up by telephone with Kamen at Deka Research & Development, which he founded, in Manchester, N.H.
Q: Some of your inventions seem to have in common an approach to environmental problems.
Kamen: I'm more interested in any project that has the net result of giving people better lives, and I agree that it has to be in a sustainable way. Certainly, these days, most rational people are more concerned that the subtle and unintended consequences of how we do what we do keeps adding to the burden of our rather fragile environment. I'm concerned about building medical equipment, giving disabled people mobility, giving kids a reasonable shot at where to focus so they can have good careers and be good citizens.
All of those things are done in the context of having a higher sensitivity and awareness. We're making water for the world, which is not only serving the No. 1 health problem but also helping clean up the environment in the process. I'd like to think we're sensitive to all the environmental issues as a background to what we do, but I wouldn't call myself an environmentalist.
What's new with your clean-water and portable-energy projects?
Kamen: They're in very different stages of development right now. (The Slingshot) takes any water, whether it's from the ocean or from toxic chemicals. No matter what's wrong with the water, we'll clean it up and make it potable, pure water.
The energy source is very environmentally friendly. Many of its big advantages include not needing extra maintenance or a power grid. It'll burn any fuel. We ran for 24 weeks two units in two separate villages in Bangladesh, and the only fuel that went into them was cow dung sitting in a pit next to them, going through a natural decomposition process. Yet they ran perfectly and gave these villages electricity.
We have more prototypes and data on electricity generation projects than on water, but for lots of reasons, the urgency around getting some water machines out has been more of our focus. We're further along and hope to be able to introduce water sooner than generation.
Clean tech is the third-largest area of investment for venture capitalists. Do you notice an increase in attention to your projects around clean technology?
Kamen: We all know that venture capitalists have great enthusiasm but a very short attention span. I hope it's not a fad or a mood. I hope that it is a fundamental change that will last for a very significant period of time and affect people's awareness when they decide what technologies to develop and put in the world.
Yes, I am absolutely seeing a rather dramatic and accelerating interest by lots of people, venture capitalists included, in technologies that have potential to not only create a particular product that solves a particular market need, but also that has an environmentally happy footprint.
Many scientists say we may only have 10 to 20 years to slow down climate change. Do you believe that?
Kamen: I'm not competent to give an answer to that. The good news is, instead of having great debate, why don't we all just say, let's be more efficient, let's use less fuel and do less damage to the environment. Let's make it a goal that we will continue to minimize all these negative effects, and we all win with it.
What kinds of new energy technologies look good for both the developing and the developed world?
Kamen: The obvious one that's just waiting for a technical transition that makes it cheap and reliable is solar energy. I think it'll happen and relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things, and the world will be a better place. The price of oil has gone up dramatically. It is certainly a problem for our generation, but it's going to end up being a gift to the next generation.