Changing the World One Invention at a Time

Ask inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen what he does for a living, and he'll tell you his job is to just be himself.

"If I'm awake, I'm working on things that matter to me," he said. "I switch between them for the variety and for the inspiration, but if you asked me which one is work and which one of them is hobby, I don't know how to separate them."

Kamen is always thinking. Thinking about the more than 150 patents he holds in the United States and Europe. Thinking about his First program -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- which aims to get some of the tens of thousands of kids who participate in it excited about science and technology. Thinking about ways his company, DEKA Research and Development, can innovate.

"The definition of innovation to me is something that changes either our understanding of the world or the way we are able to run our lives and achieve a set of goals that is so significant that it is broadly adopted," Kamen explained. "That's an innovation and those are the kinds of things you dream about being able to accomplish."

Turning on the Lights for Planet Earth

A college dropout, Kamen makes a clear distinction between inventions and innovations. While innovations are rare, he said, inventions are abundant.

"In my lifetime, my earliest patents had numbers that started with a 'three' -- '3 million' something," he said. "In the relatively brief time I've been patenting things, we're up to 7 million things. That says there have been more inventions done since I started inventing than in the history of invention.

"Trust me, there haven't been more innovations."

But that hasn't kept Kamen and the engineers and fellow inventors at DEKA from trying.

Right now DEKA, located in New Hampshire, is at work on a scalable "box" based on the Stirling cycle engine, which can purify water from virtually any source and create enough electricity to power a small village.

Kamen's goal is to bring clean drinking water and power to the roughly 20 percent of the world he says lives without it.

"We try to look at what are the really big issues," he explained, "and are there technologies out there that if properly combined and coordinated could address those really big issues in a way that's likely to create an innovation."

Using the Stirling cycle engine -- an engine created in the 1800s that was considered a "safer" alternative to the steam engine at the time -- Kamen hopes to bring the Third World into the 21st century.

"Essentially [it's] a box the size of a dorm room refrigerator that requires no consumable components, that on the power of about the third of a hand-held hair dryer can produce 1,000 liters of pure water a day, enough for 100 people," he explained.

DEKA tried out two boxes in two villages in Bangladesh for about six months and just shipped two to Honduras to see how they'd work in the real world.

A Hunger to Help

Because of Kamen's admittedly insatiable appetite for his work, even a trip to the local shopping mall can yield life-changing inspiration.

"I get in a car and show up at the local mall, a nice, new modern facility, and as I'm walking in out of this big flat parking lot into the mall I see a guy in a wheelchair," he recalled. "Not a frail, delicate, doddering old person, but a guy that probably was a vet and lost one of his legs so you and I could sit around suckin' down doughnuts."

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