"Slingshot": Inside Dean Kamen's Quest To Bring Clean Water To The World

Oct 15, 2014

Dean Kamen at a 2011 event at FIRST Robotics headquarters in Manchester.
Credit Josh Rogers, NHPR

The New Hampshire Film Festival is getting underway this week in Portsmouth.

One film that’s getting a lot attention this year is called Slingshot. It’s named for a device that creates clean drinking water in areas where such water isn’t usually available. And it’s notable because it comes from New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen. The film follows Kamen as he develops, tests and promotes the Slingshot, and reflects upon his career, his inventions, and why he does the work he does.

Director Paul Lazarus talked with All Things Considered about the film ahead of its screening at the New Hampshire Film Festival, which takes place Thursday, October 16th at 8 pm.

There’s a quote from Kamen in the film – “We could empty half of all the beds in all the hospitals in the world just by just giving people clean water.” Were you surprised by the scope of the problem Kamen is looking at with the Slingshot?

Totally surprised. In 2006 when I started this, I was, frankly, naïve about the world’s water crisis. What Dean’s trying to deal with is, if you attack the issue of dirty water, if you make water clean, you’re dealing with so much health care, it’s a phenomenal amount.

But that’s always the challenge, to find ways to get around the obstacles to providing that clean water.

Right. Well, Dean’s a disruptive thinker. One of the themes of the movie is, we found a different approach to the problem. Water in the past has been remediated by big, top-down solutions. You get a huge water remediation facility, get large amounts of water into that facility and pump it out to the world through old, old pipelines that are crumbling infrastructure. Nobody’s going to do that in the future. You don’t build big municipal plants and miles and miles of pipes to carry that water out to rural areas. You give everybody a possibility of cleaning their own water, right where they are, a point of use solution. That’s what Slingshot is.

I think it’s also important to say that the issue of the world’s water crisis is so enormous that many, many solutions need to be found. Dean likes to say that there’ll be 206 solutions for the 206 countries. They’ll all be different. And I think he’s right. This is just one of them, but what’s great about it is that it’s actually a potential solution.

And it’s one that capitalizes on existing networks instead of trying to create new ones. In fact, the Slingshot itself came out of a different project to create home dialysis for people. Kamen started to realize this had other applications – big applications.

Yeah, it’s kind of astonishing. I once asked Dean Kamen the direct question, did you get the idea to fight the world’s water crisis and then started to make Slingshot? And he said, the truth of it is, I was working on home dialysis and we needed clean water, so he started working on a machine to turn tap water into potable water. But once we did that, we realized, if we can take everything out of water, why are we only doing it for the small subset of the human race that has kidney failure? Why aren’t we doing it for everybody? And that’s where Slingshot gets invented.

You got to see some of the initial testing of Slingshot up close, in rural parts of Ghana.

It was extraordinarily moving on so many levels, it’s almost hard to describe. I got to go to Ghana two times. To see young children dressed in these beautiful school outfits that they’re so proud of and keep so clean, run to a tap – a tap – a turn it on and get running clean water for the first times in their lives… it’s indescribable.

We think nothing of potable water coming out of a source, everywhere we want it, everywhere we need it. Even our lawns get potable water. These kids never see running, clean water – they’re used to getting water from a river, or borehole, and having to wait overnight until the biomass settles to the bottom, or boil it, or dump chlorine in it, or get it from any humanitarian effort to provide them clean water. But to run up to a tap with a cup, turn it on, and be able to drink that water right then, is a miracle for them.

There’s a perception that kids in a small school in West Africa are a world away from New Hampshire. And there are many differences, but Dean Kamen is a New Hampshire inventor; you’re a graduate of Dartmouth College. So the connections are there.

We talk about this issue a lot as it’s “over there.” The truth of it is, we have, very much close to home, our own water issues, and they’re growing increasingly severe. I was in Maui, and people were raising their arms, [asking] how can we get a Slingshot to the city 40 minutes north of here, that has real water issues? Parts of our own country are having serious water challenges. The crisis is not “over there,” it’s right here, and we’re going to very quickly realize that water is the precious stuff of life, that’s just as important to us as it is to a kid in Ghana.

You’ve known and worked with Dean Kamen for a couple of decades now. What do you think you’ve learned from watching him up close?

He is someone who’s relentlessly concerned about his time, so when you’re making a movie, that’s challenging, because time is a big issue for Dean. Why are we doing another take of this shot? Well, we had a problem with the sound. You realize I need to be on the phone with a major world figure right now? Everybody wants his time.

I believe that If you’re in Dean Kamen’s presence for any amount of time, you’re inspired, you’re challenged and you kind of feel like, what did I do today? And so you’re left with this feeling of, wow, I wish I lived my life better, I wish I did more. You’re endlessly inspired, challenged, and I believe empowered, because you see that if he can do it, why can’t I also make a contribution? What can I do to better the world, because he doesn’t do anything else.