Innovation

Clean-Water Effort Combines Coke's Know-How, Segway's Futurism


The Slingshot, a washing-machine-size water purifier, produces 10 gallons of clean water an hour on 500 watts of electricity

Photograph by John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images

The Slingshot, a washing-machine-size water purifier, produces 10 gallons of clean water an hour on 500 watts of electricity

The Clinton Global Initiative came to town this week, which means that many an executive has been on stage with Bill in New York pledging to do better for the world. You might have heard that McDonald’s (MCD) will, over the next several years, begin to offer a choice of a salad or vegetables instead of French fries with some meals. (The former president wasn’t involved in Burger King’s (BKW) introduction of Satisfries, a lower-fat French fry.)

Coca-Cola (KO) didn’t make any promises about the sugary drinks it sells. Instead, Coke’s chief executive, Muhtar Kent, pledged that his company would be providing safe drinking water to 20 countries by the end of 2015.

Coke, of course, has come in for plenty of criticism over its bottled water business, and it’s been accused of creating water shortages in India because it uses so much water to make its soft drinks. The company has said those allegations were proven untrue, and Kent told the radio show Marketplace that the clean-water initiative is not a response to any criticism. “Why are we doing all of this? Because when there [are] healthy communities, we have a healthy, sustainable business,” he said.

What may be most interesting about this project is Coke’s partner, Dean Kamen, the guy who invented the Segway. Kamen has actually worked with Coke before—his design group created Coke’s touch-screen soda fountain, the Freestyle—and now the inventor has the drink company’s backing for a water-purification technology dubbed the Slingshot. The vapor-compression machine basically boils and condenses any kind of dirty water. It’s about the size of a hotel mini-bar, weighs 300 pounds, and can produce some 30 liters of water an hour using as much energy as a hair dryer. The power source doesn’t have to be electric: Solar power, batteries, even methane from animal dung would work.

Kamen has been developing this technology for more than a decade. He showed it off on 60 Minutes in 2003. He appeared on The Colbert Report in 2008, and the host even added a bag of Doritos to the contaminated water for fun. But the Slingshot was expensive to make—several hundred thousand dollars for one—and Kamen didn’t have the infrastructure to manufacture and distribute the boxes cost-effectively.

That’s where Coke comes in. It knows how to do those things with sometimes frightening efficiency. And just think what the soft-drink juggernaut knows about marketing.

Susan-berfield-photo-200x200
Berfield writes about retailers, restaurants, and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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Companies Mentioned

  • MCD
    (McDonald's Corp)
    • $96.27 USD
    • -1.28
    • -1.33%
  • BKW
    (Burger King Worldwide Inc)
    • $26.5 USD
    • 0.37
    • 1.4%
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