The inventor who makes movies

Dedicated Zionist Maurice Kanbar has 40 patents under his belt, including for hypodermic needle protectors and SKYY vodka, but he's also producing films.

Maurice Kanbar 88 224 (photo credit: Yoni Reif)
Maurice Kanbar 88 224
(photo credit: Yoni Reif)
One rarely comes across a true inventor walking the streets today. Innovative, curious, ever-questioning how to improve the world's endless gadgets and gizmos, the archetype of such a man seems more the stuff of movies than reality. Perhaps it is unsurprising that someone as inquisitive as quintessential inventor Maurice Kanbar can list among his varied titles the role of filmmaker, most recently having produced the hit animated film Hoodwinked. Yet there is no title inclusive enough to define Kanbar, a New-York native and current San-Francisco resident who has accumulated over 40 patents, inventions which span the health and consumer industries and include the creation of SKYY vodka. "I'm the kind of individual that looks at everything with the idea 'how can this be improved?'" Kanbar said, in Israel to accept an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University. The inventor was honored on Tuesday evening alongside a host of other prominent figures from Israel and around the world. His support of the university has been primarily for its Institute of Nanotechnology and in establishing the Kanbar Laboratory for Nanomaterials. Inspired by John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain and William Shockley - the three scientists whose groundbreaking work in the late 1940s led to the invention of the transistor and earned them the Nobel Prize in physics - Kanbar said that his great hope was that Bar-Ilan would one day discover a major scientific breakthrough that would change the world. "There are two basic areas where [Bar-Ilan] is doing work that could be fantastic," Kanbar said. "One is in solar energy, which is very inefficient and fragile if it were not supported by government incentives." In addition to the research on more efficient ways to harness solar energy, the Kanbar Laboratory for Nanomaterials has also focused its energies on developing more effective superconductors, aiming to reduce the substantial losses in electricity that occur in the conductors used today. Kanbar said that no matter how advanced the scientific research, a breakthrough is something unpredictable. "This is a matter of discovery," Kanbar said. "It doesn't happen because you work harder, it happens because God says 'I'm going to show them how,' like he showed those guys how to make the transistor." WHILE HE is not religious, Kanbar identifies strongly with his Jewish heritage and stridently supports the State of Israel. "I'm culturally very Jewish," Kanbar said. "Even though I don't go to synagogue every Sabbath, I am very, very conscious of what can we do to improve the stature of Israel in the world." Bar-Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh called Kanbar a "genius" who stood out amongst the many distinguished individuals he had met in his 12 years as Bar-Ilan's president. "He is unique Jew who loves Israel with all of his heart," Kaveh said. On the outside, Kanbar appears far more like the inquisitive inventor that he is than the multi-millionaire he's become. The small, exuberant man spews out story after story with an unending supply of enthusiasm and charm. His modesty offsets his enormous successes in life. "I don't want to buy a yacht. You couldn't give me a yacht free," Kanbar said. "I have no interest in having a yacht, I have no interest in having my own private plane. That's not my driving force." Bar-Ilan was the third university to bestow upon Kanbar an honorary doctorate. The first was his alma mater, Philadelphia University, followed by Kenyon College in Ohio for his role in developing its film school. The secret to Kanbar's widespread success is rooted in the way he views even the simplest of things. "I can look at this cup of coffee right now and say: 'Can we make a better handle? Is there someway that it'll be more comfortable?'" Kanbar said. "Ninety-nine out of 100 times I don't find a better way. But I think about it." This pragmatic thinking has led to Kanbar's commercially successful innovations, as well inventions that have quite literally made the world a safer place. A PERSISTENT headache while drinking bourbon or cognac led Kanbar to develop SKYY vodka. He discovered that the reason for his headaches were due to congeners, a natural impurity that imparted the liquor's flavor. Kanbar decided to forgo the flavor and pioneered a unique distillation process that led to SKYY's creation. Upon discovering that the number of accidental needle sticks incurred by hospital workers amounted to 20,000 a year, accidents which infected innocent staffers with diseases like Hepatitis and AIDS, Kanbar developed a hypodermic needle protector which reduced accidental disease transmissions to hospital workers by 95 percent. "That's been very profitable, not nearly as profitable as SKYY, but I say if that's helped three people avoid getting AIDS, then that's a great accomplishment," Kanbar said. Kaveh pointed out that in addition to contributing to Bar Ilan's Nanotechnology Center, which currently ranks as number three in the world, Kanbar's inventions combined with his charitable donations have supported a wide variety of fields. "One time after another, whenever there is a public problem of any kind, he finds an outstanding, unique solution," Kaveh said. Science aside, Kanbar's passion for film extends beyond his production of Hoodwinked in 2005. He supports young filmmakers across the US, contributing substantially to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Kanbar regards film as the art of the 21st Century, a powerful political instrument because of its ability change people's minds. "Films to me are a mechanism for imparting thought to the population," Kanbar said. He is currently producing Hood vs. Evil, the sequel to Hoodwinked.