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A Market Is Born of Anthrax Threat

Technology: The fear of tainted mail has set off a wave of innovations by companies trying to fill a niche created by the fight to stamp out bioterrorism.

January 06, 2002|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When anthrax spores turned up in the mail in October, government officials and millions of anxious Americans saw it as a dangerous threat.

A handful of companies saw it as an irresistible business opportunity.

Entrepreneurial firms have suggested X-rays, microwaves, ultraviolet light, lasers, electromagnetic pulses and even plain old heat as ways to kill anthrax. Tainted mail has sparked a flurry of invention to adapt technologies developed for civilian uses such as drying auto paint and killing E. coli to serve the emerging multibillion-dollar market for fighting bioterrorism.

"We've been getting solicitations from all over the place," U.S. Postal Service spokesman Gerry Kreienkamp said. "Anyone who thinks they have something to offer, they've been offering it."

The Postal Service already has awarded two contracts worth $40 million for equipment to sanitize mail by irradiating it with electron beams. Several other companies across the country are developing similar machines for use in busy corporate mailrooms.

The urgency to develop new technology is great because mail is particularly vulnerable to attack. In many respects, it is the ideal vector for a terrorist seeking to inflict widespread damage while remaining anonymous. Mail is delivered six days a week to 100 million households and millions of businesses.

In addition, corporations are looking for ways to sterilize the letters and packages they process in mailrooms before they are delivered to employees.

These are the perfect ingredients for an instantly huge new market--and it is beckoning.

Soon after anthrax-tainted letters arrived at NBC Nightly News offices in New York and in mailrooms on Capitol Hill, employees at Consolidated Machine Corp. in Boston joked about cleansing mail with their company's steam sterilizers, normally used for glassware, hospital garments and stainless steel medical instruments.

Then they gave it a try.

"We threw some mail into our own sterilizer to see what would happen to it, and nothing happened," said Arthur Trapotsis, head of research and development at the 55-year-old company. "We were a little surprised. I thought maybe the seals might open, but that didn't happen."

After that successful trial run, Consolidated Machine sold its first mail-cleansing unit to a New York customer that uses it to sterilize a few thousand letters each day. The company plans to market additional units in various sizes at prices ranging from $20,000 to $100,000, Trapotsis said.

The current wave of technological innovation to meet a pressing social need is in marked contrast to the sort of entrepreneurship that fueled the dot-com revolution. In that case, new companies bankrolled by generous venture capitalists sprang up in rapid succession, but they often struggled to find customers who needed their services.

"The dot-coms were all based on the Internet, which was a new technology," said Eric von Hippel, a professor who studies the economics of innovation at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "But often they weren't in new markets. This is a new market."

Despite the burst of creative thinking, some health experts caution against relying too heavily on new technology. For instance, machines that work well in laboratory tests might may not be as reliable in constant everyday use.

"Many of these things have not been well researched, they have not been well documented, and they have not proved to be really practical in a routine-use environment," said David Bruckner, chief of the laboratory medicine division at the UCLA School of Medicine. "I would be very concerned about marketing this type of thing to the general public in a way that would make them come away feeling that this was totally safe and effective. It may or may not be."

But companies in a variety of industries are pressing ahead. "The solution occurred to me almost immediately," said Gene Ray, chief executive of Titan Corp., a $1.5-billion firm with two contracts from the U.S. Postal Service to irradiate mail with electron beams. "I got e-mails from at least 10 different employees. Once you knew anthrax was a bacteria, we knew this was a solution."

Titan developed its technology about a decade ago while working to develop a way to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles using linear accelerators as part of the original "Star Wars" missile defense program.

The system was never built, so the San Diego company tried to find other uses for the technology. It eventually was adapted to sterilize medical equipment and to irradiate food to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli.

Titan uses a standard linear accelerator to generate an electron beam with magnets to force the beam to sweep up and down. As letters and packages pass in front of the beam, it breaks the double helix inside any hidden anthrax spores. That prevents the bacteria from replicating, rendering it useless.

Other companies take different approaches.

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