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NZ Gadget Could Cut The Cost And Chaos Of `white Powder' Scares

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellington, Nov 4 NZPA - A Christchurch-based technology start-up, Veritide, says it has received orders for all of the hand-held scanners it has manufactured to quickly identify bacterial spores such as anthrax.

It was deluged with orders, with clients including hazardous materials teams in major United States cities and US defence agencies, after pitching the non-invasive scanner in August.

More than 100 media offices across the United States, including the Reuters New York bureau and a wide range of newspapers such as the Boston Herald and Christian Science Monitor were last month "locked down" because of "white powder" scares.

Veritide chief executive Andrew Rudge said such "white powder incidents" occur hundreds of times a week around the world, and there have been over 20,000 such incidents in the United States alone, where five people, including two postal workers, have died in a few genuine attacks.

The disruption caused by such scares helped boost interest in Veritide's Scout scanner, which uses ultra-violet light and complex software to detect presence of potentially lethal spores in powder samples in six to eight minutes.

Other technologies and products take between 30 minutes and three days to do the same job.

"They are typically unreliable and hard to use in real world situations and also destroy the suspicious sample in the analysis process, preventing follow-up testing."

Mr Rudge said US "first responder" agencies placing orders for the scanner said its reliability and speed were key advantages.

"It's simple to use -- analysis begins with the press of a single button and it returns a `spores detected' or `no spores detected' result within minutes," he said.

"That saves both time and money in terms of disruptions and evacuations, because security staff get immediate feedback on whether they are dealing with a hoax or the real thing."

Mr Rudge said demand for the device was three to four times higher than expected.

The scanner recently also made it to the semi-finals of the global security challenge competition which selects promising security technology start-ups around the world.

Two years of research and development for the scanner was part-funded with a $450,000 investment from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, with another $50,000 in taxpayer funds from Trade and Enterprise for market development.

The optical scanning technology was invented by a team led by Professor Lou Reinisch, then dean of science at Canterbury University, and now part of Veritide's management.

The company was started with $1.6 million of venture capital from Endeavour Capital and Ngai Tahu Capital.

The scanner has been validated by New Zealand forensic laboratories at Environmental Science and Research, which tested it on a variety of hoax substances and anthrax simulants. Direct testing with "live" anthrax is now under way in independent US and United Kingdom laboratories.

Veritide plans to eventually have its technology tested at the "gold standard" facility for testing biological and chemical weapons, the US Army's Dugway Proving Ground.

Mr Rudge said research was under way to extend the capability of the scanner to cope also with biological weapons such as botulism and ricin.

Veritide is also researching other applications for its technology in areas such as quality monitoring for food, water and air supplies and medical applications such as non-invasive medical screening.

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