By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007
First came duct tape. Then the airport liquid ban. And yesterday, officials unveiled the latest development in the country's war on terror: an American Idol-style contest for homeland security inventors.
Six finalists. One stage. Ten minutes each to win the hearts of the judges and walk away with $50,000. Or perhaps more important, a phone call from one of the defense contractors sitting in the audience.
Among the contestants:
· A Russian scientist with his biological weapons detector. "All of Western civilization is at war," he proclaimed.
· A team from Boston with a 300-degree steel furnace capable of killing biological threats.
· A former Ohio police officer, frustrated with law enforcement's unwieldy Web networks and offering a way to fix them.
· An inventor from Atlanta with an X-ray device able to detect everything from a vial of cocaine to nuclear waste.
· And the hometown favorite, the Baltimore creators of a virtual reality helmet with 180-degree peripheral vision, for military and disaster-response training.
For two hours yesterday, they worked the stage at the Loews Annapolis Hotel, talking up their wares and how they might shield the nation from death and destruction.
The idea for the contest was hatched last year by the Chesapeake Innovation Center, a county-owned nonprofit organization charged with bringing homeland security firms to Anne Arundel. As the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approached, the center's leaders wanted to contribute somehow -- to create something that would make the sobering, scary world a little bit safer. Business sponsors put up $25,000 toward the cash prize, and the state put up another $25,000.
But the prize, many said, was almost incidental in an industry where contracts are measured by the million and sometimes billion. The high stakes had to do with the audience at yesterday's presentation: a rich assortment of security experts, military officials and defense contractors, all of them potential clients and investors.
The group received 50 applications for its Defend America Challenge, ranging from three-page outlines to 80-page volumes. Six were invited for the finals -- a 10-minute presentation and a two-minute Q&A.
And as they took to the stage yesterday, evil seemed to lurk everywhere: radioactive cargo containers, anthrax-tainted dollar bills, instant messages with secret instructions for mass destruction.
And yet, despite the doomsday scenarios, the event had all the makings of a beauty pageant -- the fierce rivalry and accompanying camaraderie, the big smiles and slick packaging. Presentation, after all, would count for a quarter of contestants' scores.
Before the contest started, Yuval Boger, the virtual reality guy from Baltimore, was talking up the hometown advantage. "Well, it's only human to check out the competition, to try to see how you'll measure up," he said. "And with all things being equal, maybe the judges will want to invest locally in Maryland rather than somewhere else."
The X-ray man nearby, however, played down any rivalry. "I don't view it so much as direct competition with them," said Dolan Falconer, who had come from Atlanta to talk about an X-ray machine that could detect everything from explosives to radioactive waste. "We're all winners already for being selected as one of the six finalists."
One company, BioDefense, had lugged along a working model of its massive mail decontamination machine. Sitting in the hotel lobby on the back of a Hummer was the 375-pound unit -- a large steel box that looked suspiciously like a washing machine.
"When you're dealing with something like white powder in the mail, you don't know what it is. Best thing is to just kill it all," said company rep Jonathan Morrone. He thrust a few letters into the machine's mouth and pointed out the microwave plates, the 300-degree convection heaters and the ultraviolet light.
Several in the audience hoped to test out the Baltimore virtual reality headgear. "We couldn't bring it," Boger said. The bulky equipment and computers would have taken too long to set up, and coping with long lines of people waiting to geek out on his company's system would have distracted from its main purpose -- winning.
But mindful of the presentation component, Boger had brought another, more low-tech prop -- two cardboard toilet paper tubes -- to illustrate how normal virtual reality helmets can offer only tunnel vision compared with his company's high-resolution models.
"You got to have the steak and the sizzle," he said with a sly smile. "You got to entertain them but tell them something substantial, too."
Alexander Asanov, the Russian scientist, took a more gloom-and-doom approach, speaking of a "war with the extremists," in a sober voice thick with accent. "It is a war of ideas. It cannot be won by bullets; so we need to empower our ideas."
Preferably his idea, he added, as he described technology that detects biomolecular threats like anthrax within minutes.
In the end the winner was announced with a sealed envelope and a dramatic pause: It was Falconer, the X-ray man from Atlanta, who ended up taking home the oversized check.
"I don't want to call it luck, because it took a lot of hard work, but on any given day, any of us could have won," he said graciously.
Another $50,000 prize, for the best invention by a Maryland company, went to Boger's virtual reality helmet.
There were smiles all around, business cards exchanged and all through the hotel ballroom a feeling that the nation was now perhaps a little safer.