Tim Henry, president of Princeton-based bioscreening startup SteriFleet, sees lethal biological weapons such as anthrax and ricin as a good news, bad news proposition. "The bad news is that they disperse like crazy. Four little envelopes of anthrax – a couple of them not even opened! – contaminated 23 postal facilities," he says. "One-point-eight million letters had to be decontaminated." (He has the number down because it was he who did the decontaminating.)
The good news, in his view, is exactly the same as the bad news. Because a tiny amount of powdered toxin quickly spreads all throughout even a very large room or suite of offices, its presence is easy to detect. It is not necessary to comb an entire mailroom, Congressional chamber, office, or movie theater to determine whether there has been contamination. If the toxin is there, it will show itself.
A simple vacuum will pick up traces of anthrax, ricin, or similar toxins from a wide area around the point of contamination if fitted with a filter like the one SteriFleet has developed. This gives rise to the possibility of a "wide area warning system," says Henry.
It is "wide area" in two senses. First, a quick pass almost anywhere in a large area around a suspected point of contamination is enough to detect toxins. Second, having a system of regularly sweeping office and commercial areas around the country to check for toxins could provide advance warning of biological attacks to the entire nation. SteriFleet’s business customers will have to agree to allow the company to contact the federal government reporting the presence of any toxic powders it finds. The company will not be identified by name, but its general location will be divulged, giving the government time to warn of the danger – and possibly save lives.
"That is my vision," says Henry, an earnest man with a brush cut, startlingly blue eyes, and deep roots in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside around York, Pennsylvania.
He has started a new company, SteriFleet Inc., in an effort to fulfill his vision. He has a partner, Ed Lopez, a Fairfield resident who is ann engineer and management consultant with a specialty in working as a private sector/government entity liaison, making sure that all there is compliance with all government regulations. He and Lopez have worked together on other ventures. The venture is financed by the two partners, and for now is operating out of Henry’s home in Princeton Township.
The start-up is attacking the deadly toxin screening market from a variety of directions. It has developed a cartridge it calls the SteriFleet Bio Filter. Black with a red cap, the no-frills filter fits into the hose of almost any vacuum cleaner. The company’s second product is the SteriFleet vacuum cleaner. In coming up with this machine Henry partnered with vacuum cleaner manufacturers, having them incorporate his safety features and brand the resultant machine with his logo.
A better vacuum was needed for the collection of toxins, he explains, because "when air passes through a plastic hose, a static charge is generated on the surface. This charge then attracts or repels powders. Sample collection is made more difficult by a static charge that repels powders, but an even more troublesome problem is the attractive force generated." That force causes particles to cling to the vacuum hose. Once the vacuum is turned off, the static charge dissipates, and the particles fall off. Carry the vacuum to another room, put it down, and a whole new area could be contaminated.
To address those issues, the SteriFleet vacuum uses special conductive plastic. The entire hose is grounded via a metal clip and grounding wire. This, Henry admits, is not completely new technology – it is now used to vacuum up photocopier toner.
The second safety feature of Henry’s vacuum is an exhaust that flows away from the person operating the vacuum, and that can empty outside of a building.
He hopes to sell two versions of the vacuum. The HEPA (high efficiency particulate air filter) version, at about $300, will pull in very small particles – one-half a micron to three or four microns. This, he says, is generally a level that will remove toxins the size of the anthrax let loose in the 2001 attacks. He also has a ULPA (ultra low penetration air filter) version, the standard used in the most sterile medical environments, that removes even smaller particles. It would sell for about $400.
After an area of suspected contamination is vacuumed, either with a SteriFleet vac or an ordinary vacuum, the filter is taken out, slipped into a white cardboard mailing envelope the company provides, and is sent to a lab for testing. The results, if positive, could provide advance warning of a biological attack – and could buy time for those exposed to obtain potentially life-saving medical treatment.
Henry’s vision for his company was born of the trail of family, education, job experience, and, yes, even career mistakes, that give rise to so many entrepreneurial ventures.
"My family were carriage makers from way back," he says. The Henry family gradually moved from sleighs and buckboards to trucks. "My grandfather started specializing in hinges, hinges for trucks," he recounts. "Can you imagine making a business out of hinges?" With excellent business instincts, his grandfather moved beyond hinges and developed a company that customized trucks. "You know, like trucks to deliver glass," the grandson explains. He grew up on stories of his father and grandfather traveling to factories in far-off states and returning driving the shell of a truck. "Just the steering wheel and the gas pedal," he says, "not even a roof."
Before the days when a call to Ford or GM would produce a custom truck, the Henrys were the only game in town. "It saw him through the depression," the latest Henry entrepreneur says of his grandfather’s business. "He used to say he could lend money to the banks."
When it became possible to easily order up a log truck or a camper, Henry’s father moved to another branch of the automotive field. An auto mechanic, his father was so serious about the science of fixing cars that he enrolled at Stevens Institute to learn more. "He wanted to know about the physics, the mechanics, of auto repair," says his son. Now retired, the senior Henry bemoans the fact that the market for skilled auto mechanics is going the way of the buckboard.
Lamenting the change in his retirement, Henry senior is kept company by his wife, a registered nurse from whom Henry says he learned compassion – and something else. "She looks at everything from four or five angles," he says with a laugh. For his mother, there are no straight-forward solutions. While Henry says this tendency to examine every angle has influenced him, he does appear to be a straight-ahead kind of guy – with just a few exceptions.
He attended Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania (Class of 1981), studying philosophy at first. Then, after two years, he decided that something about his college experience just didn’t feel right. "The way I was brought up, it was high school, then you were drafted, and then college. It’s hard to understand," he says, "but where I came from that’s the way it was." He felt that he was missing a step, so he joined the Army Security Agency halfway through school, serving for three years as, among other things, a Russian linguist and a cryptographer.
While he was in the Army he married a fellow Albright student, Linda Henry, now a researcher with Wickenden Associates, an educational consulting firm on Herrontown Road. When he resumed his college studies, his major had become chemistry. He never lost his love of philosophy, though, and says he was thrilled to run into his favorite Albright philosophy professor recently during a rehearsal for Voices Chorale, a Princeton-area group with which he sings.
After graduation he enrolled in Princeton University for his graduate studies, receiving an M.S. in chemistry. After a stint with a Monsanto start-up in Cranbury, he took a job with Radiation Dynamics, a Long Island based manufacturer of particle accelerators. While he was working for that company he traveled all over the world giving executive management seminars as part of the United Nations Development Program for Third World countries.
The goal was to educate industry leaders about technology that was both good for business and good for public health. Toward this end he lectured on the use of radiation processing to sterilize medical devices and to make plastic and rubber products safer. "I was in China before Tianamen Square, in Korea, Pakistan, India." The work appealed to him because it involved applying science to real-world problems in situations where the benefits were immediate.
Henry left Radiation Dynamics in 1990 and launched his first company, Process Medical, which was based in Stony Brook, New York. It provided consulting services to pharmaceuticals, medical device manufacturers, and biodiagnostic test kit makers. "We provided them with the know how and the equipment," he says of the company, which was made up of a core group of five to six professionals and a huge cadre of manufacturers reps working around the country.
"The time was right," he says. "Companies were cutting out the middle layer, laying off skilled scientists to boost their bottom lines." Operating in this void his company, for example, showed early manufacturers of the balloons used in angioplasty how to keep the inflatable devices from bursting.
Business was good, and the Henry family, which includes two sons, Mark, a senior at Grinnell College who is headed for a job with Standard & Poor after graduation, and William, a student at the John Witherspoon middle school in Princeton, decided to move the company to Princeton. "We had lived in 15 places in 14 years of marriage," says Henry. "At that point we had enough money to live anywhere we wanted to. We thought of all the places we had lived and narrowed it down to Monterey or Princeton."
Settled back in the town where he did his graduate school studies, Henry was joined by some of his Process Medical partners. He was in the process of growing that company when he got a call from Ion Beam Applications, a Belgian company with a specialty in using radiation in a number of innovative ways. He was recruited to take over worldwide equipment sales. It was an opportunity to do the same sort of things that he did in his company, but on a much larger scale, he says. There was also an offer of an ownership interest down the road. It was an opportunity he could not turn down.
The job, however, did not live up to its billing.
"If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t take it," he says. Then he quickly adds, "except that it did give me an opportunity to work on the anthrax clean-up."
Ion Beam Medical, it turns out, had a new, not yet fully operational, radiation and electron facility in Bridgeton, a town in South Jersey. The company did a couple of things. One was to use electrons to pulverize polytetrafluoroethylene, which is most commonly known as Teflon, a patented DuPont product, although it is also manufactured by other companies under other names. "When you read glossy high-end magazines like National Geographic you don’t want the pages to stick together," says Henry. And as a rule, they don’t. The reason, he explains, is that a tiny amount of Teflon is put into the paper mix.
The unusually hard substance is used in a wide range of products, including large molded plastic parts for any number of devices. As part of the manufacturing process, large amounts of Teflon are wasted. It is a valuable substance, but is difficult to reuse. It can’t be melted down, and it can’t easily be chopped up.
Ion Beam developed a business around blasting surplus Teflon, which it purchased from scrap dealers, with an electron accelerator. The process renders the Teflon so fragile that it can be ground into particles tiny enough to be sold to companies that produce newsprint.
The Teflon-blasting business was to take up half of the new Ion Beam Bridgeton facility. The other half was to be used to irradiate food. Henry explains that small doses of radiation kill deadly bacteria such as the eColi. Some supermarket chains, including Wegmans, have sold irradiated meat to customers worried about eating ingesting potentially lethal bacteria along with their hamburgers.
Shortly after the anthrax attacks of fall 2001, attacks that closed the Princeton post office in Carnegie Center for weeks, the downtown Princeton post office briefly, and the Trenton main post office in Hamilton for years, Henry had an idea.
"I was standing upstairs," he says, recalling the moment. "And it hit me. I knew we could treat the mail."
He took the idea to his bosses at Ion Beam and initially received a frosty reception. He soon discovered that outside of the Northeast Corridor few people were excited about the attacks. A common attitude, he says, was "just a few people died." It was seen as a New York City/Washington, D.C., problem. And no big deal.
Within a few days, however, he persuaded Ion Beam to put in a bid for the work. A proposal was made to the United States Postal Service (USPS). There was at least one serious competitor for the business, but Ion Beam was quickly awarded the work.
The company’s facility was uniquely suited for it. For one thing, says Henry, it was not yet up and running. "If we had had contracts, we couldn’t have taken the mail," he says. No customer would want their products in the same building with letters that could be carrying a deadly, very easily dispersed toxin. Also the building, fitted out with conveyor belts and ready to take on big orders, could move the huge backlog of mail through quickly.
Tractor trailer loads of mail began rolling into Ion Beam’s new facility. The letters and packages were blasted with electrons because that technology was faster than radiation would have been. There are some downsides with that technology, however. "The mail is everything," says Henry. "It’s baby chicks, and contact lenses, and photographs." Electrons are tough on items such as these. "The photographs fade," he says. "The recommendation on lenses is to throw them away." (He doesn’t say what happened to any baby chicks caught in transit.)
"We’re learning as we go along," he says. Electron accelerators are being adjusted to deliver enough power to break down the DNA of biological toxins, but not any more than is necessary.
The facility is still processing all mail that goes to government offices in the 20202 and 20205 zip codes in Washington, D.C., says Henry. Congressional mail is treated with electrons, while White House mail goes through the facility’s X-ray machine, which removes any toxins while also providing a peek at contents. The X-ray method of breaking down DNA is also more effective and more gentle than the electron method.
The facility that cleaned up after the 2001 anthrax attacks, and that continues to process Washington, D.C.’s mail, is no longer owned by Ion Beam. That company sold its United States operations to PPM Ventures Limited, a U.K. company, in June, 2004. At that time, Henry was laid off.
While his experience at Ion Beam was not all that he hoped that it would be, it did provide him with the idea for his new company. "I looked at my options," he says, "and thought about what I really enjoyed doing." He decided that he wanted to stay in the biosecurity business. "I have a crystal clear vision on how to make us all safe," he says.
SteriFleet, the company that is to carry out this vision, has several discrete groups of customers in its sights. One target group is homeowners looking for everyday contaminants such as toxic mold or asbestos. These customers will most likely use their own vacuum cleaners. The cost for the filter, shipping, and a lab report would be about $29 for mold and $44 for asbestos. Henry expects that homeowners may want the tests when they suspect a problem – perhaps after removing asbestos shingles or having a flooded basement – and also when they buy or sell a house. SteriFleet may market directly to consumers, a proposition Henry knows could be prohibitively expensive, or it may sell its equipment and services to companies that provide inspection services to homemakers.
The company’s direct-to-consumer product is fully ready, but Henry is not sure how important it will be to the start-up’s bottom line. Adding services to consumers was an idea he got from a neighbor, who thought the diversification would be a good thing.
Meanwhile, Henry is most excited about less common toxins, substances he feels sure are a looming threat to the country. He quotes former Health and Human Services Director Tommy Thompson, who said, shortly before leaving office: "I can’t believe they haven’t gone after our food supply yet."
More bioattacks are coming, Henry believes, and he believes, just as strongly, that wide adoption of his technology will buy time to prevent substantial loss of life.
He is working at selling this vision to government entities at all levels, and to business. He has already made some progress with the government. His devices have been placed on a list of approved materials for first responders. Grants are available to purchase items on this list, and he hopes that his filters and vacuums will get some of that business. He is being realistic, though. "We don’t own the market by any means," he says. A potential problem is that many first responders – rescue squads and fire departments, for example – have already purchased testing supplies, and his company will have to prove to them that its products are an improvement over those that are now on their shelves.
As for business, he says that he sees a readiness to gear up to protect against bioattacks. After the first wave of attacks, "there was hysteria," he says. Everyone wanted to do everything possible to protect property and personnel. But then, with no more attacks taking place, some of the urgency went away. This departure was hastened by some cold hard facts. Business quickly learned that there is no way to keep toxic substances such as anthrax out of a building. They also learned that the cost of continually sanitizing surfaces is wildly expensive. Henry estimates that it would cost about $200 per sample, or $60,000 a year, to perform daily screenings for anthrax on an office building. The cost for ricin screenings would be $35 per test or $10,000 a year.
Throwing up their hands, most businesses decided there was nothing they could do. That was stage two. First hysteria, and then inertia.
Now, says Henry, we are in stage three. Insurers have gotten into the act and worked with their customers at figuring out the cost of contamination. It turns out that the cost of losing a building – and all of the processes that go on in it – is just too high for most companies. So a search is on for cost effective solutions.
SteriFleet could be that solution, says Henry. For offices, a daily vacuum test could provide peace of mind in most cases, and an invaluable window of time in case of an attack. The cost of lab tests is still a barrier, and Henry says that his number one priority is to get it down. His target is to reduce the fee for routine daily tests to determine the presence of toxic substances to about $10,000 a year. He believes that insurance companies will provide incentives to encourage their customers to perform the tests.
One way in which he thinks he can get costs down to this range is to have his company purchase and run its own lab, and he is considering this move. Another possibility is to get help from public health officials, and he thinks that he can make this happen.
Another solution lies in aggregation. Henry is preparing to pitch this one to the food industry, probably via produce brokers.
"Could you get a toxin into a can of soup?" he asks. "Well, maybe. But it would be hard." On the other hand, he says "our vegetables come from all over the world, and there are virtually no controls."
After studying the route that fruits and vegetables travel from field to table, he thinks that a good place to test is the huge warehouses that food brokers use. He is going to try to sell these brokers on vacuuming a corner of each truck after it unloads its cargo.
He has developed a large filter – approximately the size and shape of a gallon jug of juice – that would hold samples from many areas. This would be considerably less expensive than testing a sample from each individual truck. The material picked up could be tested on site, and results could be available in half an hour. Should there be a positive result, the broker would have to test further to isolate the contaminated shipment. It could be somewhat onerous, but, Henry reminds, "if you eat ricin, you die. That’s it. There is no antidote."
We are in a quiet period. For more than three years now reports of white powder discoveries on airplanes or in office building lobbies have been quickly followed by the news that a mom had spilled talcum or a prankster had spread powdered chalk around. Memories of sealed mailboxes on Nassau Street and postal workers sorting mail in tents behind the Carnegie post office have faded. Once again, we see white powder and automatically think "snow" or "baking powder."
Henry’s vision is different. He is sure that more bioattacks lie ahead, and equally sure that his technology has the potential to cut down on their toll.
SteriFleet, Mason Drive, Princeton 08540. Tim Henry, president. 609-279-0295; fax, 609-279-0296.