Daniel R. Dwight didn't intend to cash in on the threat of a flu pandemic. Five years ago his Belmont (Mass.)-based company, Kronos Advanced Technologies Inc., set out to make a fan with no moving parts. The secret: put high voltage across an array of wires. That creates a flow of charged particles -- ions -- strong enough to pull air along. Early tests, though, showed an unexpected benefit: The electrical field also rips molecules apart, destroying pathogens such as anthrax spores or flu viruses. Of course, this feature wasn't a big selling point in those pre-September 11 days. "When we said 'anthrax,' people gave a yawn," recalls Dwight.
They aren't so bored now. Kronos' virus killer "could be a hell of a device" for filtering air everywhere from hospitals to airplanes, says Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. Kronos has begun to talk with Korean Air and Singapore Airlines Ltd., two carriers badly hit by the Asian SARS epidemic of 2003. "We can't keep up with the calls," says Dwight.
Where there's disaster, there's opportunity for business. Consultants such as Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. and Kroll Inc. (MMC ) are already selling advice to business and governments on flu preparedness. Companies are stocking up on items thought to slow the spread of disease such as masks and hand sanitizers -- potential sales for companies like Beijing-based Kimberly-Clark (China) Investment Co. (KMB ) President Stephen Shao says his company is already developing new lines of medical masks, wipes, and hand-washing liquids.
Public health officials say that with the right early warning systems, they could spot a dangerous flu strain soon enough to snuff it out. The pot of gold: $1 billion-plus that countries have proposed to spend on enhancing global biohazard surveillance. Enter Applied Biosystems (ABI ), the company that made the advanced sequencers that deciphered the human genome. "We are taking capabilities developed over the last 25 years to make this early warning system available," says Christopher P. Melançon, director of biosecurity in the company's Applied Markets Div. On Nov. 8 the Foster City (Calif.) company unveiled a device that can detect the flu virus in two hours and a genetic decoding kit to find potentially deadly mutations.
Other players see an opening. By yearend, CombiMatrix Corp. of Mukilteo, Wash., plans to deliver to the U.S. Air Force prototypes of a lab-on-a-microchip device that can diagnose particular strains of avian flu in four hours.
If one of these new detectors does sound the alarm, governments will embark on a crash program to develop a vaccine. That would be good for the bottom lines at flu vaccine makers Sanofi Pasteur and Chiron Corp. (CHIR ). "We are in possession of some key technologies that will be very, very useful in addressing a pandemic," says Chiron CEO Howard Pien.
Other possibilities for profit will surely emerge. "Crisis is an opportunity as long as you see it first," says Christian Crews, director of futures strategy at Pitney Bowes Inc. (PBI ). He should know: Anthrax-infected letters in 2001 created a whole new business -- making the mail safe -- for his company. Even a disaster such as a global flu pandemic will make someone richer.
By John Carey in Washington, with Otis Port in New York and Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong