Startup succeeds in research, struggles in business
Humans have always been vulnerable to airborne illnesses – especially given the developments in chemical and biological warfare. That vulnerability led two professors in upstate to pioneer a solution for sterilizing air.
But success in business has so far proven elusive.
In late 2001, letters laced with the disease anthrax were sent around the country, including to some members of Congress.
“There was enough anthrax in that one letter than if it had gotten into the ventilation system it could well have killed everybody in the Hart Office Building,” reported Bob Schieffer during a CBS Evening News segment from October 2001.
At the same time, SUNY Buffalo professor John Lordi was researching methods of creating heat by compressing air.
“It was shortly after 9/11 and the anthrax incidents in this country. We were talking and [Jim Garvey] said, ‘Gee, I bet with the temperature we’re getting we could kill anthrax,” Lordi says.
Eleven years later, Lordi and Garvey – a fellow SUNY Buffalo professor – are in business together as Buffalo BioBlower.
Currently, the company is testing the latest model of their air sterilizing machine to demonstrate its effectiveness in medical buildings.
Their laboratory is cacophonous. When asked if the BioBlower always makes so much noise:
“It’s actually much louder!” Garvey says, laughing. “Without that box around it would sound more like a jet engine because it’s compressing the gas pretty violently.”
Much the same as creating heat from pumping up a tire, the BioBlower cranks up to 460 Fahrenheit by creating a pocket of intensely pressurized air. More than 99.99 percent of bacteria or diseases are killed.
“They’re incinerated," Garvey says. "In terms of the biological, they’re literally oxidized down to carbon dioxide and water,” Garvey says.
Within minutes, rooms can be free of H1N1 viruses, influenza, SARS, tuberculosis and even nerve agents. The military has taken notice and funded the company with more than $3.5 million in research grants from the Department of Defense.
While securing research and redevelopment grants has so far proven unchallenging, Buffalo BioBlower is now attempting to package the technology for everyday use.
Their website sports a sleek video to market the machine. Lordi and Garvey hope to sell to hospitals, poultry farms and even museums to provide the specific air quality needs of each.
But the company is still seeking its first sale.
“It better be soon, damn soon,” Garvey says.
With no revenue, Buffalo Bioblower is surviving grant to grant. But success could be just around the corner.
“In a sense, we’re only a headline away from breaking through the market. One big pandemic or another bio attack and then the technology becomes very viable,” Garvey says. “It’s hard to build a business plan around that.”
Wait – openly wishing for a pandemic?
“No no no. We’d rather not,” Lordi and Garvey say in unison.
‘Make money by litigation’
Without hoping for the worst, Lordi and Garvey are investigating ways to create stronger demand – but face a market that doesn’t clamor for their product.
Currently, most buildings use HEPA filtration to clean air. Disposable filters trap but don’t kill airborne pathogens. And that’s good enough for most.
“You talk to hospitals or manufacturing plants and they say, ‘We’re already following existing rules.’ That’s the problem when you come up with a novel technology: the code hasn’t changed to incorporate the fact there’s actually something better out in the market,” Garvey says.
Design challenges have also tempered enthusiasm. BioBlowers are bulky – about as large as a washer or dryer – loud, and expensive.
While Lordi and Garvey try to create a lighter, quieter, cheaper model, they’re also chasing another strategy for sales.
“Our attorney tells us the way we’re going to make money is by litigation,” says Garvey.
For example, few buildings carried defibrillators until enough people died of survivable heart attacks to warrant the lawsuits that forced building owners into buying the equipment.
If Buffalo BioBlower can demonstrate that people are getting sick or worse from poor air filtration, then they could be in business.
“It may turn out that the route we have to take,” Garvey says.
But this could take years, or decades. And Buffalo BioBlower is already considered old for a startup.
You can follow reporter Daniel Robison on twitter @robisonrobison.