By Tom Still

MADISON – As the second Iraq war neared and the Pentagon feared chemical weapons attacks, Air Force commanders heard that a new, hand-held chemical weapons sensor was hot out of the laboratories. So they pleaded for 100 early models to be pressed into action at a cost of $1 million.

Unfortunately, the sensors didn’t work. They hadn’t been fully tested, especially in desert conditions, and inspectors later concluded they might never be ready without major and expensive modifications.

Not only did the Air Force waste about $1 million in taxpayers’ money, but it may have put airmen at increased risk while they relied on the sensors.

An answer to that very real problem may lie in the laboratories of Platypus Technologies, a Madison-based nanoscience firm that stands as an example of why Wisconsin needs to attract a larger share of Homeland Security research and development dollars.

Platypus is a five-year-old company with about 20 employees in University Research Park. Its research “sweet spot” is combining the use of liquid crystals with nanostructured surfaces (particles about the size of a molecule) to develop a new generation of sensors, monitors and diagnostics.

Led by CEO Barbara Israel, Platypus researchers may have developed a chemical agent sensor that could displace all current technologies. They have asked U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., to support a request for $5 million that would speed research and development of the sensor, which is described as “small, passively operated, extremely rapid (and) capable of monitoring an environment for the presence of toxic agents on a continuous basis without human interaction.”

This nano-sensor could be integrated into networked building security systems, uniforms of first-response personnel, face shields, robotic vehicles and more. Research and development could be accelerated if enough money is provided quickly, and that likely wouldn’t happen through traditional federal mechanisms for funding scientific research, such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants.

In short, a Wisconsin company has the expertise to better protect soldiers and civilians alike within a few years – if Uncle Sam can spare a total of $10 million to do so. During the course of the research and development phase, a dozen or so jobs would be created.

This is one example of how Wisconsin companies and research institutions well-versed in fields such as water and food safety, biometrics, extreme materials, tissue regeneration and Radio Frequency Identification could be doing more to enhance homeland security.

And it is why several of those research institutions have agreed to work with the Wisconsin Technology Council in creating a non-profit, independent “Wisconsin Security Research Consortium” to help more homeland security research dollars to the state.

The trend lines in federal funding are unmistakable: Funding in traditional research programs such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are leveling off, while funding under the broad umbrella of homeland security is increasing. Some of that research is classified or sensitive, but much of it can take place alongside existing scientific projects in the life sciences, nanotechnology and information technology.

The University of Wisconsin System, the UW-Madison, the UW-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation and the Tech Council have signed a memorandum of agreement to set up the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium and use it to leverage the state’s scientific resources for the national good – as well as the good of the state. Other state institutions may join the effort.

It will take some time to set up the consortium, and it will require the support of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation. But the result could be more research opportunities for Wisconsin institutions and firms – and a stronger defense. Wisconsin has the expertise to help protect its soldiers and citizens, and to create a more peaceful world. All that’s needed is the will to do so.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.