A Dragons' Den for James Bonds
It was enough to make any would-be terrorist question whether their trade had a future: a darkened room packed with serious-looking government and military officials being shown ever more ingenious ways to thwart bombers and plotters.
The Global Security Challenge (GSC) - a sort of Dragons' Den for the James Bond world - is officially a way for companies hawking new security and anti-terrorism devices to compete for funding. Here, they get to network furiously with investors and bigwigs from potential clients in the Pentagon and Ministry of Defence as well as private industry.
But for the outside observer, the main attraction at London Business School was the sheer innovation of some the ideas on offer. Opening the event, Gordon Brown's chief security adviser, Robert Hannigan, referred to "an arms race with terrorists". If so, this was the technological frontline.
Here were the inventions that impressed me most:
Made by Auxetix, a tiny British operation led by Dr Patrick Hook, a former racing car engineer, this flexible backing for material has been shown to stop shrapnel from grenades and even car bombs. While it has been tested as a material for military tents, it could theoretically be used for things like curtains or even battle uniforms.
The suicide bomb scanner
Another tiny start-up, this one formed by a group of Russian nuclear scientists, Apstec claims to have made a prototype microwave device able to scan a crowd of people at once and pinpoint any bombs, be they carried in bags or on someone's body. Expect to see these - or rather not see them, as the scanning can be done covertly - at stations and sports stadiums soon.
The mind reader
Well, not quite. But the US company Brain Fingerprinting does say its device can detect when someone is hiding information in their mind by flashing images to a suspect and detecting a so-called A-ha brainwave, which denotes recognition. The company's founder, Lawrence Farwell, actually invented the system more than a decade ago as a way for someone paralysed to control equipment, and the machine has already been used in a few criminal cases. Now, however, Farwell says: "At Guantnamo Bay, we can sort out who's who. We can make torture obsolete."
It turns out that I clearly know less than the judges, who awarded the two prizes (for a start-up and a more established, growing company) elsewhere: to an Israeli firm that has developed an ultra-hi-tech panoramic CCTV, and to a British company that makes an airport scanner for liquids. ("It can tell the orange juice from the hydrogen peroxide.")
Another interesting point is that, however booming the sector, many of these firms are still struggling to raise capital amid the current tough credit conditions. If you're a canny investor you could do worse, as John S Morgan from the Pentagon's counter-terrorism office noted:
There's no doubt that the international security market is going to increase enormously over the next five to 10 years. Governments all over the world are investing in this. These companies to represent a unique investment opportunity because of that.
Peter Walker is a reporter for guardian.co.uk, a position he has held since late 2006. Before that he worked for, among others, Agence France-Presse and CNN in London, Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris.
He blogs at http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/peterwalker
Topics: Global Security Challenge Values: Education