The global reach of Florida innovations
by Mike Vogel
Updated 2 yearss ago
Using Light to Disable Shooters
Entrepreneur BRIAN ARWARI
Company LIGHTGUARD SECURITY SYSTEM
Mass shootings usually last just minutes. The damage is done before police or security arrive.
University of Miami associate professor Brian Arwari has innovated a means to disorient and disable shooters using a pulsing, temporarily blinding light. Think of a military flashbang except safer and more controlled.
Arwari, who joined UM in 2008, is an expert in psychophysiology — how the body reacts to stimuli. Shooters tend to be amped up on adrenaline. Arwari reasoned that overwhelming stimuli would incapacitate shooters, even trigger a flight response. He also wanted something that would “freeze time” for police or security to gain a tactical advantage.
His LightGuard Security System — he’s the founder and chief technology officer — features a high-powered LED module in a standard light fixture. It functions like any light until someone presses a panic button or a gunshot activates a sensor or someone monitoring video surveillance hits a switch. Then the module converts to light pulsing at random, shining blindingly bright. “The light not only blinds you and disables you but also is designed to put you in flight mode,” he says. The blinding is temporary. LightGuard can sync with goggles for police or security that block the pulsing effect for the wearer.
Arwari, who directs UM’s neurocognitive lab and is associate chair of its kinesiology department, says it takes only one LightGuard per room in a ceiling light or behind a store clerk.
He’s working with Ernest Bachrach, a 30-year veteran of venture capital and private equity, to commercialize LightGuard. At present, they’re focused on lowering the cost of the device, navigating building code approval and shuttling between security and facilities departments to get the devices installed. They’re also pursuing a portable, wearable version that would give law officers an alternative to tasers, guns and other measures in subduing people.
Better Mental Health in Real Time
Entrepreneurs ADELA TIMMONS, MATTHEW AHLE
Company COLLIGA APPS
Florida International University psychologist and assistant professor Adela Timmons and software developer Matthew Ahle believe they have a way to turn smart phones into monitors that would summon just-in-time digital mental health interventions for youth in distress.
Timmons researched the possibilities while a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Funded by a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, she examined whether smart phones could provide data about how a relationship is functioning. She then went beyond relationships to the larger question of whether smart phone data could predict someone’s psychological state and prompt an intervention. She won an NSF Innovation Corps grant and then a $2.9-million, five-year grant in 2020 from the National Institute of Mental Health to the Miami company she runs with Ahle, Colliga Apps.
They founded Colliga in 2018. It has two patents pending. The software, Ahle says, is being fine-tuned, and they plan to run the research with the help of FIU’s Center for Children and Families. A clinical trial is anticipated in 2024.
The Colliga app would run in the background on Fitbits and Apple watches, gathering data on heart rate and speech — how fast and loud one talks can indicate stress. Predictive software would push out in real-time a meditation exercise or other behavioral treatment as preventive care.
Colliga is still very much a startup. The duo envision Colliga being a platform for researchers to speed development of inexpensive app-based therapy and wellness tools. A second market would be psychologists who would enroll their patients so that they can be provided with timely help. A third market would be the general public accessing tools, such as for improving sleep or reducing stress.
The hope is that the system with its low cost will open access and good mental health to more people, including the lowincome, underserved or home-bound.
“Our current health care system doesn’t scale very well in terms of the number of therapists needed to meet the needs of the population,” Timmons says. “We’re using technology to get mental health care into the hands of more people. That’s our central mission.”
Entrepreneur DANIEL ROBINSON
Company RED 6
A startup led by a former fighter pilot is developing augmented reality technology aiming to revolutionize how the military trains its pilots. Daniel Robinson is CEO and founder of Red 6, which created the first AR technology that works outside in dynamic environments, like “300 or 400 miles up in the sky upside-down, pulling G forces,” he says. Using artificial intelligence, the tech can simulate peer adversaries, such as threats coming out of China, says Robinson, who last fall flew a real plane in the world’s first dogfight against an AI-powered augmented reality Chinese J-20. With the Air Force experiencing a pilot shortage, “we’re ushering in something that is incredibly important.”
Born in England, Robinson was a Royal Air Force Tornado Pilot before the U.S. Air Force selected him to learn to fly and then train others on the F-22 Raptor. He was trained at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida’s Panhandle, where he developed a fondness for the Sunshine State. Now, 15 years later, Florida is home for Red 6, which relocated from Santa Monica, Calif., this summer.
Red 6 put its headquarters in Miami, attracted by the city’s growing financial hub and startup scene. Red 6’s technology team is in Orlando because of Central Florida’s established defense and simulation sectors and its universities, including UCF and Full Sail, spinning out talent. Red 6 plans to double its 40-employee workforce over the next year.
Red 6 is partnering with the Air Force to deploy its AR pilot training platform “soon,” Robinson says, and it sees opportunities for its tech in other forms of training and in gaming and entertainment. — By Nancy Dahlberg
Putting Autonomous Vehicles to the Test
Entrepreneur RAHUL RAZDAN
Company RAZDAN RESEARCH INSTITUTE
The prospect of self-driving cars and trucks generates lots of buzz, but how exactly will we know they’re competent at driving other than by hoping for the best from their manufacturers? Do sensors actually see correctly? Do they see as well in rain or snow? Upon seeing, does the vehicle’s brain make the right choices?
These questions are on the mind of Rahul Razdan, senior director of special projects for Florida Polytechnic University. Razdan is a polymath. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon, a doctorate from Harvard and his name on 24 patents. After years in businesses large and small, he moved from Massachusetts to Florida. “Like a lot of people who moved down to Florida, I said, ‘OK, what am I going to do now?’ ” he says. One thing he did was join and become CEO of WiPower, a wireless energy transfer company spun out of the University of Florida, that was sold to Qualcomm in 2010.
In Ocala, he has his Razdan Research Institute. It builds on a TEDTalk he once gave on the shortcomings in our education system when it comes to preparing students to choose a career. His private NextGenEdu, through a product called Scholarly, markets a solution that helps students choose careers and fields of study.
Meanwhile, he’s an authority on autonomous vehicle validation. He writes on the subject for Forbes online. One column used T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to examine the mindset of designers of driver-assist systems and the lack of metrics to judge the systems.
Which leads back to Florida Polytechnic. There, he heads its Advanced Mobility Institute, which aims to stake out a position as a tester and validator of autonomous vehicle technology. From its work, regulators would learn how to regulate and manufacturers would earn certifications. For AV tech to succeed, “we need a way to validate it for safety,” he says.
SunTrax, the state’s 475-acre autonomous vehicle test site, is next door to the university. In July, the Mobility Institute launched PolyVerif, an open-source testing platform, in conjunction with a group that includes Japanese open-source Autoware and an Estonian public shuttle system built on open-source software.
Cleaning Up a Dirty Word
Entrepreneur BILL EASTER
In Orlando, of all places, at UCF’s business incubator, a small company has a plan to reimagine coal — America’s most abundant fossil fuel. It’s cheap, light and very much out of favor. “When people think of coal, they think of a four-letter word,” says Bill Easter.
Easter has an engineering company called Semplastics that makes plastic components used in semiconductor chip manufacturing. In 2013, it spawned X-Mat, an advanced materials division, based on a low-cost, inorganic resin-based technology. Two years later, scientists and engineers began experimenting with coal dust as a filler to lower cost and increase performance.
Easter knows coal. The Texas native spent part of his youth in coal-rich West Virginia.
In one formulation, X-Mat takes raw coal, pulverized to dust, and mixes it with proprietary resins. The resulting ceramic is non-toxic, light, strong and doesn’t burn. The company has seven patents and 15 pending.
It’s received $7.5 million in federal grants and contracts to develop coal and coal waste into usable materials such as batteries and — front and center now for Easter — as a building material.
Easter says coal-core composite tiles can transform the roofing industry. For strength, it beats concrete roof tiles as well as ones made from Vermont slate and Santa Fe red clay.
X-Mat has federal grants to develop bricks, blocks, facades and panels using its coal-resin technology and a grant to design a house built from the coal-derived materials. Easter is aiming for West Virginia. He has a grant to open a pilot manufacturing line there. “If I put a coal plant here, everyone would hate me,” Easter says, “Up there I’m a hero.”
Of course, today’s promising tech can be tomorrow’s bust. The state early this century saw itself as a coming player in semiconductors with a Cirent, later Agere, factory in Central Florida. The state provided millions in incentives. The factory wound up closed and torn down. Easter philosophizes, in an interview, on how to tell a visionary entrepreneur from a mistaken one. “The only way you can tell is to come back in five years,” he says.
Nonetheless, given that public policy shuns coal as a power source in the U.S. — FPL in June tore down its last coal power plant in Florida — X-Mat and Easter create hope for mining-state economies.
“As incongruous as it is, a Florida company is helping out with this,” Easter says. “It’s very strange in some ways.”
Recovering Critical Minerals
CEO BRIAN ANDREW
Company PRECISION PERIODIC
The United States is spending big to secure America’s future supply of minerals used in manufacturing electronic vehicles, satellites and wind turbines. Congress in June approved $250 billion in tech R&D funding that includes money to expand the mining and processing of critical minerals here and in allied countries.
Orlando-based Precision Periodic’s moment, then, seems to have arrived. The privately held company, based at UCF’s business incubator, developed Nano Beads, a nanotech-based filtering process that pulls gold, silver, copper, cobalt, lithium, rare earths and other elements from an acidic solution, such as mine leach. This year, it opened a pilot project at an old tin mine in Cornwall in England to extract the battery metal lithium from mine brine.
Traditional mining processes produce abundant tailings with noxious ingredients. Mining is financially viable only with high concentrations of minerals. Precision says its nano tech, in contrast, has advantages in cost, speed and cleanliness. It requires no pre-treatment, heat or pressure and isn’t energy intensive. It has a small footprint and recovers 95% to 100% of minerals in the first pass. The process uses fairly benign chemicals like pool cleaning acid and its only by-product is water. “Our technology changes the game because we produce no pollution,” CEO Brian J. Andrew says. Its pitch to resource owners in a presentation: “Don’t leave anything behind.”
The tech was developed to extract uranium, thorium and rare earths from Florida phosphate mining sludge and waste. (Florida’s a rich source of phosphate.) Andrew says a single Florida phosphate mine could produce 230 metric tons of rare earths a year, or a quarter of the annual U.S. military demand. The Phosphate Research Institute, impressed by initial labs results, invited the company onsite to reproduce the results. The institute says the process then showed a very low recovery of rare earth elements, although the technology appears to work well for recovering other materials.
Shades on Planes
CEO MARIO CESTE
Company AEROSPACE TECHNOLOGIES GROUP
If you’ve flown in a large cabin business jet or premium class on an international, long-haul flight, you probably have encountered the high-end window shades made by Aerospace Technologies Group, which has installed about 100,000 worldwide.
Based at The Research Park at FAU, the company for years has been financially backed by Jackie Autry, widow of singing cowboy film star Gene Autry. Aerospace Technologies, in non-pandemic times, hires interns from FAU. It’s had several engineers who are FAU grads.
In the three pre-COVID years, company revenue grew at a 10% compound annual growth rate.
Mario Ceste, formerly the company’s outside general counsel and CEO since 2017, says the company has lots of room for growth. Aerospace Technologies has a high share of the market for premium class windows on long-haul international flights but a tiny share of all commercial carrier windows, most of which have the familiar sliding piece of plastic for a shade. The company also may move into making other cabin components. Ahead: Connectivity, allowing passengers to use their phones or devices to manage the shade.
Forecasting for Farmers
Entrepreneurs ERICA STAEHLING, RYAN TRUCHELUT
Florida, especially at this time of year, is preoccupied with the hurricane outlook. Erica Staehling’s and Ryan Truchelut’s Tallahassee company, WeatherTiger, does its share of hurricane predicting, but their meal ticket is punched by weather forecasting for corn, soybeans and wheat.
The two, who are married, are high academic achievers. Staehling was graduated summa cum laude from Bucknell with a double major in physics and math and then earned a doctorate in atmospheric science from Princeton followed by a master’s in education from Florida State University, where she’s on the faculty for teaching STEM education. She’s been an American Meteorological Society Graduate Fellow and a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow. Truchelut is a Florida native who as a teenager got exposed to corn, cotton and wheat futures trading through a friend’s father. He was summa cum laude from Princeton with a bachelor’s in geosciences and took his master’s and doctorate from FSU in meteorology. He’s been a NASA Earth Science Enterprise Fellow and won the Max Mayfield Award in Weather Forecasting from the American Meteorological Society. They have authored scientific papers and have children. Among his hopes for a postpandemic world: “I don’t spend another year primarily arguing with toddlers about whether you should eat Play-Doh off a shoe.”
They founded their two-person company, WeatherTiger, in 2015. Its clients are ag producers, processors, traders, hedge funds, bankers and buyers who need weather forecasts to make decisions about crops. In 2020, WeatherTiger won the top $15,000 prize at Tallahassee’s Innovation Park TechGrant program. The couple put the money toward developing a dashboard for a new algorithm-based product that combines weather information, soil conditions and short- and long-range forecasts to model crop yields down to the county level.
During hurricane season, Truchelut writes weekly for Gannett news media and daily for his Substack newsletter. He increases the frequency of his forecasts when a storm threatens. In June, there was a chance of a tropical storm developing in the far eastern Atlantic. He noted it’s rare to even get a tropical depression in June that far east. “So if a tropical storm were to develop from this, it would be something that has never happened before in history, like adequate parking at Trader Joe’s.”
Augmented Reality Language Learning
Entrepreneur SARA SMITH
With no background to speak of in business, entrepreneurship or technology, Sara Smith has spent the last couple years as a part-time entrepreneur starting up a technology business.
Fortunately, it’s based on what she knows thoroughly: Learning a second language.
Smith is a University of South Florida assistant professor of learning English as a second language and language education. She took a research interest in adapting augmented reality — Pokemon GO is an example — to teach kids a new language. USF gave her a $5,000 research grant. Her results left her impressed by the potential, as it did USF. “The University of South Florida is so supportive of innovation,” she says. “They encouraged me to think of it as not only a research tool but also as a business.”
She has a provisional patent. USF gave her a separate $25,000 grant to commercialize the work. Starting a business has been a challenge for the new inventor and company founder. “A huge learning curve for me — I freely tell everyone,” she says.
With the USF money, Smith was able to make the learning more enjoyable and effective by hiring an artist and a professional programmer with “gamification” knowledge. Her company, MARVL, this year moved from beta testing among friends and family to a beta test in Manatee public schools. MARVL features an interplay of Spanish and English vocab flashcards and animated, bilingual augmented reality “teachers.” Florida, third in the nation in number of students learning English, is a natural match for her idea.
She hopes to expand it beyond the two virtual characters created so far and add languages. MARVL, by the way, stands for Multimedia Augmented Reality Vocabulary Learning. “I really wanted to think of the way it feels when you use augmented reality. It really feels magical to me,” she says.
3-D Printing Components
Entrepreneurs DANIEL BAROUSSE, CHRISTOPHER MONTGOMERY
Company SLICE ENGINEERING
Slice Engineering at the University of Florida Innovation Hub in Gainesville was founded by UF mechanical engineering grad Daniel Barousse, 32, and Duke University alum Christopher Montgomery, 42. Founded in 2017, it employs 10 to make 3-D printer components. Annual revenue this year will be from $2.5 million to $3 million. It has four U.S. patents and more pending. Below is an interview with Barousse.
Growth: “We typically more than double every year, which is a pretty wild ride.”
Choosing the Hub as a Base: “When I was going to undergrad, I lived down the street from where this is now in what used to be a real terrible part of town. They started building this beautiful new innovation center. I said if I ever get the chance, I would love to come back. There was a broom-closet size space open here. There were four of us in this little tiny room. We were bumping each other with our elbows. We’ve graduated to larger and larger spaces within the building as time has gone on.”
Products: “We are an add-on aftermarket upgrade for the person who has the hobby-level printer at their house and then we work with some 3-D printer manufacturers to provide components for them as well. The 3-D printing industry is a little bit unusual in that there are industrial companies and customers who are building parts for NASA and the U.S. Navy and there are also people who have a hobby 3-D printer at home and they’re printing a Baby Yoda head.”
Competition: “There’s probably a dozen or so companies in the world that are in a similar space. Some of them strictly target the industrial space, and some of them strictly target the consumer space. We’re one of the few companies that is trying to do both, which makes us relatively inexpensive on the industrial side and rather expensive on the consumer side.”
Forte: “We work specifically with thermoplastics. I would say 95% of our products, at least by revenue, are done in the United States.”
Threat: “Probably our biggest challenge is there are a bunch of Chinese companies that are making replicas of our product for a lot cheaper than what we’re making them for. Of course, they didn’t have the R&D cost. They don’t have to pay engineers. They’re manufacturing overseas. Typically, they won’t just replicate your design. They also steal the copyrighted material off your website. They’ll take your photos, all your product copy and they will basically pretend to be you on some platform.”
Pitch for the Industry: “Additive manufacturing is going to be an enabling technology for reshoring manufacturing and really tightening up our supply chain as a country to make sure we’re not so reliant on potentially hostile foreign powers. We’re working with a small volume manufacturer. They’ve been doing all their stuff in China. We found a way to make some of their larger parts with 3-D printers instead. We were able to take the time it took for them to make a part from 72 hours down to about 36 hours, and the goal eventually is to be about 24 hours. They’re able to do in-house quality control, iterate on the product design cycle much faster, and they’re able to keep jobs here. And it’s not a low-paying job.”
Harnessing the Power of the Waves
Entrepreneurs DON RESIO, MICHELLE VIERA
Company SEA’S THE FUTURE
Sea’s the Future, out of the University of North Florida, aims to generate electricity using industrialscale bladders to harness power from waves or tides.
Company President Don Resio, who retired in June as a professor at UNF and the director of the Taylor Engineering Research Institute, served as the senior technologist for the Army Corps of Engineers Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory for 16 years. An Army program used such bladders for a bridging system to get rapid access to hard-to-reach coastal and river areas in an emergency.
Resio worked to adapt the concept for power generation with then UNF grad student Michelle Viera. It led to UNF obtaining a patent on it. It also has applied for U.S. patents on key components.
Such a system could supply power for desalinization plants, which use a lot of energy, and function even in moderate tidal ranges. (While Florida tidal ranges tend toward the small relative to other areas, they still maintain significant power production along the east coast.)
Proven at lab scale, the next step is a demonstration project that Resio estimates will cost around $300,000 for a wave system and $400,000 for tides.
Florida’s awash in ideas to generate power from the sea, but none so far has generated revenue. The research by Viera, who now is part of Sea’s the Future, showed that at scale, the bladder system can pay off, Resio, 74, says. “I’m 99% certain it’s going to work,” he says.
Florida Leaders in National Institutes of Health Funding in Florida (through May):
No. 1 $28.4 million No. 2 $10 million
The University of South Florida’s Jeffrey Krischer ranks first and second with a total of $38.4 million through May. Krischer has made USF a hub of epidemiological research in juvenile diabetes and rare diseases. He runs the data centers for international diabetes trials and the NIH’s Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network.
No. 3 $7.6 million
The Jaeb Center for Health Research’s Adam Glassman received the funding as part of a five-year grant for Jaeb’s DRCR Retina Network, which supports clinical research to improve vision and quality of life for people with retinal diseases.
No. 4 $7.5 million
Jaeb’s Raymond Kraker received separate funding, also part of a five-year grant, for Jaeb’s Pediatric Eye Disease Investigator Group, another network focused on strabismus, amblyopia and other children’s eye disorders.
No. 5 $7.4 million
The University of South Florida’s principal investigator and psychiatry professor Jerri Edwards and David Morgan, formerly with USF and now with Michigan State, received the funding as part of a five-year, $44.4-million grant to see whether computerized brain training exercises can reduce dementia risk in older adults.
Hall of Fame Inventors
In addition to Norma Alcantar (Icon, p. 8), the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame inducted six new members this year. The three who have spent a substantial portion of their careers in Florida are:
Roberta Goode, founder of Goode Compliance, holds four patents. The Coral Springs businesswoman and biomedical engineer is a University of Miami graduate with a long career in industry and academia in medical devices. Her inventions “transformed minimally invasive cardiac surgical and diagnostic procedures around the world,” according to her Hall of Fame induction notice. Her designs are still in use.
Rajiv Singh, University of Florida emeritus professor, is vice president of chemical mechanical polishing slurries for Entegris, which in 2020 paid $75 million to acquire Sinmat, a company he started to commercialize his inventions. Holder of 26 patents, he’s an expert in advanced semiconductor processing. “Singh’s polishing technologies have been employed in more than 50 million smart watches worldwide, a majority of the million-plus luxury electric vehicles, as well as advanced fighter aircraft and helicopter optical systems,” says his Hall of Fame bio.
David Kotick, holder of five patents, is “one of the U.S. Department of Defense’s leading subject matter experts in the field of virtual communications,” according to his Hall of Fame bio. He’s the senior science technical manager for live, virtual and constructive simulation and training at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando. The University of Central Florida graduate has more than 40 years’ experience in Navy modeling, simulation and research.
Read more in Florida Trend's September issue.
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