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Innovation District ‘dives deeper’

Mark Parker



From back left: Councilmember Gina Driscoll; Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz; Mayor Ken Welch; Dr. Cynthia Johnson, economic development director for Pinellas County; and Councilmember Ed Montanari at the St. Petersburg Innovation District's State of Science and Innovation event. Photos by Mark Parker.

University of South Florida St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree aptly described the Innovation District’s sixth annual showcase of recent accomplishments and future goals as “speed dating with science.”

The campus, also part of the St. Petersburg Innovation District (SPID), hosted Wednesday night’s State of Science and Innovation event. Mayor Ken Welch, city council members and local officials joined area stakeholders in a packed USFSP ballroom to hear about the cutting-edge work emanating from the district.

SPID’s mission is to foster job growth, economic development, learning and inspiration by bringing innovative people together. Alison Barlow, executive director of the organization, noted its strength is collaboration through proximity.

“Innovators are different – they look at things and say, ‘well, why not?’” said Welch. “’Why can’t it be done this way?’ And that helps move us all forward.”

A marine research hub, two major hospitals, the university, a renowned media school, a business incubator and dozens of public and government research organizations call the district home. It encompasses about a square mile south of downtown St. Petersburg and borders Bayboro Harbor and the city’s port.

The district’s newest institution is the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Barlow also oversees the facility, which is approaching its first anniversary. Councilmember Gina Driscoll noted the Hub “was a success right out of the gate.”

Before a series of six-minute presentations by five local innovators, Barlow relayed some highlights from 2022 and what stakeholders can expect to see in the coming year. The Hub began with just over a dozen tenants and has grown to house 21 organizations.

Barlow noted the tenants include everything from “a one-person shop” to a company with 50 employees. The SPID won two national awards for its “Smart Cities” work last year, hosted 38 collaborative events and received about $410,000 in grant money.

Several Innovation District organizations are now finalizing a $160 million federal grant application, which is due next week.

“It’s an opportunity to really transform St. Petersburg with an intentionality around the convergence of marine science and technology … and we’re getting ready to dive deeper,” said Barlow.

A graphic showing the Innovation District’s various organizations. Screengrab.

Bayfront Health St. Petersburg

Mary Losacco, stroke program manager at Bayfront, told attendees how her hospital utilizes artificial intelligence (AI) to coordinate care. A person loses nearly two million brain cells every minute once a stroke begins, said Losacco, which equates to aging about 3.6 years every hour. In addition, she said around a third of all stroke patients are under 45 years old.

Bayfront implemented VizAI in June 2022 to decrease the time to intervention. On average, the innovative tool saves about 18 minutes for caregivers and patients, or about 36 million neurons and a year of brain aging.

USF College of Education

USFSP’s Dr. David Rosengrant is changing how students learn challenging physics concepts through augmented reality (AR). He said the tool’s physical manipulation aspect enhances spatial reasoning skills.

The product is about the size of a Rubick’s Cube, and students can operate the platform through their phones to comprehend complicated theories on subjects like gravity. The National Science Foundation recently awarded Rosengrant a $300,000 grant to create the AR simulations.

He added that the simulations are more realistic than pushing a car down a ramp and measuring the velocity, something students could “look up.” Rosengrant prefers them to think critically and develop AR models to observe their surrounding environments.

USF College of Marine Science

Doctoral candidate Natalie Sawaya explained how viruses are critical to the marine environment. Despite their microscopic size, she said the combined weight of ocean microbes is five times heavier than all other sea life.

After years of development and hundreds of experiences, Sawaya created a new technique to quantify minuscule gokushoviruses – 10 times more abundant than previously thought. Her research suggests the microbe plays a critical role in human, animal and marine environment health.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s College of Marine Science as seen from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

Pole Star Defense

Barlow relayed that Ben Minichino, president of Pole Star Defense, was instrumental in establishing the Hub. “He co-created the vision and saw what was possible …” she said.

Minichino noted that oceans cover 70% of the globe, and ships move 90% of the world’s products. Polestar serves the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, its clients and other partners by managing 75 million ship position reports daily.

Over 200 satellites capture data from about 250,000 vessels every day, and Minichino said that information is critical to national security and the global economy. In addition, Pole Star aids in earthquake detection and tsunami warnings, and alerts ships to hurricane paths.

Saildrone launched this uncrewed surface vehicle from the Hub to collect data on how hurricanes grow and intensify.


Richard Goosen, bathymetry operations manager for Saildrone, oversees ocean mapping efforts. The company also operates from the Hub, and its wind and solar-powered uncrewed vessels have served as weather forecasting buoy replacements for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).

Saildrones launched from St. Petersburg have also assisted in hurricane hunting missions and will aid in the $100 million Florida coastal mapping initiative. Goosen said the Hub would soon house additional vessels dedicated to the project.

“This is one of the biggest endeavors the State of Florida has taken on,” said Barlow. “And we have multiple companies here in our community – particularly, in the Innovation District – that are taking a lead in that role.”

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