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Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. Each week, we’ll be joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and we don’t become too technical, we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation.

12/18/2018 | Episode 004 | 33:09

Innovation in the Burg: Pure Molecular & Jason Mathis

From sniffing out fake grouper to detecting red tide, applied marine research is thriving in the Innovation District

Welcome back to Innovation in the 'Burg, a podcast all about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. This week, Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation District, hosts the brains behind Pure Molecular: John Paul and Bob Ulrich. Joining as community member is Jason Mathis of the St. Pete Downtown Partnership. Paul and Ulrich first co-founded Pure Molecular with technology to identify fraudulent fish (particularly grouper) in the marketplace. Now, the application of that technology has expanded to red tide detection, and biomedical applications. They talk building and scaling a business based in scientific research, and share where they're going next. Mathis talks priorities as CEO of the Downtown Partnership, communicating the Innovation District's story and how marine science and its applications uniquely position St. Pete as a future city.

Key Insights

  • Today's experts: John Paul (JP) and Bob Ulrich, two of the founders of Pure Molecular. Pure Molecular is a University of South Florida spin-off company formed in mid-2014.
  • Today's community member: Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. The partnership is focused on promoting urban growth and redevelopment that strengthens and diversifies the economy in downtown St. Petersburg.
  • Pure Molecular is known for producing technology for seafood species authentication to ensure quality and combat mislabeling fraud. They have specifically focussed on grouper and so-called "white tuna" fraud - but are now applying their technology to broader topics.
  • How JP became a marine microbiologist: His favorite uncle, Dr. Ralph Slepecky. "He was a world authority on bacillus...But he was also the cool guy. He was the bachelor who drove the two-seater sports car and he was a lot of fun."
  • Why fish identification technology? "30 percent of the grouper sold in the United States is mislabeled, either inadvertently or incorrectly. And what happens is that the consumer ends up eating something like Asian catfish instead of grouper."
  • Evolutions along the way: "Grouper was our first project, but then we also had a tremendous interest in Red Tide detection and molecular techniques to detect the red tide organism."
  • Movement from environmental to biomedical applications: "We got into biomedical applications that are sensitive in that we're just starting them and we're not at liberty to describe the intricacies of that relationship. But it's going to be a very big hit."
  • Pure Molecular came together around grouper with the help of past dean of USF College of Marine Science, Bill Hogarth and numerous organizations like Florida Sea grant, Guy Harvey Research Institute and others.
  • "We took it to proof of concept. We got instrumentation, we got chemistries, and we showed it worked - And then the news got involved...Ten or fifteen years ago they got wind of fraudulent fish, primarily grouper in the St. Pete/Pinellas area when they did a giant exposé on it and they found that 75-80 percent of the restaurants that they blindly tested were serving fake fish."
  • Thanks to the Times expose, and others in Jacksonville and Atlanta, the problem - at least locally - has improved. As JP says, "We've put the fear of God in the local restaurants."
  • Red tide detection: "About 10 or 15 years ago we actually developed an assay specific for the Florida red tide organism, which scientific name is Karenia brevis. And the assay is extremely specific and can differentiate between other species that looked just like Karenia brevis but aren't toxic."
  • "We can operate and detect with 100 percent effectiveness in about 15 minutes, maybe another 15 minutes to extract nucleic acid...And it's much more sensitive than microscopy."
  • Autonomous bio buoys: "You can put these things out in various locations and it'll do the assay, it'll tell you if you have a hit or not hit, it will ping data back to their wherever home base you have, and you have real time monitoring."
  • St. Pete connection to red tide research: "The organism used to be named Gymnodinium breve, but because Karen Steidinger was one of the first scientists to realize the importance of Gymnodinium breve they changed the name to Karenia brevis after Karen Steidinger." She was a St. Pete local.
  • Citizen scientists: "J.P. and Kate got this grant from NOAA to create this citizen network. So, they take our assay out, they run down to the beach or try to cast, I think was, 10 sites across the state, and do the assay right there, get information, whether it's positive or negative, within an hour, and then report back."
  • How does the broadening of research application happen? JP says it starts in the literature - finding out who has already researched the organism and which gene targets they've found to work for it. Commercial demand is also a factor
  • "These markets kind of found us. So, we had the Marine hub. We had the Karenia. We had the red tide. We had the grouper. The clinical stuff actually came to us from one of our board members Mike Morris, who actually started Ocean Optics in Dunedin."
  • "A lot of the answers for how we as a species are going to solve that are going to come from this community [The Innovation District], and that's a pretty exciting story to tell."
  • The Innovation District and the Downtown Partnership share the goal of helping the scientists and researchers within the district communicate their work - "We are constantly getting people to talk about what they do, because you get so caught up in what you do you forget that it's cool."
  • What's next for Pure Molecular: "We've transition from environmental to more human stuff, if you will. And it's amazing how similar that that is - a microbe in the ocean is very similar to a microbe that's causing you diarrhea."

"There is no end in sight to the applications or targets that we can develop for this work." - John Paul, Pure Molecular

 

"The marine science economy in St. Petersburg is so critical to our future development as a city, as a community." - Jason Mathis, St. Pete Downtown Partnership

Table of Contents

(0:00 – 1:54) Introduction

(1:54 – 4:30) JP Background

(4:30 – 8:49) Bob Background & Grouper Sensor

(8:49 – 17:12) Red Tide

(17:12 – 20:27) Red Tide/Grouper Work Origins

(20:27 – 25:14) Downtown Partnerships

(25:14 – 27:05) Shoutouts

(27:05 – 33:07) Conclusion

 

Full Transcript: 

Allison: Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. I’m Allison Barlow, Executive Director of the St. Pete Innovation District. Each podcast I’m joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on, but to make sure we keep this in perspective and don’t become too technical we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation. Let me introduce today’s guests. Our experts today are John Paul and Bob Ulrich, two of the founders of Pure Molecular. Pure Molecular is a University of South Florida spin-off company formed in mid-2014. They provide services and technology for seafood species authentication to ensure quality and combat mislabeling fraud. The company was formed as part of their research at the university. I have to also say a special acknowledgement of Pure Molecular. They were our first stop on our first tour of the Innovation District a year ago almost this week. Our community member is Jason Mathis. Jason is the CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. Established in 1962, the partnership is focused on promoting urban growth and redevelopment that strengthens and diversifies the economy in downtown St. Petersburg. Their shareholders are local businesses and institutions who support a variety of economic development projects that might not otherwise happen without the partnership involvement. And I have to say one of the best examples of the work of the partnership is Pure Molecular. They were part of the beginning, so it’s great to have both these groups together today. Let me start by asking our expert JP the first question. How did you get interested in studying this, the seafood authentication, and marine science and all of this?

 

JP: Well, I’d like to go backwards: how did I become a marine microbiologist? I had an uncle, who is a very favorite uncle of mine, who was a professor at Syracuse. Dr. Ralph Slepecky, and he was a world authority on bacillus, which is a type of bacterium. But he was also the cool guy. He was the bachelor who drove the two-seater sports car and he was a lot of fun. And I became interested in microbiology, but I was also interested in the marine side of it because I was a surfer in South Jersey. So, I became a marine microbiologist and that’s the way we stepped forward into this area.

 

Allison: Is that just your excuse to be able spend more time on the water?

 

JP: Yeah. Well, the thing is, like everybody else, I just spend more time behind a computer.

 

Allison: [laughs] So, tell us how that decision evolved into what you’re doing today, and a little bit about what you’re doing.

 

JP: Well, one of the things that we’ve been interested in is genetic identification of life. And we do this, as a marine scientist, to understand how the ocean works. And we look at microorganisms and fish, and identify them, and what their role is in the ecosystem, and what their role is in fisheries, and also in harmful algal blooms. So, that was basically the start of my interest. And then Bob Ulrich got his Ph. D. on verifying grouper because 30 percent of the grouper sold in the United States is mislabeled, either inadvertently or incorrectly. And what happens is that the consumer ends up eating something like Asian catfish instead of grouper. So we started this company and grouper was our first project, but then we also had a tremendous interest in Red Tide detection and molecular techniques to detect the red tide organism, which has really hit the Gulf of Mexico very hard in Tampa Bay this year. And we’ve been working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Corporation and we’ve been providing molecular identification of their red tide organisms to see where they’re coming from and how genetically related they are. And then we got into biomedical applications that are sensitive in that we’re just starting them and we’re not at liberty to describe the intricacies of that relationship. But it’s going to be a very big hit, as far as I can tell.

 

Allison: That’s awesome. So, you’re able to take something that you started in the Marine Science world and take it through different applications of Marine Science, but then also starting to look at other industries, which I think is fascinating. So, Bob, real quick, how did you pick grouper? Why grouper? Why not another fish?

 

Bob: That project was kind of gifted to me. So, I started out—I got my master’s in microbiology at USF Tampa and I came to manage JP’s lab at USF St. Pete. And I think it was about 2006, and we were working on various projects, and at that time J.P. and his postdoc at the time, Dave John, had an idea for a Florida Sea Grant application. And grouper was always of interest, and we had a dean at the time, Bill Hogarth, who came from a fisheries background. And there was some kind of internal dialogue. Bill kind of said if you can devise a sensor or something that’s portable and easy to use that can detect non-species—and not just grouper, just fraudulent fish—the world will beat a path to your door. Well, it kind of happened, indirectly. So, we got the grant and the grant required a graduate student involvement. And I’d been wanting to get my Ph. D. after a while and I had a perfect opportunity. JP is like, “I need a guy on this. I need a student on this this. This is in your wheelhouse. What do you say? Do you want to be poor again for four years? So, we started that and the project went very well. We had some external support to Guy Harvey, the Guy Harvey Scientific Oceanographic, I believe it’s, Foundations, is the nomenclature. And he got involved, as well. He was very interested, so we got some financial support from him as well. And the Southeastern Fisheries—I forget the acronym. Another Fisheries division of the South Atlantic Fisheries Foundation, they got word of it as well and they gave us some support. So, we had three or four lines of funding for it from various interesting parties. And we did it. We took it to proof of concept. We got instrumentation, we got chemistries, and we showed it worked. And then the news got involved. The local news. And this is a story—I think it was spearheaded by the then the St. Pete Times. Ten or fifteen years ago they got wind of fraudulent fish, primarily grouper in the St. Pete/Pinellas area when they did a giant exposé on it and they found that 75-80 percent of the restaurants that they blindly tested were serving fake fish. And then I believe the State Attorney’s office got a hold of that and then did a further investigation from the St. Pete Times article, and they went and did a deeper dive and they found the same thing. Man, this is a big problem. A global problem, really, but we started here.

 

JP: One of the last exposés that was done on this was the white tuna controversy in Jacksonville. There were sushi shops selling white tuna and there is no such thing as white tuna. What it was escolar, and escolar is a very oily fish that cost us a lot of gastroenteritis and diarrhea. So, if you got diarrhea from eating at a sushi bar, chances are you were served white tuna.

 

Allison: So, Jason, you’re new to St. Pete, and you’re first hearing about all this.

 

Jason: Yeah, I didn’t know to expect a whole conversation on diarrhea today. That was not on my agenda, but it’s fascinating. I’ve only been here since August and I came from the mountains. Our seafood there is often served in a can.

 

Allison: Yes.

 

Jason: So, the idea is sort of fish detectives going out and trying to track this stuff down—and, as a new Floridian, I feel a real obligation to order grouper every time I go someplace, because I want to fit in. Like, I want to be part of the team. So, I’m realizing now that maybe there’s a chance that in the last few months I may have been served…

 

Bob: Well, here’s the interesting part of that. I think we’re our own worst enemies. Since we started this division—and it’s not just the grouper sensor. We also do in-house lab validation, too. So, it takes a little bit longer but we can actually detect the species of what the replacement fish is. And, like I said, the moves got picked up and since we’ve been doing this for four or five years we’ve found very little incidents in this local area just because it’s on everyone’s tongue and everyone knows people were looking for it, and it was a big to-do. What we found the most fraudulent—We did a couple exposes for, I believe it was, Jacksonville when we found 100 percent of like 20 samples was escolar instead of whatever, white tuna they’re calling it. And then we did a rather big one, I think in 2015, from Atlanta area. News Agency tested 40 or 50 samples and we found about 15 percent of those were Asian catfish, too. So, it seems like this area you’re okay, since what we’ve been testing.

 

JP: We’ve put the fear of God in the local restaurants.

 

Bob: Yeah, that’s basically what it was.

 

JP: They don’t want to see us coming.

Allison: No, and I think a lot of people who remember that whole new series—I mean, I remember it when it was in the St. Pete Times and I think I was just maybe transitioning back here or I was visiting. People still remember it and talk about it. So, it definitely hit home. I’m curious, though. Tell me more, JP or Bob, about the red tide detection, because you guys mentioned it’s hot. It’s a big issue for us right now.

 

JP: Well, about 10 or 15 years ago we actually developed an assay specific for the Florida red tide organism, which scientific name is Karenia brevis. And the assay is extremely specific and can differentiate between other species that looked just like Karenia brevis but aren’t toxic. So, we put in an application to NOAA and collaborated with the Fish and Wildlife Corporation there. And Catherine Hubbard, who’s the head of the Red Tide Detection for the state of Florida, is my co-principal investigator, and we’ve done side by side testing of the traditional method, which is using a microscope and counting these little buggers. And I can’t tell them apart. They all look the same, but the specialists can differentiate the toxic ones from the nontoxic ones. But we can operate and detect with 100 percent effectiveness in about 15 minutes, maybe another 15 minutes to extract nucleic acid, and then if it’s there we get a really bright signal and we can tell that red tide is there. And it’s much more sensitive than microscopy. We can tell when red tides are just thinking about blooming. When there’s a gleam in the bloom’s eye, so to speak.

 

Allison: And I think it’s fascinating. I’ve seen the device that you guys use, and it’s almost like a little tabletop, size of a laptop, I guess, roughly. And so it’s very portable. So, it’s my understanding when you’re working with Kate and all of the red tide detection you’re also out in the field a little bit.

 

Bob: Yeah. And let me jump in there. When I started in JP’s lab, like I said, 10, 15 years ago, one of the coolest projects I was working on was taking that molecular assay for Karenia brevis, and we were trying to integrate it into a bio buoy, an autonomous bio buoy, which was basically just a giant—

 

Allison: I was about to say: what is a buoy?

 

Bob: It’s a very generic term for fancy gizmos, but it was a sealed container and it had robotics and instrumentation that basically did what a lab technician on the bench automatically in the can. So, basically it filtered water, it extracted the RNA out of that, it moved around, it performed the actual molecular amplification, and it had a little fluorometer in it that actually read—So, basically it was just like that little machine, but it was autonomous. We take it out, we fill it with its chemistry and its batteries, throw it in the water, and then not only does it perform the assay in real time, it telemetered data back to the land so you can put these things out in various locations and it’ll do the assay, it’ll tell you if you have a hit or not hit, it will ping data back to their wherever home base you have, and you have real time monitoring.

 

Allison: That is fascinating. So, Jason, you’re hearing about all this. Any questions, things that you’re trying to figure out from what they’re saying?

 

Jason: Well, thank you for putting it into plain English, because often when scientists talk I nod and I know they’re speaking English but I don’t understand what they’re saying. But I’m picking it up. I’m tracking with you. I will say it’s not a question but more of an observation that prior to coming to St. Petersburg I didn’t really understand the relationship the Marine Science had here with the larger community. Since I’ve come here I’ve really come to appreciate that, and the partnership, the organization I work for, has a long relationship with the College of Marine Science and Peter Betzer, our past president, was the dean of the science. We have a really good relationship with Bill Hogarth, who you’ve mentioned, and a long-term relationship. One thing I will say, in every community there’s something special that makes that community unique. And you think about Detroit when the Ford Motors was getting started, and that was the headquarters for car manufacturing. You think about the Bay Area and San Jose at the start of the Silicon Valley and the computer revolution. For so many reasons, this community is the headquarters. This is the heart for Marine Science, for the entire nation, and maybe for the entire world. I mean, you think about the for-profit companies, the research that it’s doing, the applied research to real research, the connection we have. So many people are part of this ocean community, this OCEAN team, and it’s incredible, and I don’t know that people outside of St. Petersburg are aware of that, and probably there’s some people in St. Petersburg who don’t even know about it. But it’s absolutely remarkable, and I’m excited to tell that story. I’m not a scientist, but I am excited about the science that’s happening in my new hometown. It’s really, really cool.

 

Allison: I think you’re exactly right. And you mentioned Kate Hubbard, who we’ll give a shout out to Kate, because she is so often—In the science community you guys all know of her, and I consider her a rock star in the world of red tide. But outside people were talking about red tide this year and Kate’s name wasn’t coming up. And I was like, “Why aren’t people asking Kate?” And a little trivia for you, Jason, as a newbie: the scientific name of Red Tide. JP, do you want to tell him where that came from, the local connection to the scientific name?

 

JP: The organism used to be named Gymnodinium breve, but because Karen Steidinger was one of the first scientists to realize the importance of Gymnodinium breve they changed the name to Karenia brevis after Karen Steidinger.

 

Allison: And she was a local.

 

JP: She was with the Florida Fish and Wildlife for maybe 30 years, and she got her degree at USF Tampa.

 

Allison: So, that’s our connection. So, even the red tide is named after a little. That’s the sort of unknown known. So, I’m curious, JP, what does a bad day look like for a marine scientist studying authentication?

 

JP: When nothing works in the lab.

 

Allison: [laughs] When none of the equipment works.

 

JP: Yeah, when you’re staring at zeros.

 

Allison: Nothing works in all of it.

 

Bob: But there’s information to be got out of that, too. I mean, they’re informative. Like I said, a lot of the stuff when monitoring we do, we cast a wide net. And I think some of the data that JP is referring to is one of the latest projects that we worked with Kate Hubbard with was creating this volunteer array network to use our instrumentations.

 

Allison: So, let me add there. It’s volunteer scientists. Or citizen scientists is the term, right?

 

Bob: Exactly. Citizen scientists, yeah. And they actually have other projects going on when they’re doing some remote microscopy, as well. Because people love it. People love being involved. A lot of times it’s retirees or part timers that just love to be out there. So, right now a lot of water that’s being collected for red tide monitoring microscopy is collected by volunteers. They go out and they grab the water and they FedEx back here and they count the microbes here. So, J.P. and Kate got this grant from NOAA to create this citizen network. So, they take our assay out, they run down to the beach or try to cast, I think was, 10 sites across the state, and do the assay right there, get information, whether it’s positive or negative, within an hour, and then report back. And then we have another collaborator, Bob Currier, created this web portal that all this data is stored at. And it’s easily accessible. It’s all collated data and it can be used by the public. It’s used by scientists and it’s really cool. So, more or less, it’s in real time instead of somebody in the Panhandle having to drive out, grab water, FedEx it back to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and then waiting for them to count it, which could take a week, especially with this inundation. We’ll know within a couple hours whether that site was impacted with red tide. Not only that, how concentrated, because presence/absence is a little bit of an arbitrary term, but we want to know is it present, but how bad. Because I don’t know if you kind of know the gradations of slow, moderate, severe, how the FWC reports the data.

 

Allison: Is that where they do the color coding?

 

Bob: Yeah, the colors.

 

Allison: I’ve seen on the map.

 

Bob: Yeah, 10 million and above per liter, and then you’ve got background signals, too. And that’s important in prediction. So, yeah, everyone would kind of say that, OK, you have red tide out there. What can you do about it? Well, you can’t really mitigate it right now, but what you can do is have early warnings. So, if we can see from this timescale, OK, we’re starting to see a little bit higher here, a little bit higher here, get these people ready or close these shellfish beds because it’s coming. And it’s patchy, but that’s how it’s combated best right now, is to take quantitative measurements and timescales. And, like I said, a bad day is zeros, but I’d rather see zeros than have red tide. But it’s not great for compiling data in a relatively short term over a grant life. You want to see some hits, as a scientist.

 

Allison: You kind of need that.

 

Bob: You want to see some spikes. But zeros are data, too.

 

Allison: So, I’m curious from an innovation standpoint. How do you decide, “OK, we’ve got this great thing that works for grouper, and now we want to try it in red tide or we want to try it in the life science arena”? Is it just a random thing or do you get a discussion? How does it happen?

 

JP: Well, the first part is the literature. We go to the scientific literature. I sort of have an algorithm for developing these assays, and we see has somebody already done this. Is there somebody who’s got a particular gene target that works for this organism? And then what I do is I align all the genes of the target sequence versus the non-targets. In other words, I do a DNA sequence alignment, which gives us instructions on where we can attack the molecule of DNA or RNA to detect specifically that particular organism of that particular need. And Bob just kind of glossed over it, but shellfish beds have to be tested and they have to have less than five thousand cells per liter before the shellfish beds can be opened for harvesting. So, there is real commercial need now for these kinds of assays in the field. And the other thing, we’ve developed in assay for the cyanobacteria in the Microsistic aeruginosa, which is the thing that’s coming out of Lake Okeechobee.

 

Allison: Oh, the blue/green?

 

Bob: Yeah, the blue/green.

 

JP: Yeah, the blue/green algae. So, there is no end in sight to the applications or targets that we can develop for this work. We’ve also developed an enterovirus probe and a norovirus. Norovirus is the cruise ship diarrhea.

 

Bob: More diarrhea.

 

Allison: Yeah. We’re back.

 

Jason: There’s a theme I’m sensing with our podcast today.

 

JP: And projectile vomiting.

 

Allison: Oh! Great.

 

Jason: Just in time for lunch.

 

JP: And those organisms are extremely virulent. It takes 10 viruses to give an infection. So, there’s a lot of need for this type of work, for water quality and monitoring of the environment, and the safety of our water, and also potentially our food sources.

 

Allison: Go ahead, Bob.

 

Bob: I was going to say, I think the leading question is how do you go out and find these markets?

 

Allison: Yeah.

 

Bob: These markets kind of found us. So, we had the Marine hub. We had the Karenia. We had the red tide. We had the grouper. The clinical stuff actually came to us from one of our board members Mike Morris, who actually started Ocean Optics in Dunedin, which was a 50-million-dollar company. Great job, and he’s still with us today. And he knows people, because he’s in the sensor world. He makes sensors that are on the moon or Mars or whatever. So, he’s been doing sensor development. JP knew when he was a grad student at CMS 20 or so years ago. And through Mike Morris’s connections, he’s like, “I kind of know these guys down here. They’ve got something cool for grouper.” And DNA is DNA. RNA is RNA. Do you think that—

 

Allison: You could reapply it? Yeah.

 

Bob: Yeah, you could reapply. And, “Of course, yeah.” I mean, we were so narrow-scoped and it’s basically just us and a handful of people, so we’ve had to stay pretty focused. And that’s how we were told, too. When we first started out, we had a lot of advice saying, “Go to trade shows. Tell people what you do and what you do well.” And that’s kind of how Mike Morris started. He went to trade shows and had a bunch of people coming up to from different fields or different markets like, “I see a solution in what you’re producing—“

 

Allison: So, let them bring you an idea.

 

Bob: Let you—exactly. Just get your stuff out there and be able to communicate it. That’s important. This is very important, is to be able to communicate what you do and not make people’s eyes crossed.

 

Allison: Yeah, totally. And I want to turn to Jason, because the whole purpose of the downtown partnership is making key investments. And you guys made an early investment in this organization.

 

Jason: And in Ocean Optics, actually.

 

Allison: Oh! See, I didn’t realize that.

 

JP: Two for two.

 

Bob: Two for two.

 

Jason: We have some other ones that maybe haven’t panned out quite so well, but that’s the nature of investments.

 

Allison: But why is that kind of investment important and why is the role of the partnership so important, do you think?

 

Jason: Well, I’ll say this is a really unusual downtown organization because we do make these kinds of investments. There’s lots of downtown organizations around the country that don’t have the same structure and same plan in terms of investing in startup companies or support for Marine Science. We provide grants for some fellowships and some scholarships at the College of Marine Science, as well. And the reason that we do it, again, is because this community is so unique and because the marine science economy in St. Petersburg is so critical to our future development as a city, as a community. It’s an asset that we have because, really, this world-renowned College of Marine Science and then all of the spin off businesses that have resulted from that. I think about the role that we have, the location that we have being surrounded by water on this peninsula, the brilliant minds that are at work here, both in pure research and applied research. You think about the concentration of companies and organizations and brilliant people, which really is the point behind the Innovation District. I mean, that’s your whole goal as an organization, is to collate all of these people together in a confined geographic area where you have marine science, you have life science, you have entrepreneurs, you have people just doing pure research, you have people who are trying to figure out how do we monetize this. That’s the magic, I think, that creates—I mean, I’ll exaggerate a little bit here, maybe, but I really do think that in some ways this community is uniquely poised to help save the world. As we think about global warming, which is real. As we think about rising oceans. As we think about the acidification of the oceans. We think about all these things that are affecting coastal communities around the world. A lot of the answers for how we as a species are going to solve that are going to come from this community, and that’s a pretty exciting story to tell. From an outside perspective as a non-scientist, I look at the stuff and I think I’m so honored and grateful to get to live in this city where these brilliant people are working on these solutions that are going to change our world. So, surfing really has changed the world.

 

Allison: [laughs] Well, I think your point is well taken. People who love the ocean also care about all these other issues and they come together. It’s interesting for the Innovation District. We did an event called Status Science back in October and we featured eight speakers for marine science and for life science. They each had only six minutes to talk about what they do. And I wasn’t sure, candidly. The audience was mixed. There were some people had a propensity for one area or the other. I had more feedback from people who were maybe in the medical field who were going, “Oh, my god! The marine science stuff was so cool!” And vice versa. And so I do think that everybody’s open to kind of seeing the connections. And to your point, a lot of what we do—Bob was mentioning going to trade shows. We kind of emulate that with constantly getting people to talk about what they do, because you get so caught up in what you do you forget that it’s cool. We jokingly always give a hard time—I’ll give Kim NOAA a shout out, too, because well often—Kim will be in this one meeting that we have periodically and we go around the table and sort of talk about what everybody is doing. And Kim’s always at the end. I don’t know why. And oftentimes she’s like, “I don’t have a good story,” and we’re like, “Yes you do. We promise you do.” And she always has the best story of the day. She’s had a story about dolphin hearing tests, and she’s had a story about some work out at Fort DeSoto, and it’s just been cool stuff. So, I’m curious—JP, you mentioned your uncle inspired you. Any other rock stars out there in science and technology that you love?

 

JP: What I’d like to add to Jason’s comments—He pointed out the scientific prowess that our community has. But St. Pete is a great place to live. When people come here they stay here. I came here 35 years ago and I haven’t left and I’m retiring. I’ve had one job, basically, at USF as a professor. And we see that that’s generally the case amongst the faculty of the marine science. They come. They stay. They raise their families. It’s a great place to live. This next generation really loves science. We have the Science Days down in Bayborough Harbor. The crowds grow from 5,000 to 10,000 and it’s amazing. With all the other activities that are available in the state and in Orlando and all the other parts of the state, science is something that really, really turns people on, and this is a great place to do it, and a great place to live. And I’m honored to have been here and I’m honored to be a part of your presentation today.

 

Allison: And we have to say kudos, in case I forget, because retirement is how many months away? You’re counting down, I know.

 

JP: It’s 33 days away.

 

Allison: [laughs]

 

Jason: What time is it?

 

JP: But that’s only retiring from the university. I’ll be a dermolecular.

 

Bob: He’s working harder than ever now, trust me.

 

Allison: So, going back to who inspires you in science. Who do you like? Or, Bob? Anybody that you like to watch out for?

 

Bob: To me, I like being in the lab. I like doing the bench work. I like the people, and definitely professors. Talking about inspiration, I had a mentor, Dr. Jody Harwood. Started out and got a master’s with her, too. She was fantastic and she was energetic. She was positive reinforcement. Give enough rope to hang yourself, and that’s what JP did with his graduate students, as well, is don’t get in their way too much. Let them try to figure stuff out and then guide them and mentor them. The people that I end up admiring the most are kind of the middlemen of the science, the technicians and the postdocs, the people that aren’t making any money and they’re not getting a lot of the cloud. I mean, they get the publications, but they’re not doing this. A lot of times—There’s somebody in our lab right now who came from JP’s lab. I guarantee you, she’s running 15 assays today.

 

Allison: At the same time.

 

Bob: Yeah, and then she doesn’t need a lot of recognition, but that’s the machinery that makes this work. And then as a professor—I’m sure John can attest to that. He sits in his office and writes grants all day and upper level stuff. But that’s who inspires me the most, is the person that wants the degree, or the technician, or the intern that gets in there at 8:00 the morning and washes dishes just because they wanted to be in the lab and get experience. That’s the inspiration I see. And my wife is a professor at SPC. She teaches immunology and microbiology, and that’s kind of what jazzes her, too. Get them started young and early and inspire them, and that’s—The work ethic inspires me. It really does.

 

JP: Is that why we leave at 3:00?

 

All: [laugh]

 

Bob: I’m not a technician anymore.

 

Allison: You don’t have that problem. So, what’s next for Pure Molecular? What should we be watching out for.

 

JP: We can’t say.

 

Allison: Yeah, fair enough.

 

Bob: Yeah, we can’t say. But what we can say—You kind of keep alluding to that. What are the commonalities between grouper and red tide and clinical microbes?

 

Allison: And by clinical we’re talking about…

 

Bob: Bacteria and viruses. Pathogens. Things that cause colds or cause norovirus.

 

Allison: For human stuff.

 

Bob: Yeah, human stuff. Yeah. Not just environmental stuff. So, we’ve transition from environmental to more human stuff, if you will. And it’s amazing how similar that that is. I mean, a microbe in the ocean is very similar to a microbe that’s causing you diarrhea. Genetically, anyway. I mean, they function the same. So, I think JP kind of came up with our catchphrase. It was kind of inspiring. When we first kind of started our literature, “One code, one life.” It was something to that effect. They would have had four or five different iterations.

 

JP: I just remembered the one that—“If coral don’t grow there, we don’t go there.”

 

Allison and Bob: [laugh]

 

Bob:  That’s very marine.

 

Allison: I like that.

 

Bob: The pretty stuff. Everyone thinks you just work on training dolphins all day when you talk about being a marine biologist and do coral research. But yeah, like I said, the story is cool. We had a lot of people, including Ocean Optics executives, because they kind of told us what to do for the most part. Tell your story, because you’ve got a cool story. I mean, I grew up, born and raised, in Tarpon Springs, a few clicks north of here. So, I’ve been here my entire life, on the ocean, on the Gulf. You got a cool story, you employ all St. Peteians. You’re a group of renowned scientists, but it’s hard to lose the stigma of Florida. Especially being a scientist.

 

Allison: What’s the stigma?

 

Bob: That we’re Florida. You go to retire. You don’t go to do world class science.

 

Allison: Oh, I got you.

 

Bob: Okay. We’re kind of Disneyworld down here. And if you watch Saturday Night Live, they always spoof on Florida. Florida Person.

 

Allison: Well, yeah. Sometimes we deserve it.

 

Bob: Yeah. I’m not saying a lot of it isn’t deserved. But as a scientist it can be tough sometimes. People don’t know USF outside, in California as a world-renowned research institution just because we’re not as advertised, I guess. But I like being the underdog.

 

Allison: There’s a lot of cool stuff coming up.

 

Bob: It is cool stuff. We got a cool story.

 

JP: Well, my grandfather, who was the snowbird, said that in Philadelphia they bury the dead below the ground. In New Orleans they bury the dead above the ground. And in Florida they let him walk around.

 

Bob: We can edit that, right?

 

Allison: No, we’re leaving that one in. I mean, I have to throw in the average age of St. Pete is 42. So, we’ll go with that.

 

JP: That’s gone down 10 years since the 30 years I’ve been here, because it was 54.

 

Allison: Yeah. It’s amazing.

 

Jason: And I think, too, this was appealing to our family as we considered moving here, that St. Pete isn’t like the rest of Florida in a lot of ways. It’s a very progressive city. It’s a very dynamic city. It’s a beautiful city. It’s an easy place to live, and I think from an outsider’s perspective often when you think about Florida, you think about retirees, you think about Disney, or you think Miami or the Panhandle. St. Pete is not any of those things. It’s its own unique universe and it is truly a magical place. Everyone is back home, where it’s snowing right now, so jealous about my Facebook posts.

 

Allison: I saw the Facebook post you put up of like a palm tree.

 

Jason: It’s just going to get worse. Just wait all winter. But, it is really a magical place, and it’s exciting to get to tell that story, because there’s something very special about St. Petersburg.

 

Allison: Now, Jason, I want to ask you what’s next for the partnership? What can people be on the lookout for?

 

Jason: We have some internal goals and some external goals. Internally, we want to do a better job of communicating who we are and what we do. We’re an old organization, we started in the ’60s actually, acquiring land to go out and recruit USF, to build USFSP. That was actually the foundation of our organization. We’ve done a lot of things in the meantime, including helping to support innovation district, but we’re going to be a little bit more aggressive about telling people our story about what we do. And then also, there’s some big projects coming up that we really want to take a look at, playing a constructive role in. One is helping to continue to build and support marine science and telling the marine science story about this community. I hope you hear the passion in my voice when I talk about it, because I’m really excited to share this story nationally and make sure people know about what’s going on here as an outside perspective. Not from a scientific perspective, but just as a city booster perspective. The Tropicana Field Gas Plant redevelopment is something that we really are interested in playing a constructive role with the city in, making sure that whatever gets developed there is something that’s exciting and dynamic and not sort of lowest common denominator but something that everyone will be excited about, and look back on, and say, “Wow, it’s so great that we thought about making this development something really, truly word class and really incredible. And I think it’s going to be really exciting. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now and more to come on that, but those are some of the big projects that we’re really going to spend a lot of time working on.

 

Allison: Excellent. Is there anything I didn’t ask you guys that you want to make sure that listeners hear about or know about? And I can say for sure, definitely check out the websites of both organizations to see more about them. Check out a future Innovation District tour, because I’ll circle back and come see—the last time we did a tour with Pure Molecular we were in the other space. Now they’re in a really cool space and we’ll have to come back through, bring my group. So, we do tours quarterly at the Innovation District, and the Downtown Partnership has been kind enough to sponsor those, which has been awesome. And we’re going to continue to do those through next year, and then we’ll see—if there’s interest, we’ll keep going. We go to four locations each time. So, we highlight a marine science organization, a life science, an education, and then the last one is usually art or entrepreneurship. And so, we try to get to each one of those, give everybody a chance to see, and touch, and feel, and kind of get excited about what’s going on. So, our time is up. Can you believe that? I know. I told you guys it would be fast. So, let me close this out. First of all, I want to thank you guys for joining me today. I really appreciate it. Check out StPeteInnovationDistrict.com for information about upcoming events and to subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter where you often get some updates about these organizations and others. So, thanks everybody and have a great day.

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About the host

Alison Barlow is the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District. Her role is to harness expertise in health science, marine science, education, and art to form unique collaborations. These multi-sector, cross discipline collaborations strive to identify innovative solutions that will grow the economic and social vibrancy of St. Petersburg and address key global issues. Alison grew up in St. Petersburg, graduated from Boca Ciega High School, received a Bachelors in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University, and later a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Management of Global Information Systems from American University in Washington D.C. For 17 years, Alison worked as a business and technology consultant based in Washington DC, often for the Department of Defense. She focused on strategic planning, process improvement and technology collaboration. Following her relocation back to St. Petersburg, Alison became the manager and a lead facilitator for Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College. Alison joined the St. Petersburg Innovation District as its inaugural Executive Director in June of 2017. In addition to her work, Alison is involved with the Leadership St. Petersburg Alumni Association, Friends of Strays Animal Shelter Board, and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.


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