A marine technology hub, two major hospitals, a renowned museum and a preeminent research university are among the dozens of organizations that call the St. Petersburg’s Innovation District home.
The 6th annual State of Science and Innovation highlighted the groundbreaking work emanating from the roughly one-square-mile district Tuesday evening. Attendees heard from innovators representing the Dali Museum, the Trafficking in Persons Risk to Resilience Research Lab, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Bayfront Health St. Pete, Digital Twin Marine and the Florida Institute of Oceanography.
Mayor Ken Welch and City Councilmembers Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari were among the local civic and business leaders who filled the University of South Florida St. Petersburg ballroom. Welch said the recent “innovation-led diversification” of St. Petersburg’s economy will sustain the city’s growth throughout the 21st century.
“This journey we have embarked upon together has been nothing short of extraordinary and has transformed St. Pete into a vibrant tech hub that resonates far beyond our city limits,” Welch said. “To witness the transformation from a quaint city to a global center of innovation has been truly inspiring.”
The six presenters each received six minutes to highlight their work. USFSP Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree, the Innovation District’s newly elected board chairperson, described the format as “speed dating with science.”
Alison Barlow, the organization’s president, said proximity fuels the district’s collaborative efforts. She also noted that the event’s speakers all leverage technology, “and that wasn’t always the case at the State of Science.”
“The technology you’re going to hear about is enhancing the work that the innovators are doing,” Barlow added. “It deepens our understanding of a problem; it often improves the lives it touches.”
Digital human twins
Dr. Mohamed Rehman, professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital (JHACH), is creating “digital twins” of human beings. Researchers collect vast amounts of patient data, primarily through wearable Fitbit devices, and leverage artificial intelligence to prevent rather than treat illnesses.
According to a JHACH release, the concept is a “form of precision medicine that uses technology to simulate a human through genomics, physiology and environments/lifestyle over time.” Rehman called it an answer to current “one-size-fits-all” medical practices.
In his allotted six minutes, Rehman also announced that JHACH data scientists have patented the world’s “most sophisticated” mouthguard. He said it monitors body temperature, lactate (a signaling molecule related to athletic performance), impacts and other measurables in real-time.
“And we are lucky we are in St. Pete because we built a prototype with Jabil,” Rehman said. “What St. Pete builds, the world uses.”
Dr. Hank Hine, executive director of the Dali Museum, explained the benefits of incorporating artificial intelligence and augmented reality into exhibits. An outdoor geodesic dome now fully immerses guests in a video/audio tour of Salvador Dali’s life and work.
Hine said the museum’s various innovation labs help foster problem-solving skills and increase creativity. “We want to keep Dali’s perpetual lesson to us to look beyond the ordinary experience – to something more important than what we engage in by habit,” he said.
Bluetooth-enabled medical devices
Dr. Julia Pfaff, a head and neck surgeon with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, is Florida’s top Inspire sleep therapy system provider. The non-invasive procedure utilizes nerve stimulation technology, like a pacemaker, to mitigate sleep apnea.
Patients command the device using a Bluetooth-enabled wireless remote, and physicians can monitor vital data via the cloud. Pfaff said 91% of patients preferred it to a cumbersome CPAP machine.
Digital vessel twins
Nicky Bruger, cofounder of Digital Twin Marine, recently relocated to the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. The startup utilizes cutting-edge technology to create three-dimensional replicas of expansive ships.
The interactive digital twins provide project managers with the insight needed to make critical, costly decisions remotely rather than from a shipyard. Bruger, who launched the company with her husband, Tom, credited St. Petersburg’s “young, entrepreneurial spirit” and its proximity to the Port of Tampa for their move from Fort Lauderdale.
Underserved students and STEAM
Dr. Nicole Raineault, chief scientist at the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), highlighted the importance of the organization’s Peerside program. The initiative increases underserved students’ access to marine science education and field research.
The Western Flyer, a unique research vessel donated to the FIO and USF, and a $14.5 million Office of Naval Research grant made the program possible. Students utilize robotics and remotely operated vehicles while gaining valuable STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) workforce training.
Human trafficking research
In June 2023, Florida lawmakers made the USF Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Risk to Resilience Lab the statewide repository for human trafficking data. Dr. Shelly Wagers, professor of criminology and TIP Lab researcher, said her ultimate goal is bridging vast information gaps and resources.
Wagers said the TIP Lab leveraged technology, an entrepreneurial model and feedback from over 800 interviews to create a centralized and secure platform. The BRIGHT (Bridging Resources and Information Gaps in Human Trafficking) system provides physician resource access, collects data, helps generate reports and identifies lapses in trafficking movements and enforcement.