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NASA awards seed grant to USF for wastewater research

NASA has awarded a one-year seed grant to the University of South Florida to research a sewage waste recycling system and energy/nutrient extraction system for potential use in space and on Mars explorations.

“Being able to grow food in places like Mars is really critical,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, whose focus is environmental engineering. “NASA has made it a priority that they are going to have to develop technology to grow food on Mars.”

Yeh points out NASA already has proven technologies it is using at the International Space Station to recycle urine and sweat for drinking water.

“NASA already has within its portfolio many technologies for water treatment, including that for water recycling aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which has been running successfully for almost a decade,” he explains. “The NEWgenerator is being evaluated as a potential technology due to new desires and commitments by NASA and private companies for exploring deep space, including putting humans on Mars within the next 15-20 years.”

Starting this month, USF is working with the Kennedy Space Center to see if its NEWgenerator, which it’s been working on for the last decade, can be adapted for space. The amount of the grant wasn’t available.

“New technologies will be needed for new methods to grow food and the complete recycling of all wastes. This is why NASA is taking a look at our technology as a potential candidate,” he says. “This is a rigorous multi-year process with a lot of evaluations and tests along the way, to ensure that, whatever technologies are chosen, they will be high-performing, reliable and safe.”

While sewage treatment plants typically are large, and take up a lot of space, the new prototype must be compact. “Think of it as a very efficient sewage treatment plant in a small box,” he says.

The system uses a filtration membrane and microorganisms to break down the waste. The Earth’s elements are building blocks that are stored, used, pulled apart, and used again, similar to Lego parts stored in bins, he explains.

“Our first priority is to get rid of them [germs] so it will be completely sanitary,” he continues. “That’s something we can’t compromise on.”

They’ve done the groundwork in India and South Africa, where they’ve been treating toilet waste and testing it. “We’re getting really good,” he says.

For space use, the USF research will endeavor to make the system smaller, so it will serve four to six people.

“We need to make it appropriate for zero gravity applications,” he says.

An environmental engineering student starting his master’s studies, Talon Bullard, will be developing the prototype of a NEWgenerator for space as his thesis.

After the initial year, they hopefully can get another grant to further the research, he says. Eventually, it will need to be tested in space.

“You can only test it so far on Earth,” he says, explaining zero gravity “is difficult to mimic.”

A prototype also needs to be maintained in space. “You need to design the system so that undesirable failure will not happen,” he says.

That might involve changing parts during regular maintenance, before they actually break. “What’s exciting for us is learning about how they [NASA] handle risk and how they deal with failure, so we can actually engineer our system so that it’s incredibly reliable,” he adds.

Transit conference focuses on technology, future trends

Some 1,500 transit leaders from around the world, along with transit workers, vendors and manufacturers from across the country, will converge on downtown Tampa starting Friday, May 4, to talk about new transit technologies and hot topics like automated buses.

Ultimately, the nearly week-long event is about sharing what works and what doesn’t -- and showcasing what we have in the Tampa Bay Area to others in the transit industry.

"This conference means a big win for the local Tampa economy since conference attendees will be spending money at Tampa-area hotels, bars and restaurants thus boosting the monetary impact within the city," says Kenyatta Lee, Chief Administrative Officer/Interim Chief of Staff for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART). “This particular conference is their second largest, behind their annual conference. It kind of moves across the nation.”

Ticket prices ranged from $825 to $1,375 per person, depending on when they ordered and whether they’re a member of the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association.  

The main event -- in the works for two years -- is at Tampa Marriott Waterside May 6th to 9th. Guests are expected to arrive on May 4th to participate in committee meetings, a welcome reception, and the International Bus Roadeo (yep, as in road) at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. Educational sessions and workshops begin Monday.

It consists of APTA’s Bus and Paratransit Conference and the Roadeo, a day-long competition of driving and maintenance skills which will take place Sunday at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in St. Petersburg.

In Tampa, there are sessions on topics such as "Next Stop: The Future,” ''Automated Buses in Transit,” “Automated and Connected Vehicles,'' “It’s All About the Ride: Strategies for Sustaining and Building Ridership,” and “Zero-Emission Buses Are Ready. ... Are You Ready for Them?” They’ll also be looking at shared challenges such as recruiting and retaining bus operators and dealing with distraction and driver fatigue.

HART will be giving technical tours to show its Compressed Natural Gas Facility, Hyperlink service connecting riders to regular routes and Streetcar Barn.

While in town, conference visitors will be able to use a new Tampa Bay transit innovation, the regional Flamingo Fare, for free. When the pilot program goes into effect on a limited basis this summer, Tampa Bay area riders will pay with Account Based Smart Card or Smartphone Application accepted across multiple jurisdictions.

Tampa Bay is holding its own in the transit arena, according to Lee. HART ranks 68 among 822 transport agencies in APTA, based on the numbers of rides not involving transfers. PSTA ranks 72.

“We have been recognized for being very creative and innovative with what we have,” she explains.

So what else is happening? After a misstart with a contractor that didn’t keep on schedule, HART will again be seeking proposals for driverless services downtown. It’s looking to get proposals in June and get the vehicles on the road by December.

Since it will be in a formal submittal process, it’s up to the vendors to propose what they can offer, and discussions are precluded. “We can’t have a lot of conversation with them,” she says. “We can look from afar to see what they have available.”


Commuting without a car: Tampa ridesharing aggregator offers cost-saving option

Users of ridesharing apps like Uber or Lyft can find prices surging after a Tampa Bay Lightning, Bucs or Rays game. With prices potentially more than double, it’s a good time to shop for the best price. But who wants to stand on the sidewalk thumbing through a bunch of apps to find a bargain?

With the ridesharing aggregator Whipster, you don’t have to. The free, Tampa-based app enables ridesharing customers to find the service that offers the best service in real time.

“Our revenues are generated on the backend with those business relationships,” explains Founder and CEO Russel Olinger.

Whipster was officially incorporated in January 2017. Since then, it’s expanded to 400 U.S. and Canadian cities. It also operates overseas when a vendor services that area.

Olinger says the aggregator used on Androids and iPhones is needed because there are simply too many ridesharing apps, some 40 across North America.

“The single biggest response we get [to our app] is ‘I had no idea that there were so many rideshare companies out there,” he says.

In Tampa Bay, Whipster gives riders a variety of options. Besides Uber and Lyft, it includes taxis, bike share, and public transit. Curb, a taxi app, appears to be pushing into the Tampa market, he says.

Whipster helps smaller vendors to compete with more established providers, especially in new markets, Olinger says.

Its next goal is “telling the world we exist,” he adds.

With the cost of a car at about $750 a month, millennials and other cost-conscious commuters in urban areas are ditching the car to get around at a fraction of the cost, Olinger says.

“They’re looking to urban transportation options,” he adds.

Bike sharing is an option available in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg and other neighborhoods, as well as at the University of South Florida, through the Coast Bikes brand.

Some 600,000 bike miles have been logged since 2014 when Coast Bikes first came to downtown Tampa, says Eric Trull, Regional Director-Florida for the provider, Cycle Hop.

Pay-as-you-go pricing at $8 an hour, along with membership rates, are even attracting bike owners for one-way trips. Computers mounted on the bikes and GPS systems are a deterrent for bike thieves.

Trull says the response to bike sharing has been tremendous.

These bikes are getting a ton of use,” he says.

Started in Tampa, Coast Bikes is now offering bike sharing in the United States and Canada. 

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority offers yet another sustainable option through its 50 Compressed Natural Gas buses, 46 HARTPlus vans and eight HARTFlex vans. Together they remove nearly 580 cars worth of carbon dioxide emissions from the road annually, according to Sandra Morrison, HART Deputy Press Secretary. 

HART called attention to its effort to go green by handing out plant kits on April 17 in honor of Earth Week.


Tech Bytes: Competitions spur tech innovation

A woman-owned business, VRenewables LLC of Tampa, claimed a $3,500 cash prize March 29 for its design for a hybrid, standalone streetlight independent of the electric grid.

Led by Vrinda Vairagi and Shesh Narayan Vaishnav, the company has a vision to work toward a better future. Its streetlight, which uses solar power, took the Social Entrepreneur Student Pitch Award, sponsored by local companies Connectwise and Sourcetoad.

Vairagi has experience in business relations and HR management while Vaishnav is in photovoltaic research industry, says Vaishnav, CEO. 

The award was given at the 2018 Innovation Summit organized by the nonprofit Synapse. “I am planning to invest this money towards the research and development of the hybrid street light which will be powered by both Solar Module and Wind Turbine,” Vaishnav says. 

“I think Innovation Challenges are the single most effective way to catalyze innovation and spur collaboration in a very organic, tangible way,” says Trey Steinhoff, Lead Designer and Challenge Organizer at the Summit. There truly is nothing more inspiring than having groups of passionate, talented people put their heart into building something on a tight deadline.”

Other award winners were Tracy Ingram, owner of Dade City's Intention Technology, in a Connectwise challenge; and Matt Spaulding, in the Metropolitan Ministries Hackathon for Social Good. Both also won $3,500 each.

Connectwise was looking for an inclusive interface for employees and other users. “I built a [mobile-friendly] bot that could be put on any existing site with a few lines of code,” Ingram says.

Metropolitan Ministries sought digital solutions to help those in crisis, so it can operate more effectively. Details were not immediately available.

These awards were sponsored by Connectwise, Sourcetoad and Metropolitan Ministries. 

The creative problem solving that is required to compete in these events forces competitors to push their assumptions and come up with solutions that no one saw coming, not even the partner companies,” Steinhoff says. “The cherry on top is seeing these competitors working together with each other and the partner companies at and after the event. I have been to a lot of tech and entrepreneurial events in Tampa Bay and have yet to see another event that molds deep, genuine relationships quite like a hackathon or pitch competition.

Read on for more local tech news.

Thomas Wallace, managing partner of Florida Funders, will be featured at the April Diary of an Entrepreneur program. Wallace, an active angel tech investor for 25 years, co-founded his first business at the age of 23. His talk, "Startups and Raising Capital," will include insights from his career as a tech entrepreneur, executive, investor and more. The presentation by TEC Garage is scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. Tuesday, April 10, at Microsoft, 5426 Bay Center Dr., Suite 700, Tampa. The event is free, but reservations are requested because of limited seating. Learn more and/or register here.

• A panel discussion entitled “Cybesecurity – Skills, Trends and Industry” is planned at the next Trep Talks gathering for entrepreneurs at Hillsborough County’s Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City. The event is planned at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, at 2101 E. Palm Ave. Sign up online here.

• Florida Venture Forum is hosting the 11th Annual Florida Early Stage Capital Conference and the 8th Annual Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition Friday, May 18, at The Westshore Grand in Tampa. Described as one of the largest angel and early-stage-investors’ gatherings in the Southeast, the event features pitches from dynamic Florida-based ventures, along with panel discussions, speakers and presentations. The deadline for presenter applications is Wednesday, April 18. Presenters are required to pay conference registration fees. Learn more here. At the event there will be two, $25,000 cash prizes to Accelerating Innovation Award winners from Space Florida.

• The U.S. Air Force is looking for help closing the science and technology gap, so it’s hosting a workshop Thursday, April 26, at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The workshop for the scientific community, academia, and business professionals will include ideas about how to facilitate a conversation about Air Force technological advances. The deadline to submit ideas is Friday, April 13. Learn more about the 8 a.m. event at CW Bill Young Hall.

• If you’re looking for recognition for your business, consider TechCo.’s Startup of the Year competition. It’ll give you the opportunity to expand your startup by providing opportunities to meet investors, gain insight, get funding and win prizes. Startups need to be innovative and have a live, viable product. Candidates must submit their applications before Monday, April 30. Check it out here.

• Florida Polytechnic University students in Lakeland have joined the quest for biofuel. Using algae from Polk County lakes, they are working with a professor of biology, Dr. Melba Horton, to find a renewable energy source. While algae already is being used for biofuel, this source would be cheaper. The research is being funded by Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute.

In other Florida Poly news, Dr. Kanwalinderjit K. Gagneja, a computer science professor, has won a $44,000 grant from the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida to develop a new Digital Forensics course. Through hands-on training, the class would help address a shortage of cybersecurity experts.

The university drew a record crowd of 300 to its third annual Women in STEM Summit March 14, to hear a panel of successful individuals talk about how they applied science, technology, engineering and math to their careers.

• Knack, a Tampa-based peer-to-peer tutoring service, was as finalist in the 2018 Challenge Cup contest in Washington D.C. March 22. Tampa’s Preferhired was a semi-finalist in the contest hosted by 1776. The winning company was Caribu in Miami.


Co-ops to help homeowners save money on rooftop solar panels

Tampa Bay Area property owners have yet another incentive to go solar: the solar co-op. By banding together to buy rooftop solar systems, landowners can save up to 20 percent.

“We’re hoping that we get more than 100 signed up that would be interested in pursuing rooftop solar,” says Dr. Rick Garrity, a Volunteer Coordinator with Hillsborough League of Women Voters, a partner in the co-op project.

The nonprofit Florida Solar United Neighborhoods is collaborating with the League of Women Voters, Hillsborough County, the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County and others to spread the word about co-ops. It held a meeting at the University of South Florida in Tampa September 25 to explain more about the opportunity to purchase discounted solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.

“There’s never been a better time to go solar. Prices came down 65 percent in the last five years,” explains Garrity, who retired two years ago as Director of the county’s Environmental Protection Commission. “You get a 30 percent tax credit from the federal government, right off the income tax bill.”

Here’s how the program works. When about 40 sign up, Florida Sun puts out the specifications to vendors, who submit bids. “Florida Sun will then evaluate the bids, rank them and provide that ranking to the homeowners,” he explains.

Homeowners form a committee that decides which installer to use.

Members of the co-op don’t need to live in the same neighborhood, but they need to live in the designated city or county. The co-op remains open for about three months to sign up any additional members.

Folks who are interested in going solar can sign up at the Florida Sun website, without obligating themselves to buy a system. They also can RSVP for area information meetings at the website.

Three informational meetings are scheduled in Hillsborough County, the first one from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday, October 9, at South Shore Regional Library, Community Rooms 1 and 2, 15816 Beth Shields Way, Ruskin. Additional meetings are planned from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 8, at Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, Community Rooms C and D, 2902 West Bearss Ave., Tampa; and from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday, December 5, at Seminole Heights Branch Library, Community Rooms A and B, 4711 Central Ave., Tampa.

Pinellas County residents living north of State Road 60 can also sign up for a co-op. Informational meetings are scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 10, at the Clearwater Library, 100 North Osceola Ave.; from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, November 9, at the Tarpon City Government Office, 324 East Pine St.; and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday, December 4, at the Safety Harbor Library, 101 2nd St. N.

A home solar system can cut your monthly power bill to $5 a month, but reducing the carbon footprint is important too, Garrity says.

“You’re doing your own little bit to decrease the amount of fossil fuels that are being burned,” he says.


Transit companies using new technologies to lower emissions, improve efficiency

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has been awarded $1 million in federal funding earmarked for an all-electric bus and/or charging equipment. The allotment from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration comes from $55 million disbursed through its Low or No Emission (Low-No) Vehicle program.

The grant money was awarded to 51 projects in 39 states in September. PSTA was one of five transit authorities in Florida to receive an award.

“It’s a competitive grant.” says Henry Lukasik, PSTA Director of Maintenance. “We’re very thankful that we did receive it.”

We’re looking at all ways [of spending it] to really make sure that every dollar is maximized,” he adds.

Joe Cheney, PSTA’s Deputy Director of Fleet Operations, says PSTA has been moving toward all-electric buses for nearly 10 years. It already has some 70 hybrid electric buses, which make up about 36 percent of its fleet.

One of the big advantages we’re anticipating, obviously, are zero tailpipe emissions," Cheney says. “The overall life cycle costs would be lower over the course of 12 years.”

Two electric buses priced at $800,000 each are on order, and likely will be delivered in May or June 2018. PSTA will be installing overnight, plug-in chargers as well as a charging plate to partially recharge the battery while buses are on their newly designed route in downtown St. Petersburg.

Buses will pull over and recharge for about three to five minutes. “While it won’t recharge the entire bus,” Lukasik says, “it will keep it maintained at a level of charge where it can continue out there all day long.”

Ashlie Handy, PSTA’s Media Liaison/Public Information Officer, says PSTA also has secured nearly $600,000 through the British Petroleum settlement fund to reimburse victims of the massive Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. “We are actively seeklng partners and grant opportunities,” she says.

“We’re finding ways to bring money from other places. We’re not tapping into our reserves,” she explains. “These are monies we are bringing to Pinellas County.”

Riders will find the buses similar in layout to its other buses, but much quieter. “Because there’s not an engine, it will be very quiet on the bus, probably to the point where people can carry on a conversation,” Lukasik says.

Across Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is awaiting the delivery of 15 compressed natural gas buses by the end of the year. It acquired 35 CNG buses in 2015-16, and 10 of its 25 additional buses earlier this year.

These new buses will be put into service in fall/winter 2017-2018, giving HART one of the youngest fleets in the state,” says HART’s Public Information Officer Sandra Morrison.

“Since 2015 we’ve saved approximately $720,000 using our natural gas compared to the cost of diesel fuel,” she says.

HART plans to transition the entire fleet of some 187 buses by 2025 as part of its move to cleaner, alternative fuel. The CNG buses cost approximately $300,000 less per vehicle than electric and have the ability to operate when the power is out, Morrison says.

Since 2014, the HART fleet has used the equivalent of 1 million gallons of diesel fuel.


Tampa tech company automates LED light sales proposals

Though LED lighting uses less energy -- and can reduce carbon emissions, convincing people to invest in it can be a tough sell. But Devon Papandrew is making the task easier.

Papandrew’s South Tampa company, SiteLite, automates the sales proposal preparation process, cutting the time needed from two days to 20 minutes. “It’s a software that does most of the work for the LED sales company,” he points out.

Currently about 96 percent of lighting is what Papandrew calls “legacy,” mostly metal halide or high pressure sodium lighting. Declining prices on LED or light-emitting diode lights have made it more affordable to convert.  

With a 10- to 15-year guarantee, LED can pay for itself in two to three years of energy savings. Still, talking people into spending money upfront requires solid numbers that usually takes time to compile. And it’s prone to error.

With SiteLite, the salesperson visits prospective companies with an iPad, iPhone, tablet or computer connected to the Internet. Using Google Maps, a digital photo or digitized floor plan, the salesperson can digitally alter the existing lighting in the software, substituting it with LED lighting. This allows users to quickly visualize the changes.

“They can do it all in one site visit,” he says.

Founded in February, SiteLite is a privately funded company that works primarily with small- to medium-size businesses in Florida and in the Southeast U.S. “There are a couple of quite large ones that we sell to,” he says.

Sales firms pay a monthly fee of $599 for a base package for up to 10 sales personnel.

LED bulbs can last at least 25,000 hours, than more than 25 times longer than traditional light bulbs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If everyone switched to LED lights in a 20-year span, the United States could slash electricity consumption by almost 50 percent while avoiding 1,800 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

Papandrew, who holds a bachelor’s in science in Physics and Economics from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., came up with the idea of the company after seeing how much work was required to develop LED sales proposals. Although there are some other systems, what sets SiteLite apart is its visual component, quality and value. A patent is pending.

Raised in Largo, Papandrew formerly was employed as a bank business analyst who wrote up software requirements for software developers. He started out doing the same thing with SiteLite, then taught himself how to write the software code.

“I’m not writing requirements anymore. I’m just writing the software,” he says.


Natural gas-powered buses ready to roll in Pasco County

Pasco County Schools will soon be the first in Florida to build and run their own fast-fill compressed natural gas station. The first of its natural-gas buses will arrive in mid-May, when they will be completing the new gas station just south of State Road 54 along Interlaken Road north of Tampa.

“We are about a month away from taking ownership,” says Tad Kledzik, Manager of Transportation Services. “We will begin operations with start of the fiscal year [July 1].”

Thirty 2017 Bluebird Vision CNG buses will begin arriving, three at time, in mid-May, and be phased into the existing fleet of more than 400 buses. Some 48 of them are propane, which use the same motor but a different fuel.

Each bus costs about $130,000, about $30,000 more than a diesel bus.

Pasco County Schools are investing $3 million each in their fast-fill station and a maintenance, operations and parking facility for the new natural gas-powered buses. The district is expecting to pay an additional $3.9 million for the first 30 buses and potentially a total of $11.7 million for 90 natural gas buses at the facility. It also would use some 10 to 12 diesel buses already in the fleet.

There are a number of advantages of the buses fueled by gas from Louisiana and Texas, which is piped into Florida at Jacksonville.

“The big thing ... is cleaner emission,” Kledzik says.

It’s also less noisy, a plus when hauling a bus-load full of talking children. “That allows our drivers to hear a little bit better on the bus as to what is going on,” he says.

As a domestic source of fuel, CNG is less volatile in price. The ability to essentially lock-in the price gives the district a greater ability to manage finance costs. “What happens elsewhere is less likely to impact the cost of CNG here,” he explains. “There’s enough CNG here in the U.S. to meet certainly our needs and many more needs.”

The district has tapped into the system in the Odessa area. The CNG will be provided by Clearwater Gas.

A grand opening is scheduled at 9 am. May 16, says spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. The new buses will roll for the 2017-18 school year.

The district began looking into alternative fuel sources in 2012, before buses like these existed, Kledzik says. The vision for CNG came from Deputy Superintendent Ray Gadd.

Though the Pasco district will be the first to build and operate its own station, others are already going green with CNG buses using third-party fuel providers. “Leon [County’s school district] has a similar facility to what we’re producing right now. Leon entered into contract with a 3rd party provider,” he says.

In the Tampa Bay area, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority became the first public transit authority in Florida to begin converting from diesel to CNG in 2014, according to Sandra Morrison, Public Information Officer.

HART currently runs 34 CNG buses in its fleet of nearly 200 buses, plus an additional 39 of its 61 HARTPlus vans and all eight HARTFlex vans. Some 25 additional CNG buses are arriving this fiscal year, Morrison says.

Hillsborough County public schools are running 50 propane buses and another 40 are on order. “We just didn’t have an interest in it [CNG], simply because of the cost,” says Jim Beekman, General Manager of Transportation.

The propane buses cost only $4400 more than diesel.

Pinellas County’s school district began running 58 new propane-powered buses this school year. The buses save the district money on fuel and maintenance, in addition to being more environmentally friendly, a spokeswoman says.

As the Pasco district's personnel are trained on the new buses, Kledzik says they plan to let surrounding districts in on the education process, which will include information on propane buses as well. “We’re looking to open it up and make it more a multi-county effort,” he says.

Kledzik says the new CNG buses are a way to “diversify the composition” of the fleet. He expects the school district will continue to invest in propane – and diesel. Diesel still is preferred for long trips outside of the county, and even longer trips within the county, he says.

“I don’t believe we’d get away completely from diesel buses,” he says.

Tampa Bay Alternative Fuel Vehicle Expo is slated from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. April 20 at 11780 Tampa Gateway Blvd, Seffner.

More information on alternative fuels is available at the Alternative Fuels Data Center or the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Clean Cities Program at 1-800-CCITIES.


USFSP adding master's program in conservation biology

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg is launching a master’s degree program in Conservation Biology in the fall 2017, in an attempt to fill a void in the state university system for the thesis-based biology degree.

“We looked at our faculty research base and realized this was ... a degree that was really missing from this area,” says Dr. Melanie Riedinger-Whitmore, who prepared the proposal for the program.

The degree program is being developed in connection with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The university also reached out to representatives of city and state government, as well as environmental consulting firms.

“It is important ... especially for coastal populations to address those issues that are affected by climate change and the environment,” says Dr. Martin Tadlock, USFSP’s Regional Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs.

He adds that society likely will be looking for leadership on conservation issues such as reducing waste, improving living conditions, and having a positive or at least neutral impact on the environment.

“The goal really is to meet the demand in the region and in the state for individuals in the field to assume leadership roles,” he says.

The Master of Science degree would prepare students to be conservation biologists, conservation specialists, wildlife biologists as well as to fill other positions requiring a strong biology background to deal with wildlife.

“Students who have a degree in this program hopefully will be broadly trained,” Riedinger-Whitmore says. “They’re going to be learning the latest techniques.”

The average mean wage in 2015 for conservation scientists in Florida was $70,000-$90,220, among the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dr. Riedinger-Whitmore, who will teach a core course in conservation biology theory, says the university already has had students express an interest in the program. “We had a lot of students participate in undergraduate research,” she explains. “A lot are excited they can continue on progress they’ve started as undergraduates.”

Initially the graduate program is expected to have 15, a figure determined by funding. “We wanted to make sure we had a small cohort we all could work with,” she says.

More information will be available at the Graduate Program’s Open House from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. April 15 at USFSP’s downtown St. Petersburg campus. Interested persons can apply to the program here.

The popular biology undergraduate program has more than 750 students. Since the university opened the undergraduate program in the College of Arts and Science in 2012, it has become the largest major in that department.

Students are expected to have access to newly renovated labs as well as being involved in the community and workplace, Tadlock says.

Spending time in nature is part of the program. “Being out in nature is going to be a big part of this degree. I think our focus initially is going to be the aquatic and terrestrial and coastal communities of west Central Florida,” Riedinger-Whitmore says.

USFSP will be looking to provide internship opportunities at local agencies that deal with conservation, as well as state, regional and private consulting firms.

It also will be soliciting instructors from the professional community. “We like doing this. It really introduces students to potential employers,” she says. “They get to interact with someone that is in the workforce.”


Prospera joins Clearwater SPARK, nurtures Hispanic businesses

Twenty-five years ago, Prospera -- then called the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund -- was established in a small West Tampa office. 

There was a need to support Hispanic entrepreneurs in the area, says Claudia Johnson, senior business development consultant on the West Coast. Prospera stepped in to fill this void by offering bilingual technical assistance and workshops to Spanish-speaking businesses.

Decades later, the organization has spread to markets in south Florida and as far north as Jacksonville. Additional offices have opened in Miami and Orlando. Over the past 25 years, Prospera has “supported several thousands of people,” Johnson says. “Our objective became to strengthen the state of Florida’s economical sector with Hispanics.” 

Now, Clearwater is the latest city in Prospera’s far-reaching network. As of January, the group became the sixth organization to join Clearwater Business SPARK, a city-led business incubator that brings together a variety of resources for entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Prospera was looking for a home base in Pinellas County, Johnson says, and Clearwater made the most sense for a partnership. “The city has the majority of Hispanics [in the county,]” she says. “So that is where we are working closely. Now we have a more clear collaboration, a strong collaboration.” 

Denise Sanderson, the city’s director of Economic Development and Housing, says Hispanic entrepreneurs and small businesses represent approximately 20 percent of the city’s population. “Hispanic-owned businesses are an important and growing sector of our local economy,” she adds.

While Pinellas County residents were always welcome to participate in Prospera’s workshops and grant programs in other cities, the organization is now specifically targeting Clearwater. The organization will host six bilingual public workshops covering a variety of topics of interest to small businesses at Clearwater libraries throughout the year. The first was held Jan. 31 with around 30 attendees, Johnson says. 

In addition to training, and mentorship assistance with marketing and business planning, Prospera offers grants to small businesses looking to pay for professional services such as accountants and attorneys. The group also helps facilitate small business loans to entrepreneurs through partnerships with several banking institutions. “We’ve facilitated about $20 million worth of money for loans for clients throughout the whole state,” Johnson says.

She adds, “We’re here to help strengthen their business -- from start-ups to ongoing businesses. We’re a very active organization to help Hispanics.”

Sarasota County launches solar energy co-op program for homeowners

The sun began to peek through the clouds on an overcast morning at the Florida House Institute, where solar advocates gathered in early January to launch a new solar energy co-op program in Sarasota County. 

Representatives from the Sarasota League of Women Voters, Florida Solar United Neighborhoods (FL SUN), and the Florida House Institute met with Sarasota County homeowners to explore ways to add solar energy to their homes at a discount by sharing solar panel purchasing power -- and knowledge -- in bulk. 

Solar co-ops is a competitive bidding process to select a single company to install solar panels in participating homes, providing a discount of up to 20 percent for homeowners who participate in the program. Each person signs his or her own contract with the installer, and the entire group not only receives the discount, but also benefits from sharing knowledge about the process of transitioning to a solar-powered lifestyle. 

Jon Thaxton, Senior VP for Community Investment with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, a FL SUN Sarasota partner, cites a report the GCCF issued on affordable housing in 2015. The housing report states that over 43,000 households in Sarasota County pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing--forcing them to make difficult decisions as to how they will afford food, transportation and childcare, Thaxton notes. 

"This initiative has promised to reduce the energy cost in these households, and thus reduce the financial strain on the budget on these service workers," Thaxton says, citing low income neighborhoods in Sarasota Springs, south Venice, Englewood and North Port.

"We are talking about, in terms of affordable housing, bringing not only hundreds, but thousands of these 43,000 cash-strapped households into a more sustainable situation with this initiative," Thaxton says. 

Phyllis Vogel, President of the Sarasota League of Women Voters, says that Florida currently lags behind other states in utilizing solar energy, and that programs like the FL SUN Sarasota co-op are critical to the Sunshine State's future. 

"Consider this: Florida, the Sunshine State, currently gets less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its energy from solar power," Vogel says. 

But recent public interest in solar energy is a catalyst for change.

"The defeat of Amendment One in the recent election is an indication that Floridians are ready to increase the use of solar power in our communities. We know it's cost effective, it's good for our local economy, and it's necessary for our future resilience as a coastal community," Vogel says.

Of the solar co-op initiative, Vogel states, "not only will it save homeowners and businesses money, but it will infuse our economy with a growth industry of well-paying green jobs. The League believes that solar energy takes a free market approach to putting power, literally and figuratively, into the hands of the people."

FL SUN Sarasota partners include The League of Women Voters, the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association, Sierra Club of Manatee-Sarasota, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, the Florida House Institute, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota, and FL SUN. 

To learn more about the co-op, Join FL Sun Sarasota for one of three upcoming information sessions:

Jan. 18, 1 p.m.
Venice Community Center
326 South Nokomis Avenue, Venice
RSVP here

Jan. 19, 5 p.m.
Selby Library
1331 1st Street, Sarasota
RSVP here

Feb. 24, 11 a.m.
Twin Lakes Park
6700 Clark Road, Sarasota
RSVP here

Checkers rolls out new look, expands in Tampa Bay Area in new year

Shaji Joseph is a man of firsts. He owns the oldest Checkers in Tampa and the first Checkers in a Walmart in the Tampa area, which is in Oldsmar. Now he is now making plans to open the first updated modular Checkers in Tampa.
 
For all appearances, this Indian immigrant is living the American dream. “I am so proud and happy to cherish what this great nation has offered me and my family,” the 46-year-old entrepreneur says. “[I] will forever be in debt to this great organization [Checkers] that believed in me and gave me such an awesome avenue.” 
 
Joseph attended business school in India, then became an assistant manager for Checkers in Pennsylvania. Fast forward 19 years, and Joseph owns eight franchises, with a commitment to build five more. His eighth location, in Spring Hill, is scheduled to open this month. The modular restaurant on Busch Boulevard is slated to open in the second quarter of 2017.
 
“I hit the ground running. I never stop. I never look back. I just keep going,” he says.
 
Formerly the corporation’s Director of Operations, Joseph is excited about the new design options, which enables him to save money and time. Each restaurant with a new modular design costs approximately $250,000 to build, which is $100,000 less than the traditional option.
 
The new modular restaurant features structural steel, which enhances sturdiness. It will have one instead of two drive-thru lanes plus a covered, outdoor seating area and a walk-up window.
 
His new Busch Boulevard location, which is currently awaiting city approval, is right by his franchise office, Wow Burgers LLC.
 
The new restaurants will incorporate the company’s traditional red, black and white colors. “There’s a lot of excitement and how it’s convenient,” he says. “We’re not losing our charm.”
 
Joseph’s Busch Boulevard location will be one of more than 50 in the nation with the Tampa-based Checkers & Rally’s Restaurants' updated designs. The new design is rolling out in key markets in Tampa, South Florida, Los Angeles, Nashville, Columbus and Houston.
 
Its Model 4.0 design gives franchise holders three options: traditional, modular and hybrid.
 
Jennifer Durham, Checkers & Rally’s Senior VP, says both the modular and hybrid designs are built offsite and feature structural steel. The hybrid design includes structural steel recycled from shipping boxes from overseas.
 
“It’s actually cheaper for manufacturers overseas to leave them behind than to ship them back empty,” Durham says. “We’re working through a third party to acquire the used shipping containers and remanufacture them into our buildings.”
 
Reusing the boxes isn’t quite as cost effective as she initially thought. “The more people that go after them, the price goes up,” she explains. “We weren’t the first or the last one to think of this design concept.”
 
She became interested in the concept after reading about them in architectural and design magazines. “To me, it was worth exploring. Given the size of our restaurant, its seemed like there was a natural fit,” she says.
 
With transport costs at $10 to $15 a mile for the pre-fabricated buildings, Checkers & Rally’s is considering multiple manufacturers across the country. It has more than 840 locations in the United States, and more than 250 more in the works.

Restaurateur encourages patrons to skip the straw

Drinking straws are standard fare at most restaurants. Whenever we order a cold beverage, it usually comes with a straw, and we use it to slurp our water, teas or sodas in a matter of minutes. Afterwards, the straws end up littering our beaches and landfills.
 
“We see those [straws] out on the beach everywhere, those and cracker wrappers,” says Ed Chiles, owner of Chiles Restaurant Group.
 
So Chiles decided to do something about it. He has quit serving “old-style,” non-biodegradable plastic beverage straws.
 
“If they want a straw they’re going to get a straw. We’ve got a good [biodegradable] backup,” says Chiles, who owns Ana Maria’s Sandbar, Bradenton Beach’s Beach House and Longboat Key’s Mar Vista Dockside restaurants.
 
Chiles is partnering with the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy to educate the public about the single-use plastic straws and protect our oceans. According to the Conservancy, straws are one of the top 10 items collected during cleanups.
 
Chiles’ campaign includes green messages encouraging customers to “Skip the Straw.”  So far, it has been working.
 
“I think it has gone very well overall. I think people understand. At first, there’s that little pause. They think about it and they get it,” Chiles says.
 
His servers are on board. “Our people have embraced it. If your servers aren’t behind it, you’ve got a problem,” he explains.
 
Chiles calls removing the plastic beverage straw “one small step.” He’s already ditched plastic cups and individually wrapped crackers, opting for glasses and sleeves of crackers. Plans include a complete line of eco-friendly “to go” containers and reusable packing crates.
 
He has gardens to grow their own herbs and spices. “The kitchen guys go out and work it,” says Chiles, an honorary faculty member of the University of South Florida’s Patel College of Global Sustainability. “We are all about local sustainable.”
 
Although his menus feature seafood, you also may find wild boar, considered an invasive species. “We take lemons and make limoncello,” he quips. “People think they [wild boars] are not any good, but they’re wrong. It’s fabulous. It’s one of my favorite meats.”
 
Even his parking lots are environmentally friendly. For the last decade, he has been a leader in pervious or porous parking lots, setting an example about how to deal with stormwater on commercial properties.
 
Chiles isn’t stopping with the beverage straw. Now he’s looking for a bio-degradable cocktail straw.

BLUE Ocean Film Festival: Whales, oil spills & oceans at risk

“If the boat is sinking, we will all have to sink together,” Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, tells Actor Leonard DiCaprio in the movie, “Before the Flood.”   

The movie documents DiCaprio’s three-year journey around the planet exploring the impact of climate change and the potential consequences for the oceans -- and the world, without a dramatic course-correct.

A screening of that film will kick-off the international BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit, which takes place this year in St. Petersburg from November 11-13.

Over four days, in venues ranging from the Palladium Theatre to the Mahaffey Theater and Sundial Muvico, 90 award-winning environmental films from 24 countries will be shown to the public.

Some of the films are awe-inspiring and adventurous, like The Kiteboard Legacy. Others, like Killer Whales: The Mega Hunt might make you want to never swim in the ocean again, at least off the southern tip of Africa. 

But most of the films, like “Dispatches from the Gulf”, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or Coral Reefs: Trouble in Paradise are both beautiful visually and deeply disturbing. They’re meant to be. 

BLUE is on a mission to use “film and visual media to raise awareness and inspire ocean stewardship around the globe.” It’s all about creating a dialogue, separate from politics, about what can be done to solve pressing worldwide environmental issues.  

It might be easy to overlook news stories about the health of the world’s oceans or the dangers of climate change, but nothing beats the power of the visual to convert the skeptic. 

For example, were you aware that “whales can’t turn the volume down?” Escalating levels of man-made sound in the oceans are harming marine life and damaging the oceans. Watch Sonic Sea to learn more.

Launched in 2009, BLUE Ocean supports a number of initiatives, including the film festival, which rotates each year between the small principality of Monaco on the French Riviera and St. Petersburg, Fl. In 2015, co-Founders Debbie and Charles Kinder, decided to make St. Petersburg BLUE Ocean’s home base. 

Marine-related issues and concerns are a natural fit for St. Petersburg. The city is home to what local leaders call the Ocean Team, a consortium for marine science, oceanographic and environmental research agencies and educational organizations that include the University of South Florida’s Center for Marine Science.  

According to the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, St. Petersburg is considered to be one of the top marine-affiliated industry clusters in the nation.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker will be among the keynote speakers for the BLUE Ocean film festival’s opening night at the Mahaffey Theater on Nov. 10. For a schedule of events and ticket prices, follow this link to the festival’s website.

USF celebrates record year for cultivating startups, new products

USF’s success with transferring ideas and patents into products results in a record year.
 
With nine startups and 113 license and option agreements executed this fiscal year, the university is celebrating a 12-percent increase over fiscal year 2015. This success brings USF in the top 10 nationally among public universities for generating new inventions, according to the annual ranking by the Intellectual Property Owners/National Academy of Inventors.
 
“We are one of the nation’s largest public research universities and we play a leading role in growing and elevating the Tampa Bay Region’s economy through our discoveries,” USF System President Judy Genshaft states in a news release. “Through innovation and invention, our talented faculty and students are at the forefront of projects that are producing new technologies, developing new cures, and making life better for others.”
 
There is a common thread of making life better for others that is woven among all of the startups coming out of USF this year. Moterum is one of those new companies. With its clinical grade MTip Crutch Tip, the startup hopes to improve walking assistance, gait and control of post-stroke patients. Another startup, Depression Army, is working to remove the stigma revolved around depression through its sale of T-shirts and other merchandise. Meanwhile, Culture Biosystems is an innovative concept that reduces the cost of harvesting algae with the use of technology to enable large-scale production for biofuels, aviation fuels, proteins and nutraceuticals.
 
“At the end of the day, we are passionate about helping create products and businesses that will help people,” says Valerie McDevitt, Associate VP for Technology Transfer and Business Principles at USF.
 
Many of the startups created at USF get help from the university’s Seed Capital Accelerator Program, which was founded in 2013. The program helps startups launch their businesses from the university to the marketplace. Earlier this year, USF created another program to help innovators and inventors earlier on in the start up phase. The Bull Ring Accelerator Grant Program (BRAG) provides $25,000 of grant funding to early stage companies, providing infrastructure, training and resources to entrepreneurial teams helping them translate their ideas into viable products and companies.
 
“We have had great success this year due to our focus and prioritization on cultivating startups,” McDevitt says. “With the increased amount of license and option agreements we had this year over last, I know if we continue that focus we will have an even better year ahead.”
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