Tampa Bay’s CADE winners develop innovative technologies

Daniel Yeh’s wastewater recycling technology, which went commercial abroad last year, is heading for the commercial market in the United States later this year. The technology, which has the potential to impact 3.9 billion people, has been in development for two decades.

“We’re happy to talk to people who might be interested,” says Yeh, PhD, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and co-Founder of BioreNEW Inc., located on campus.

Like with other developing technologies, it has been a long journey. Yeh began working with the core technology while in post-doctoral studies at Stanford University in California. He began working with a team of students in 2011.

Along the way, he received financial backing from supporters like the CADE Museum for Creativity and Invention, which awarded him $50,000 in 2014, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has kicked in more than $2 million. 

Founded by the family of the late Dr. Robert Cade, the lead inventor of Gatorade, the Gainesville-based CADE Museum has been awarding annual prizes to innovators like Yeh since 2010. The innovators from research universities and the private sector frequently take years to make a real difference; recognition from CADE validates their efforts and helps them gain the financial support they need.

We talked with three CADE winners from the Tampa Bay Area to see how far they’ve come. They are Yeh, CEO of BioReNEW; Yianni Lagos, CEO of Tampa’s Soilcea, which won the 2018 CADE prize for its gene-editing technology; and Ashwin Parthasarathy, assistant professor of electrical engineering at USF, which won the 2021 prize for his groundbreaking new blood-flow monitor.

Making a difference in Africa and India

Yeh’s invention, the NEWgenerator, brings clean water to disadvantaged communities without modern plumbing and sanitation. Toilet water is processed in multi-steps, including ultrafiltration and disinfection, producing water that can be reused in a variety of ways including toilet flushing and irrigation.

Unlike typical wastewater plants, NEW (which stands for nutrient, energy and water generator), can treat water on a small scale. Without water, electric power, or a sewer system. The NEWgenerator module relies, instead, on batteries, allowing it to be used off the electric grid. 

USF owns the patent, which is licensed to commercial companies who make the
Daniel Yeh will be giving an update on his latest projects through BioReNEW at the Florida-Israel Agricultural Innovation Summit Thursday, March 31.
technology available on the open market.

The NEWgenerator is licensed by WEC Projects in Africa, where one unit was put in place in Soweto, South Africa, in November. Another unit is planned for schools.

Also licensing the technology is: Eram Scientific Solutions, which is currently building units for housing developments in southern India; and Elefo Biotech, another Indian firm that has licensed the technology for housing developments.

The NEWgenerator can be upsized or downsized to accommodate a single household or an entire apartment building, Yeh says.

Field testing the invention has been hard, especially across the globe. They were very hands on initially, but COVID changed things. Like the rest of the world, Yeh learned to work remotely -- something they’ll need to do more and more as the business scales up.

Its major undertaking this year is bringing the NEWgenerator to this country’s marketplace. Yeh is not sure exactly when.
 
“There are millions of people in the United States that suffer from real poor sanitation facilities, where traditional septic tanks do not work,” he explains. “We’re hoping to play a role in providing a solution in those areas.”

Those areas are typically rural, and span the continent from Appalachia to Alabama, to California, the southern border and Alaska.

Another area where Yeh hopes to help is in the area of agriculture. The device can break down organic waste from crops, producing a liquid fertilizer that can be used for indoor hydroponic farming.

Yeh continues to work with Robert Bair, who as a grad student was part of the 2014 CADE team. These days Bair is co-Founder and chief tech officer of BioReNEW, part of the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator at USF Research Park.

The CADE prize money was used to set up BioreNEW and to pay for travel required to set up partner sites.

While Yeh never imagined in 2014 that his technology could be adapted for outer space, Yeh now is working through USF on an offshoot technology that could help with NASA’s long-term plans. It’s called the Organic Processor Assembly.

“What we’re trying to do is really the next generation technology,” he says.

That’s technology for the astronauts that could be used in the coming years when man goes to the moon for more than “a camping trip,” he explains.

Making gains in the war against citrus greening

Florida’s citrus industry is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s, when Anita Bryant touted the benefits of drinking Florida orange juice. Citrus greening has cost Florida’s citrus industry billions in lost revenue while hampering its ability to produce a premiere orange juice.

“The Florida Valencia orange produced the best orange juice in the world. They were just sweeter,” Lagos explains. “It’s not like you can really jump to another variety.”
  
But as the world wrestles with the challenge of greening -- which misshapens and discolors fruit and makes it bitter before eventually killing the trees -- there is a ray of hope. Soilcea is using modern breeding technology to produce citrus varieties protected from greening, also known as Huanglongbing or HLB.

“We’ve come up with new CRISPR-edited varieties that are showing early-stage resistance to the disease,” he says.

The company, also part of the Tampa Bay Tech Incubator, is working with Valencias and Hamlins, as well as Swindle and USDA 942 rootstocks.

To be sure, it is early in the game. Only a few months in, Soilcea still has to put its technology to the test of time. 

“With trees, it’s probably a three-year time frame before I can say, ‘yes, this is working.’ It has durable resistance,” Lagos explains.

Soilcea also is planning to multiply gains by developing varieties resistant not only to greening but to canker, another disease that has plagued the industry.

It already is working with a nursery on a propagation partnership, so the nursery will be ready to scale up with the data becomes available, possibly in about three years.

Greening, which surfaced in Florida in 2005, gains a foothold quietly without any symptoms the first year. Then the trees and fruit appear more yellow; the fruit drops prematurely and becomes more bitter. Symptoms worsen until the trees die.

Researchers have been working diligently to find a solution. Through the use of CRISPR-cas9 technology, Lagos is seeking to protect new trees. Soilcea actually hastens a natural gene-editing process, producing varieties that are not regarded as genetically modified.

“We’re just trying to turn off the interaction between the disease and the citrus tree,” he says.

Soilcea has been building on the research efforts of Nian Wang, a University of Florida professor at the UF/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.

The company spent its $25,000 in CADE prize money on an incubator and other expenses essential to its research, Lagos says. 

CADE’s support helped others believe in them: Soilcea has received about $1.5 million in Small Business Innovation Research grants, Lagos points out.  

Help on the way for stroke sufferers

When someone suffers from a stroke, doctors typically order an MRI or CT scan to diagnose it. Depending on the cause, the patient may be treated with surgery, blood pressure management, or clot-busting drugs, then retested to see how the treatment is working.

Trouble is, the patient may have permanent damage before problems with treatment are detected.

There soon may be a better option: the rbSEE device, developed by Parthasarathy, using his doctorate and post-doctorate work.

“We have the potential to provide the data that doctors can use to intervene before damage becomes permanent,” he explains. “We hope to eventually enable personalization of treatment for strokes.”

It could be available by next spring, he says.

“With our device, you can find out what is happening. It’s a way to monitor what is happening in real time,” he explains.

SPKL LLC, a Tampa company founded in 2020 by Parthasarathy and middle-school chum Karthik Sriram, won the top CADE prize in 2021. It is using the $34,000 to help pay for prototype development, licensing fees and initial product costs.

There currently isn’t any technology like it.

SPKL’s device can replace technology the size of a briefcase, more specifically the research grade Diffuse Correlation Spectroscopy, with a device the size of a pack of gum.  It does what other technologies can’t: it can be used continuously, it can measure blood flow deeper in the tissues, and it can give information on tissue level blood perfusion rather than only on large blood vessels.

While parts of the device already have been tested, they will be studied as a unit at the USF Tropics Lab. Results are anticipated by the end of the summer.

“Once we have the prototype, the progress will be rapid toward human testing,” says Parthasarathy, the lab’s director.

The device will be sold to commercial clients such as hospital stroke units or vascular surgery centers. It may cost thousands versus hundreds of thousands dollars, he says.

It also is expected to help patients suffering from wounds, foot ulcers and diabetic conditions.
 

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune