Tampa Bay Area inventors: Growing community gains respect

A graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida, Amber Gatto, came up with an idea for a device that could help people with spinal cord injuries grasp objects. With help from a student team, the 24-year-old from Jupiter, FL, has been developing the device that works kind of like a shoe insole for the hand.

“Our team has designed a wrist-hand orthosis that has the potential to help patients with a spinal cord injury regain the capability to grasp items -- and independently complete activities of daily living,” says Gatto, the team’s leader.

Their targeted user will have the capability of moving their wrist but not their fingers. 

The invention began as a class project. But it landed her and teammate Kalyn Kearney in Washington, D.C. as finalists in the National Academy of Inventors’ 2018 Student Innovation Showcase on April 6th. 

The award winner was Worcester Polytechnic Institute for an antimicrobial peptide to prevent catheter-associated urinary tract infections. 

Gatto’s plans call for a device that is affordable, lightweight and customizable, with a motor activated by wrist motion. For the time being, it’s still part of Gatto’s coursework.

“This particular project is serving as my thesis for my master’s degree,” she says.

The NAI was founded in 2009 by Dr. Paul Sanberg, USF’s Senior Vice President for Research, Innovation and Knowledge Enterprise and President of the USF Research Foundation. He took the organization nationwide the following year when he recognized the need for it. Today there are 42 chapters, and USF is the largest with more than 400 members.

“Our main goal is honoring academic inventions,” says Lauren Maradei, NAI’s Assistant Program Director. “This is a space that is still kind of new in academia. It’s really been a publish or perish mentality. Not a whole lot of focus was put on patenting.”

That appears to be changing. There is a brick walkway in USF Research Park, where each brick bears the name of a member of the USF Chapter of NAI. “Dr. Sanberg calls them the rock stars of campus. This is a great way to recognize them,” she says.

Maradei and Autumn Pandolfo, NAI’s Special Projects Coordinator, work at the office of Dr. Sanberg, who serves as its President. “It is a part of his world absolutely. He continues to take an active role in the organization,” Maradei says.

From young inventors like Gatto and her team, to the man known as the grandfather of possibilities, Ron Klein, the creator of the magnetic strip on credit cards and the Multiple Listing Service for real estate, the Tampa Bay region is home to a robust community of innovators. 

Inventors start young

Thirteen-year-old Annalisa Ureña, a student at Family Christ School in Tampa Palms, began inventing in the 4th grade, when she participated in an all-girls tech camp by ID Tech Camps called Alexa Cafe. Using a miniature computer called an arduino lily pad, she designed a teddy bear that monitored heart rates and would alert parents if their child had problems.

Since then, she’s worked on an app to help autistic children communicate better, which earned her a place in the top six finalists in the USF Young Innovators Competition. Her latest plans include updating a navigation system that uses a GPS and buzzer or vibration to alert the visually or visually and hearing impaired. Annalisa took second place at the USF Young Innovators Competition for that design originally attached to a shirt. She’s planning a wristband model that would be easier to use.

Her parents, Al and Elizabeth, began exposing Annalisa to technology early. She played with Lego Mindstorms and, when Ureña couldn’t find a tech group for his daughter, he started one in New Tampa through Coder Dojo, a global network of free computer training programs for youths, with help from other interested individuals.

Ramesh Sambasivan bought the group to Tampa Bay after learning about it in a TED Talk by MIT professor Mitch Resnik.

“As parents we want to help our kids gain the skills that we think that they are going to need,” Ureña explains. 

So they put those things in front of her. “Sometimes she has an interest in it and sometimes she doesn’t,” he says.

So what does Annalisa, who already knows the programming languages Scratch and Python, think of all this? “It helps me with my inventions,” she says. “I think it’s really awesome that I got to learn that.”

She believes these inventing experiences will help her in the future. “I totally enjoy inventing things that will help people,” Annalisa says. “It could be part of my career. What I really want to do is be some sort of engineer [software or mechanical] and work at Google.”

In Tampa Bay, students are encouraged to develop their inventiveness at an early age through the national nonprofit, Bright Young Minds Coalition. It had its roots in the 2017 Startup Week in Pinellas County and launched last fall.

Based in Valrico, Founder and Executive Director Tracy Zuluaga, is helping train future inventors through curricula and resources for teachers. A mom and mother figure to those who walk through her door, Zuluaga formerly worked as an adult vocational teacher. Her focus is on the four Cs: Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity, along with innovation and business skills required for this technological era.

“I am happy to be that mom that is always guiding them toward the importance of developing Life Skills and Career Skills - stay in school, go back to school, focus on STEM-centered careers, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Financial Capability,” she says.  
Zuluaga provides curriculum resources and ongoing support to the schools at no cost through community sponsorships. “Regardless of your economic status, you’re able to participate in those programs,” she says.

The curriculum is being used in 22 schools in Pinellas County. It also is in some Hillsborough public schools. She is working with that school system to roll the program into a large number of schools next school year. There also is “random interest” across the state, she says.

Zuluaga additionally manages Florida and Puerto Rico for an affiliated group, the STEMIE Coalition, which incorporates science, technology, engineering and math together with innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Invention education has really been around since 1984. Now it’s really gaining some momentum,” Zuluaga says.

In the long run, the hope is that such encouragement will help prepare youths for jobs that won’t be replaced by automation. “If successful, we will help reduce the dropout rate, reduce the number of people on assistance programs because they can't secure employment or work in fields that keep them in the poverty level,” she says.

Annalisa and other students are expecting to showcase their inventions at Bright Young Minds’ pinnacle event, Florida Invention Convention, May 4th and 5th at Pinellas Technical College, 901 34th St. S., St. Petersburg.

The Tampa Bay Inventors Council

The Tampa Bay inventors’ community helps each other through the 35-year-old, Largo-based Tampa Bay Inventors Council. “Innovation is alive in America. There are lot of people that are interested in seeing that ideas come to fruition,” says Wayne Rasanen, the council’s president and the inventor of Decatxt, a Bluetooth keyboard with 10 keys that can be used with one hand. 

IN10DID, Inc. of New Port Richey and the DecaTxt keyboard were among the 100 recognized for innovation in science and technology in the international contest in Orlando last November.

Founded by attorney Ron Smith, the Inventors Council meets on both sides of Tampa Bay monthly. It has more than 150 active members, among them the renowned 82-year-old Ron Klein, a Sarasota resident with some successful inventions already to his credit. 

Klein is still at work innovating, as well as speaking and mentoring. “I’m not empty yet,” he says. “I’m still developing.”

As a child, Klein made his own toys with things like masking tape and a ball of string. He hung out with his grandfather Samuel Weissman, also an inventor. “He was my mentor,” Klein recalls. I hung out with him all the time.”

Klein patented the magnetic card strip in 1966 as a way of facilitating the charging process, which involved a lot of manual checking for bad credit. Today he’s selling an invention to help the visually impaired identify things in their environment.

Inspired out of his desire to help a blind friend, he created the free app Eli for Smartphones released in December. It works with reusable labels that are attached to audio message identifying objects. Available through his website, Envision Eli, the labels sell for $20 per 100.

They also can be used by sighted individuals to keep track of what’s in moving boxes, and will soon be available to disseminate product information to shoppers when they are in the store, he says.

Klein, an electrical engineer, has made a success of his career. While the credit card strip wasn’t particularly lucrative, he says he’s made “many millions” by automating the New York stock market and developing the MLS.

“I don’t classify myself as an inventor,” he says, preferring the label innovator. “I’m a problem solver. ... Everything I’ve ever done has changed the world and provided benefits.”

His advice to young entrepreneurs? “Simplify and be smart, daring and different. Pay attention. Learn something,” he advises. “Don’t try to sell ideas. Sell benefits. That’s the answer to success.”

Klein relates well to the younger generation because he engages them. “I’m a senior millennial because I think like a millennial, but yet I’m a senior,” he says. “I listen. I simplify. l listen and I get it. ... I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person. I make sure they are armed.”

Another repeat inventor in the area is John Pfanstiehl, who recently licensed a popup sprinkler extension that raises sprinklers into position after they’ve sunken into the ground over time. With the extension, lifting the sprinkler into place is a 1-minute, instead of a 20- to 30-minute, job. The SprinklerLift elevates the nozzle 1 1/2 inches.

His Mold Minder, an inexpensive early-alert mold detection device that can warn property owners about higher moisture levels, may potentially be available later this year. The devices, which cost a few dollars each, can be installed into walls, roofs and roof overhangs to alert owners to water leaks that might not be noticed until major damage occurs.

His X-Scan will essentially X-ray the car and inform car buyers about previous damage that may not be on the vehicle’s information reports. He is trying to find someone to license the product, which relies on a coating thickness gauge he’s also developed. 

“I certainly hope it will be this year, but I don’t know,” says Pfanstiehl, an Inventors Council member who speaks occasionally to the group. “Everything is right for it. The time has come. The technologies have come together.”

Smartphones and the Internet make it simpler to walk around a car at a car auction and gather and transmit the data required, he explains. 

The product is intended for use by car dealers and other companies.

The founder of Indian Rocks Beach-based Design Works, Pfanstiehl believes the local Investors Council is one of the best in the nation. “If they’re interested in moving ahead, ... they are lucky,” he says.

The Inventors Launchpad

Tapping into the community is as simple as dropping in on an Inventors Council meeting. Or dropping by the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center at 2101 E. Palm Ave. in Ybor City, where Carmine Denisco, Managing Partner of the Clearwater-based Inventors Launchpad gives a seminar called “The Inventors Roadmap to Success™ - Step-by-Step Guide To Profiting From Your Big Idea!”

Denisco, the author of The Inventors’ Roadmap to Success, may surprise you. “That prototype is not going to help you get sales. I can’t send them a prototype,” he says. “Packaging sells. You can sell dirt. In reality, it has to be retail ready.”

One of the most costly mistakes inventors make is tackling the process out of sequence, he says. 

That might involve rushing to create a product without identifying a problem and its solution, doing research, or conceptualizing the design. An inventor might get a patent early in the game, before the invention is perfected, or spend a lot of money on drawings that will be changed at the factory, for example.

“When they come to the office, oftentimes they have spent $30,000, $50,000 and they’ve gotten nothing,” he says. “They did everything out of sequence.”

Rushing to market out of fear your idea will be stolen isn’t a good idea. Neither is letting fear paralyze you. 

“You don’t want to be first to market. You want to be second or third,” he says. “Even Apple could not supply phones to all the world. They have to have other people supply phones.”

Ultimately, expecting to be the only one in the market is unrealistic. “You can’t be the only one. Spend the money on your tribe, your niche product,” he advises. “Don’t worry about what other people are doing.”

He suggests a premium version of your product may increase sales while catering to those who want a little something extra. “There are always those people that want the best,” he advises. “It’s a small percentage. You really always want to offer that higher price.”

Here are some more tips:

• Choose a target market before you design packaging.
• Don’t worry if there’s something else like it in the market. You can change things around.
• Use 3D printers to save time and money. They’ll enable you to see design errors before it goes to the factory.
• Spend your money on product you can actually sell.
• Get feedback from a focus group, not family members who most likely will tell you it’s a great idea.
• Consider a provisional patent for $65, which is good for one year, instead of a patent that can cost thousands of dollars. “A provisional patent is just putting your place in the line,” he says. “It gives you that time to maybe talk to investors.”
• Finalize your most viable product, and get it into the marketplace to begin making money. Then test it and get feedback. “Make sure it is the best at that time,” he says. “We can always make things better.”
• You can control your sales and sales cycle by the price.
• Consider manufacturing in this hemisphere to avoid higher shipping costs and the need to stock larger quantities.

Denisco and his business partner Rick Valderrama also have a network and podcast to support entrepreneurs. According to its website, the company manages your invention from “napkin to store shelf,” enabling you to make it to market faster in a cost-effective manner. 

Says Denisco: “Invention is a niche. Inventors that want to learn are very much a niche.”

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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