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As COVID-19 forced most of the world into lockdown last year, researchers throughout the Florida High Tech Corridor sprang into action.

At the University of South Florida (USF), leaders of its research and innovation enterprise banded together to form the USF Pandemic Response Research Network (PRRN) – a transdisciplinary initiative focused on coordinating assets and expanding infrastructure key for the response to COVID-19.

Central to the network’s mission, the USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant Program provided critical seed funding for research projects designed to address the medical, technological and societal issues presented by the pandemic. Focused on research that could be immediately initiated and completed within a relatively brief timeframe, the program encouraged rapid turnaround for the potential to secure external research funding.

Made possible in part by a $300,000 contribution from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, the grant program also highlighted the power of partnerships in pursuing solutions to save lives, prevent spreading of the disease and fortify the economy. Underscoring the importance of public-private collaboration, several projects were conducted alongside industry partners.

Following their sprint, researchers are just now coming up for air to share their findings in a series of internal symposiums to showcase progress, share knowledge and spark continued technological advancement.

The following anecdotes are representative of the 16 projects supported with funding from The Corridor Council, which all highlight the capabilities of university researchers in Florida and offer promising discoveries that will aid recovery from COVID-19 and mitigate the impacts of future pandemics.

  • COVID-19 Economic Recovery Markers from Satellite Imagery for City-Scale Decisions: A transdisciplinary team including Dr. Sudeep Sarkar from the USF College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering is developing a tool that can quantify the pandemic’s economic impact from space. Combining satellite images and data from sources such as community mobility studies, flight tracking and railway tracking, the team aims to create economic trend forecasts to support the work of analysts and policymakers leading economic activity and recovery. Other project collaborators include researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Maxar Technologies, a global satellite company based in Colorado.

 

  • COVID-19 Animal Model Resource Development for Microbiome & Intervention Studies: The USF-PRRN Microbiome co-directors, Dr. Christian Brechot and Dr. Shyam Mohapatra, have successfully developed two preclinical models for COVID research in collaboration with Dr. Tom Unnasch from the Department of Global Health in USF’s College of Public Health, and Dr. Subhra Mohapatra from the Department of Molecular Medicine in the Morsani College of Medicine. These models use both Biosafety Level 2 and Animal Biological Safety Level 3 facilities that would allow researchers to work on infectious agents with the highest level of safety, and security standards and practices. This unique resource will support pre-clinical translational research on COVID-19, including the development of new probiotics, vaccines and therapies.

 

  • Plasmonic-PECO Integrated with Mask/Respirator/Ventilator for Protection Against COVID-19: USF College of Engineering’s Dr. Yogi Goswami is widely known for inventing the photo-electrochemical oxidation (PECO) technology that destroys viruses and bioaerosols in the air and was central to the invention of Molekule’s popular air purifiers. Now, he is studying how to integrate PECO into medical devices and personal protection equipment, such as face masks or ventilators.

 

  • Portable System for COVID-19 Antibody Testing Based on Mobile ELISA, Deep Learning and AI: Rapid antibody tests are fast, but have limited accuracy and use. To increase testing capacity, Dr. Anna Pyayt from the USF College of Engineering is partnering with the Amazon Web Services Diagnostic Development Initiative to create a small, portable system that more accurately measures the level of COVID-19 antibodies in the blood. Transitioning from the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) technology used in large laboratories to a portable, low-cost platform would also allow broader access to antibody tests in locations such as urgent care facilities.

The USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant Program has proven public-private partnerships can be a driving force of technological innovation throughout the region. Companies interested in partnering with USF on research projects should contact the Office of Corporate Partnerships. The Florida High Tech Corridor offers matching grants of up to $150,000 for applied research projects between USF and industry partners. For more information or to determine eligibility, visit https://floridahightech.com/innovation/research/.

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