People Pushing the Envelope

Meet six innovators doing exciting work in diverse fields

BY March 13, 2014


In the wealth of brilliant minds and skilled hands in Southwest Florida, a select few are taking things a step outside the box. We sought out the individuals who have set themselves apart through compelling innovation and the courage to think toward the future in a big way.


Stephen Myers

We’ve all heard about Amazon’s plans for “delivery by drone,” but the future for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is infinitely bigger. Stephen Myers is pushing Florida to the forefront.

“I think that the commercial (nonmilitary) use of UAVs right now is where the personal computer use was in the mid- to late ’80s,” Myers says. “It’s that big of an evolution.”

Twenty-seven years after founding a computer system integration company, the Naples native is applying his experience creating customized solutions to a burgeoning industry with his consulting company Angel Eyes UAV.

Any situation too dull, dirty or dangerous for manned aircraft now has a potential solution: delivery of humanitarian aid, oil spill containment, search and rescue, monitoring of animal populations, roof inspection, power line and pipeline inspection, bridge inspection.

“I don’t think that you can be an ostrich and stick your head in the sand and say it’s not going to happen,” Myers says.

But our technology is surpassing our laws. As of today, it is illegal to fly a UAV for profit in the United States, with exceptions including research, hobby and certificates of authorization. Angel Eyes UAV currently provides precision agriculture and public safety services in California, Arkansasand the Philippines, operating within Myers’ niche as a commercially rated pilot.

Florida was not among the six test sites recently announced for integration of UAVs into the national airspace system, but Myers assures us the state is “not rolling over and playing dead.” As a board member of the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) Florida Peninsula chapter, he is working closely with state leadership, NASA and Space Florida to proceed with testing and draft responsible legislation as early as this year. He is confident that within our lifetime every household will have a UAV.

Still a naysayer? Myers reminds you that those who said, “Don’t look at it!” about the laser are now saying, “It gave me perfect vision.”

Cesar Aguilera & Danielle Branchaud

It’s not every fashion line that’s built on the sentiment, “Awareness without action is futile.”

But artist couple Cesar Aguilera and Danielle Branchaud, designers of Paionia, are making more than a fashion statement. Each of their couture creations is 97 percent discarded material.

The duo have repurposed everything from collaged paper and upholstery to computer parts and bullet casings. They find treasure in industrial-park trash, approach bike repair shops for tossed out tires. They’ve constructed a dress from vertical blinds, made earrings out of vintage vinyl records, embellished donated heels with neurosurgery screws.

“In nature, if one creature doesn’t use it, then another creature uses it,” Aguilera says. “In all these thousands of millions of years, there has never been an ounce of waste in the normal world, until we came here. We are trying to bring that cycle of nature back in our human life.”

You can commission pieces, purchase them on Etsy, and even present a pile of “trash” for the transforming. But consumerism takes a backseat to communicating specific messages through runway shows, photo shoots and social media. Branchaud’s next project, for example, is “the florist dress,” to be crafted entirely from discarded packaging from local flower shops.

Japanese for “pioneer,” “Paionia” is meant to act as a catalyst for ecological change, with its pieces to be worn like fashionable flags.

“We’re presenting them with that option,” Branchaud says, “to say that, even though time is running short and everybody will eventually have to find a way to adapt to bigger changes, they can at least start with a small one.”

Angelo Biasi

Think of all the content we now consume by phone: news, weather, music, games. Angelo Biasi is swiftly adding education to that list. He sees it plainly:

“The future of learning is mobile-first, the future of learning is personalized, and the future of learning will be able to clearly indicate changes and improvements in learning outcomes.”

His vision began two years ago at NYU, where he created the first course ever taught online over mobile phones. He was teaching students living across the globe, with one in particular tuning in from Rome from 12:30-3:30 a.m.

“I kept thinking, ‘Hey, Adele, are you still awake? Do you have your coffee with you?’” Biasi says. “And I thought of Adele the next morning, like, ‘What of that session did she retain?’”

He didn’t “cannibalize” the course, he says, but supplemented with an app for each week: top 10 takeaways, quizzes, abbreviated videos of the lesson. He was inspired by the model of iTunes, where you can purchase just the song but have access to the whole CD. And from Naples in 2013 he launched MassiveU, which provides that same mobile-first platform to other subject matter experts wishing to share content to anyone at any time.

He already has clients in FGCU, NYU, Washington University in St. Louis and businesses that supply corporate training. For the Southwest Florida Community Foundation he created GradApp, which provides high school students with easy access to the huge resource of FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And the father of 6-year-old twins has begun to reach K-12 educators through “Bring Your Own Device” participant Collier County Public Schools.

Student surveys are clearly showing that kids prefer phones to tablets, Biasi says. Statistics say twice as many children age 2 to 5 can use a smartphone app than can tie their shoes.

Biasi is helping teachers create those apps for the classroom. He also is working toward identifying individual attributes using sophisticated profiling technology, to then match students with personalized learning approaches. Even further, he aspires to student-owned learning, in which choosing the instruction that resonates with you best would include options from your fellow classmates.

Biasi’s model could be applied to almost anything—and truth be told, he’s already thought of it.

Dr. Brian Hummel

Dr. Brian Hummel is saving lives and putting Southwest Florida on the medical map with access to a breakthrough procedure.

Seven percent of the over-65 population will suffer from aortic stenosis, a narrowing and firming of the aortic valve commonly caused by aging. Fifty percent of symptomatic patients die within two years if left untreated, and until recently the only treatment was open-heart surgery—cut the old valve out and sew a new one in.

“Traditional surgery where we would put them on the heart-lung machine was just tantamount to a death sentence to some of these patients,” says Hummel, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.

Well thanks to him, local patients now have a much less invasive option. A transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) involves only a small incision, through an artery in the groin or between the ribs. A small sheath delivers a balloon to open the diseased valve, removes the balloon, and then positions a new valve inside the old one by way of a second balloon. The valve remains in place through radial force alone; only patients with adequate calcium deposit for the valve to hold to are candidates for the procedure.

“I became very interested in watching what was going on (in Europe) and felt like this was going to be ‘coming here to a theater near you’ very soon,” Hummel says. So he persuaded Lee Memorial to create a “hybrid” operating suite to accommodate the advanced procedure.

In December 2012, HealthPark Medical Center became the second commercial site in the United States—and the first in Florida—to perform a TAVR. The hospital is still the only qualified site between Sarasota and Miami.

Today Hummel captains up to 15 people in the enviable suite, which is both a fully functioning operating room and home to state-of-the-art radiology equipment. A team of surgeons, cardiologists and other specialists deploy the valve in 45 to 90 minutes, and the patient goes home two days faster than with the open-heart method.

The team have resorted to opening the chest only once in 74 operations, surpassing the national success rate of 92 percent. And you can bet Hummel is still keeping the hospital front and center for the next generations of TAVR.

Mila Bridger

“I love to shock,” Mila Bridger says.

A sarcastic “You think?” might escape you if you’ve seen the photographer’s work. Apocalyptic “last toast” scenes, with subjects donning gas masks (she has quite the collection). “Fractured fairytales,” with characters not faring so happily ever after (think an aged Cinderella reigning over a pile of ill-fitting heels).

“Pretty” is everywhere, Bridger dismisses. Sure, she delivers typically stunning shoots. But her passion, as evidenced by the photos of herself and five others in this story, is creative portraiture. And it is still beautiful in its fabulous detail. That Cinderella story, for example, displays a clock at 25 past midnight and a pumpkin far shrunken from its carriage days.

“It’s all about different,” she says. “I don’t want another ‘Say cheese’ photograph.”

She has found her portrait sweet spot on a Marco Island beach, where she sets up at sunrise for a 20-minute window of perfect daylight protected by neighboring high-rises. It’s on this uniquely blank canvas that she illustrates Southwest Florida professionals who have come to her or caught her eye: a real estate agent seated with picturesque bird houses, a hairdresser “ninja” balancing atop a salon chair as she works, an artist towering in a cape of his own art.

Bridger attributes her imagination to an impressionable childhood in Poland. Her mother, an art historian with ever-present creative friends, discouraged her from becoming a starving artist but took her to exhibitions and signed her up for afterschool classes. Bridger tried drawing, painting, acting; her grandparents brought her cameras from Russia to play with. And when she was 9 or 10 her grandfather built her a darkroom in his cellar, and that was it.

Just like her big ideas, she couldn’t shake it. After years of testing more left-brained career paths, she finally went full time.

“I don’t know why I have so many of these things in my head, this creativity,” Bridger says. “It’s just been there all my life. And finally I let it go, and having people who let you let it go—it’s just fantastic.”


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