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The Inventivity Pod
A Better Mosquito Trap
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The son of a Pennsylvania preacher, Philip Koehler made his way to Florida courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Eventually he became a Professor of Urban Entomology at the University of Florida. He’s developed a mosquito and fly trap that uses a minimal amount of insecticides, and he also has developed a trap for bed bugs. He patents inventions because “you can write an article for a scientific journal and no one will ever use it.”

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Bugs. We’re back to talk about something that everyone who lives or is from Florida is very familiar with and very happy to have on Radio Cade this morning, Dr. Philip Koehler, who is a professor of Urban Entomology at the University of Florida. Thanks for being with us Phil.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

It’s wonderful to be here with you.

Richard Miles:

Phil, I know if I tried to describe your technology I would completely mess it up. So I’m going to ask you to sort of tell me a little bit about your, your core technology core invention , um , and explain it as if , uh , and in this case, very realistic scenario. I don’t know anything about it.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yeah, we, we started back in , uh, back in around 2010 or so trying to take on flies and mosquitoes as very dangerous animals that needed to be controlled because they , uh, they are very important from the standpoint of human welfare. There were very few products that were environmentally friendly to be able to control these , uh , these potential disease factors. And we’d gotten some funding from the military in order to develop, first of all, fly traps. And second of all , um , mosquito traps in order to be able to control them. And we’ve, we’ve developed several new technologies that have now been patented and are in the process of being commercialized throughout the entire world.

Richard Miles:

And so if I understand correctly, these technologies , um, they’re, they’re mostly not, or do they have anything to do with sort of insecticides or sprays or anything, or these are different types of pest control?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Everything that we’ve done utilizes insecticides, however, they are contained so that people won’t contact them. And also they’re not a danger to the environment because they are contained.

Richard Miles:

Okay, so they’re not like sprayed on a field or they’re more in receptacles or containers?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Exactly. We’re, we’re putting them associated with something that the insects like to go to. So you don’t have to, you don’t have to spray large areas of land. And that was one of the things that I was concerned about back in 2015, that the state of Florida, in order to control Zika factors, u h, they were spraying by air, over large tracks of land. And in many cases, that was the only thing that they had available to them.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So I think, I , I think I understand more or less, and I hope our listeners do as well. So let’s, let’s go back in time to a young Phil Koehler , uh , sort of tell us your origin story, where were you from and how did a nice guy, like you ended up , dealing with bugs?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Oh, I started growing up in Southeastern Pennsylvania and , uh , my family actually goes back to like 1702. They bought the farm from William Penn. So we were longstanding in the state of , uh, of Pennsylvania. However, I ended up in Florida somehow. And, and I remember when I was playing little league baseball, I was always the right fielder, which was always the sorriest player on the team. And if a ball was hitting my direction, I would never know it because I was watching the ants crawl around on the ground. So I always have enjoyed insects in one way or another through my entire life.

Richard Miles:

So, at what point did you know you weren’t going to make the majors, pretty early on in your baseball career?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

I was, I think the , the managers of the team hated to put me on the field. And so I think it was pretty clear I was not,

Richard Miles:

And this is the days before helicopter parents. Right? So it’s not like your dad stormed onto the field and demanded more playing time for you, right?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

My dad didn’t do that. He did not storm onto the field because I was bad player.

Richard Miles:

So were either of your parents, scientists at all?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Neither one, as a matter of fact, my father was a minister and, u h, he was, u h, he was for years in, in Pennsylvania then, u h, went to Virginia and then retired back to Pennsylvania again. So it’s, u h, so probably I have a long history of people talking i n my family.

Richard Miles:

Um, so how did you end up in Florida? Did you come here as an undergraduate or did your family have a connection here?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Actually, no. What happened was I did my undergraduate work at Catava college, which was a college that was affiliated with the church that my father, my father was a minister in . And so I got a really good break because ministers don’t get paid very much. And so I got a good break as far as cost . And then,

Richard Miles:

So, this is in Pennsylvania?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Uh , this was Catava College is in North Carolina, Salisbury, North Carolina. And while I was there, I was picked up for two NSF fellowships at Oak Ridge National Lab. And I was working on chironomid midges. In other words , uh , uh, insects that grow on the bottoms of lakes. And they had a Lake there that had been contaminated with radioactive waste from building the bombs for , uh , bombing Japan. They’d put that waste in 55 gallon drums, buried it in the hillside. And when they rusted out, they built a dam then to contain the radioactive waste. So I would walk out there and the radioactive waste, collect these midges and then determine the , the abnormalities that were a result of radiation. So I did two summers there, and then I went to Argonne National Lab and was doing neutron activation a nd gamma Ray spectroscopy, which is a physics project. And I found out what I really didn’t want to do in life, which was that.

Richard Miles:

So let me guess, did you, did you volunteer for this, Phil? This sounds sort of like dangerous work, radioactive midges, and I mean, did somebody have a gun to your head or what?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

There were many days that someone was walking behind me with a Geiger counter to see how much radiation I was actually getting. And maybe that’s the reason.

Richard Miles:

He said it was a Geiger counter right there. Just make sure you weren’t didn’t turn and run away.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Of course, that may be why I’m so strange today.

Richard Miles:

So you shifted from that , um, into, or did you already have an interest in entomology before that sort of academic interest?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yes. I had an academic interest in entomology and actually I took my first entomology class at Catava College. But then I went on to Cornell University and got my PhD at Cornell University. I was going to be drafted into the army. They already had me down for that . They already did my physical and were going to put me in the trenches in Vietnam. And I had the opportunity to get into the Navy as an entomologist. And I went in as a Lieutenant , uh , entomologist and spent three years then in Jacksonville. And because I was at Jacksonville and, and teaching classes , on insect control to two Navy personnel, I got to work closely with some of the faculty here at the University of Florida. So I ended up then getting hired, u h, at the University of Florida as an assistant professor back in 1975. So I’ve been here for 44 years.

Richard Miles:

So who knew, thanks to the U.S. Navy, you ended up in Gainesville, Florida.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

That’s right. And what was interesting was I got in the Navy because they needed another entomologist to go to Vietnam, to take care of some of the mosquito problems there. And , um, and at that time they started winding down Vietnam. And so I stayed there in , in Jacksonville for my entire tour of duty. So I had three years , uh , three years there and now 44 here.

Richard Miles:

So I’m going to have to start giving the Navy professional credit here. Cause you’re actually the second guest in a row. I just had a guest on and his sort of trajectory was also to do with the Navy and it was in the area of radio-frequency antennas and he eventually went into the MRI business and so on. And so, you know, go Navy, I guess. Um, uh , okay. So let’s, let’s come sort of back to where you are, did not start a company with your technology, but you did license the technology and understand there’s a company in Italy that is using it?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yeah. So, so what happens at the University of Florida is , uh, when you have something that you think is patentable, you let the university know because they have first choice to , uh, to decide whether they want to adopt it or not. The University of Florida adopted these technologies. And then , uh, found a partner with a company that is actually managed out of Italy, but is a Florida company now. And it’s called Florida Insect Control Group. And they’re just to commercializing the technologies that we developed.

Richard Miles:

And who are , who are the major clients, I mean, are these sort of governments that are buying or anybody, these aren’t retail products right?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Okay. The , the process for this is , is very long and convoluted in order to get the technologies that we have available because we’re using insecticides. We have to go through all of the registration processes for every , uh , for every country that, that these products are going to be sold. And so right now , uh , we’re in the last stage, the company’s in the last stages of getting EPA registration in the United States and also European union , uh , registration , uh , for European countries and also former colonies of those of those countries as well. So, so basically the only registration that we have for use right now is in Poland. And I have no idea why Poland, I can’t even read the label on the product, but it was, it was one that, u h, that seemed reasonable for them to go to. First,

Richard Miles:

I noticed also that you are, you have been inducted or were inducted in the pest management professional hall of fame. I have to say, you’re the first inductee in the pest management hall of fame and I’ve met so, honored here.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yeah . So that was, that was quite an honor because they , uh, they try to choose the people that have made the most outstanding contributions to the pest management industry throughout the country and throughout the world. Actually, most of the , uh, the, the organization national pest management association is , uh , is not national. It’s a worldwide association where they have participants from all over the world, including India and Japan. And another thing that I forgot to tell you was that this year I’m being inducted as a fellow in the National Academy of Inventors and,

Richard Miles:

Oh, congratulation in Tampa right?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

It was first started in Tampa, but this year the, the award is going to be in Houston at the space center there. And from what I understand, the, the award will be passed out by the gentlemen who is in charge of patents and trade for the U.S.

Richard Miles:

Oh, Congratulations.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

So it’s quite quite an honor for me. And also I think for the University of Florida.

Richard Miles:

Um, Phil, if you’re allowed to tell us, what are you working on now in terms of research, sort of what’s on the horizon , um, in terms of your , uh , sort of academic interests , or do you have anything else that you are getting ready to license or patent that you can talk about?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Well, actually , um , uh , I think that according to the University of Florida records, I have 19 patents in the U.S. that have been issued and probably five international. And , uh, there are five more that are being issued at this point. So, so we have quite a, quite a stack of them going through that are novel inventions that, that we’re trying to bring to people, to be able to manage insights that are dangerous in their own yards and in an environmentally friendly way.

Richard Miles:

One thought that occurred to me, Phil is how much do you have to know of or work with? Um, uh, I guess sort of like urban planners or urban designers, or even sociologists, because it occurs to me that some of the patterns in what you’re dealing with right, are , are concentrations of people making decision on somewhere to live, and those patterns change over time. And they change city by city country, by country. How much of your work intersects with that world in which you’re , you’re actually looking at the sociology of the urban environment before you look at the bugs there?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yeah. Well, we haven’t really worked with the sociologists all that much. Um , what we’ve, what we’ve been trying to do is work with people in material science and engineering in order to come up with formulations that can be used in the way that we want these products to be used. So by putting together the people that have a knowledge of the molecules, along with the people that have a knowledge of the insects, we’ve been able to come up with novel ways of approaching insect control. So one of the first products that we came up with was a fly trap. That was a color blue. And if you’re familiar with fly traps at all, they’re usually yellow. Now I did not understand why they were yellow because flies always go to blue over yellow and as a matter of fact, it’s like two to one, they’ll go to blue over yellow, but most of the fly traps were developed in agriculture for agriculturally important pests. They’re attacking plants and a sick plant is yellow. And so the i nse cts attracted to things that are, that the agricultural pests are attracted to things that are mostly yellow in color. So they just went ahead and said, we control flies too. W ell , guess what? Blue is a better color. So we came up with blue. And one of the things that I noticed was flies like to squeeze into small cracks and crevices. And I couldn’t believe it. We grow flies at our l ab, of course, and you can put them in a plastic bag and, and crinkle it up. Like you would a bag of potato chips and try to try to seal it off as tight as you can. And the flies would find their way out. They love squeezing into cracks and crevices. So they’re actually attracted to the blue color and then secondarily the black color of a crack. So what we did was we put, uh, w e p u t a piece of yarn on there, treated the yarn with insecticide, and we could kill thousands of flies in a short period of time. We hung them over dumpsters and the flies would, would fall dead. And we catch them in a tray underneath and be able to count them. And it was thousands of flies and like a 24 hour period that you could kill with just a little bit of product on, uh, o n m a ybe 12 inches of yarn on a blue w ith t hat’ s put on a blue background and they’re attracted to the blue color. They think there’s a crack there because they see the black on the blue and they go to that and there’s food there. So they eat it and they die. And it’s a very nice way to be able to control flies without spraying everything around your property and around your, um, y o ur farm for fly control.

Richard Miles:

So you, you make it sound kind of easy, but this, I imagine took hours and hours of research. I mean, I just pity the poor grad assistant who had to count all those flies, right? I mean, this is, this is how long did it take just to , uh, determine what you just told me is that months of research or is that years of research?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Oh it was years. Actually, we started out by putting, by doing electroretinograms on the flies. Now he’s like electroretinogram is where you shine a particular wavelength of light onto a fly eye. And you have a probes set in there. So you can determine whether there’s an electrical impulse going to the brain or not from that , uh, from that light. And then you can change the wavelengths of light and find out what the fly is most sensitive to. And they’re most sensitive to blue and they can see yellow. And that’s actually, that was the only color that repelled flies. And so the traps that are out there, u h, for the most part are yellow and r epelling flies.

Richard Miles:

In your experience, Phil , is there a certain personality type of people that are attracted to entomology research? Cause it’s, you know, they’re animals for sure, but they’re not like cute furry animals and they’re not plants. So have you noticed any commonalities and you know, you and your colleages?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Well for a lot of the people, and I must admit this goes back quite a few years, my experience with antibiotics , uh , they’re very much like engineers, they’re socially awkward. And so, so it’s , uh , it’s rather interesting dealing with both engineers and , and entomologists as well. And one other thing,

Richard Miles:

It’s almost like the , the joke, you know, accountants will tell about actuaries and actuaries tell about accounts and who is the more socially awkward, is it something like that?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yeah, and maybe the entomologists have been engineer’s beat and you asked how many flies we had to count in order to get this thing done. It was amazing how many flies that we had to count. I had a, I had a student that came to the University of Florida , uh, from Thailand and she didn’t speak very much English and I couldn’t figure out what project to put her on. So I told her to count all the flies and we had one of those traps that we had made, and we wanted to see how many flies it could kill with one charge. So we hung with hung that trap in a cage and we killed flies and we, and we, then we would add more flies in, cause we couldn’t get all the flies in the cage that all at one time we keep on adding flies as they died. And then she had to count every one and she spent three months counting flies. We got up to 40,000. We were still killing 99% of the flies that we released in the cage. And she had to go back to Thailand and so we stopped counting, but every morning I would go in there and she would, u h, she’d separate the flies out into piles of 10. And she would have the days kill there, which m ay b e four or 5,000, u h, flies. And then, u h, then count each fly individually.

Richard Miles:

So I can imagine she went back and had great stories to tell a parties. What did you do in the United States for three months? Well I counted flies.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yes. It was an exciting place.

Richard Miles:

Hopefully it didn’t scare off of entomology .

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Actually that information was quite valuable. We killed 40,000 flies with the thing with one charge. And we did that over three months now , you know, whether it’s effective or not. Yeah . We didn’t have to retreat it at all. And so it’s been , uh , that , uh , that whole process of development of that , uh , of that product was, was actually quite interesting. And , um, and Florida insect control group acquired the rights to that and is commercializing that now.

Richard Miles:

So Phil, you’ve also done some work with bedbugs. Tell me what that’s about.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Yes. We’ve been working extensively with bedbugs over the past 20 years. They started coming back in the U.S. Somewhere around the turn of the century where around the year 2000 or so , uh , bedbugs came back and people really didn’t have a good way to , uh, to manage them. What we’ve done is invented a new type of trap that you can put underneath a bed. And one of the things that they can’t do at the hotels and motels is u sed traps very effectively because they, underneath the mattress and box Springs, they usually have wood that’s on the ground, like a t wo-by-six, u h, that is underneath the mattress and box Springs as a frame. W ell, we’ve invented, u h, u h, a trap t hat can go around those beds and w e’ve feel that we can eliminate the b edbug problem in many of the hotels and motels that would have problems with ifestations.

Richard Miles:

That sounds like a huge commercial potential there, right? I mean, I’ve known a few people, who’ve had bedbugs and it sounds like an absolute nightmare in terms of actually getting rid of them.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

And everyone’s fear is you, when you travel, you stay at a , you stay at a place and you may pick up bedbugs and it’s very easy to bring bedbugs home. And you may be faced with , uh , with a $1,000 or a $2,000 bill in order to have them controlled in your house. They can be much more expensive than even termites to control.

Richard Miles:

Because the conventional treatment now is you have to wet seal off and fumigate a room? Is that how you do it?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

In many cases in Florida, they’re doing fumigation. However, there is heat treatment that’s also available. Uh, but none of those provide longterm protection. As soon as you have the temperature, go back to normal or release the gas, then the bedbugs can come back in again from someplace else. So the next time you stay at a motel, you may bring them back in and it may cost. It may cost a lot of money in order to be able to get them controlled. So we’re trying to come up with some solutions that people could put under , uh, under the legs of their bed, or even in hotels and motels that can be put , uh , put as a frame or underneath the frame of the bed in order to catch bed bugs that are, that are brought into the place.

Richard Miles:

Phil, as you look back on your career, you know, starting in Philadelphia and going to North Carolina and then to Jacksonville , then to Gainesville , um, you know, what, what sort of lessons have you learned or what lessons would you impart to say a younger version of you if you met them on the street, you know, a researcher and in particular, you know, since the Cade Museum , um, you know, we like to tell stories of inventions and inventors, particularly those who think that they’ve got a great idea, the idea may have market potential. Um, you know, what, what should they be thinking about , uh, now, or, you know, what , what do you wish you had done, if anything, and what do you wish you hadn’t done? So that should be enough material in that question to go for quite a long time.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Okay. Well that was to go for , for quite a while . As a matter of fact , um , my advice to , to kids is they , they need to go to a college that they really , uh , there that really fits their personality. Not every, not every child is destined for the University of Florida and not everybody that gets into the University of Florida is going to be able to adjust, adjust to the size of the university. Because I went to a small place like Catava College that had somewhere around 1100 students, which is, you know , maybe the size of our department at the University of Florida. Um, it allowed me to be able to grow as a person with a small group that , uh, that we all knew each other. And you can survive at the University of Florida if you have a small group. And like at the end of biology department, we do a very good job of, of taking care of our students individually. But there are other departments that have thousands of students in them. We have, we have probably 50 undergraduates and maybe 140 , uh , graduate students. So we’re a small department in the overall scheme of things at the University of Florida. And I think it’s very important for, for kids to be able to find a place that they’re comfortable with , uh, based on their own personality. And even at the University of Florida, it’s a big place, but if you get into a small department, then you have kind of a small field to , uh , to a big place.

Richard Miles:

As far as , uh, you know, a big invention. We had a recent guest on here who said , um, he , he thought a lot of people , uh, were focused on the short-term nature or the short term desire to hit it big out, you know, do something along the lines. But , uh , three to five years, and, and, and his experience was much different. He said, look, if you’re not willing to invest 15 or even 20 years into a project or a company or whatever , um, you know, you , it’s very unrealistic to think you’re going to succeed. Has that been your experience?

Dr. Philip Koehler:

That’s very much my experience. And as a matter of fact , uh, I got in, I got into doing some of the patents and inventions , uh, because you can go ahead and publish a scientific article and put it in a book on a shelf and nobody will ever use it. And I thought that, that, that was a shame because a lot of good scientific research never gets implemented because the professor is being rated on how many publications he’s able to get into scientific journals. And they really don’t take much into account when they’re evaluating you on how many things that you’ve tried to do to make sure that what you’re doing is, is really effecting people’s lives to the positive. So, so I kind of look at it that it’s a long-term investment. And as a matter of fact, anytime that you’re dealing with , uh, with insecticides and trying to contain them in a way that would be environmentally safe, there are a lot of hoops that you have to go through and it’s a long-term process. And we started out way back in 2010 on the mosquito invention. And , uh , we still don’t have EPA registration yet. And part of the process was, was , uh, were some things that happened that I would have never anticipated. And one was that, u h, that when we, what we try to do in that mosquito invention is put a surface on the inside of a container because container mosquitoes are extremely important f or, for people’s health. Those container mosquitoes can transmit d aggy, u h, Zika, u h, Chicken Gunyah. And of course, yellow fever is coming back throughout the world. So those are container breeding mosquitoes. We can treat the interior of our container, have it the right c olor. S o the mosquitoes are attracted to it. So we have black and red is t he colors that are, that are attracted. And then we have a polymer because insecticides b reak d own very rapidly when they’re in high humidity or in water conditions. So we have a polymer to slowly release the chemicals i n the mosquitoes. Then in order to lay eggs, they land on the side of the container, or they rest inside the container b ecause they don’t fly all the time. U h, and then they die when they contact the insecticides, or if they lay eggs before they die, then the larvae then die in the container as well. Well, to make a long story longer, what happened was that EPA wants to know how long that insecticide is going to be at the right concentration when it’s on the shelf. So you have to do a two year study that you have to a pprove a two year shelf life. We ll, because we have a complex mixture. Everyone that deals with insecticides always does gas chromatography in order to determine the amount of chemical that’s in th ere, gas chromatography does not work for complex mixtures like ours. So we spent probably two years doing the wrong thing, trying to figure out what’s wrong with, with this assay, odd , w hy can’t we measure the amount of insecticide that’s in that container. And, and finally, I got so frustrated. I was, I would say, we need to use high pressure liquid chromatography HPLC in order to determine the concentration. And because the company that we’re working with is run out of Italy. They found a lab in Italy that goes, yeah, there isn’t any reason why you should have ever looked at gas chromatography for this. You sho uld ha v e do ne a H P LC right. To begin with. And so the y, t hey did it, everything came out fine. And now we’re dealing with EPA. And again, u h , th at the , t he data has been submitted there. So is it alo ng, t his is a long story, but guess what? Uh, i t ‘s not, as long as the story that we’ve had and tr ying to commercialize this, because you, aren’t going to make a fortune in a year, you aren’t going to make a fortune two years. And it probably is 15 to 20 years out that everything is going to work. We have players who are wanting to use this worldwide, and we have one company has a 37, 0 00 employees that does mosquito control throughout the world. They, they look at this as something that will be integrated into their programs and will work very well with what they’re currently doing. So they want to get a hol d of i t, but we’re stuck with a reg u latory hurdles right now in both the European union and the U.S. and China and Australia, and all of those other places.

Richard Miles:

So here’s some free advice for you, Phil , when you give your acceptance speech at the National Academy of Inventors, repeat a lot of what you just said. I just heard the founder of that. Paul Sanberg, one of the founders, u m, talk about, u h, exactly what you said, that the process of patenting a nd commercialization is a far more effective way to expand the body of knowledge, u m, b ecause y ou g ot t o prove something works, u m, as opposed to simply publishing something academic journal, which may or may not get read, and then maybe forgotten about, but patenting by definition means you have to prove a certain standard and it’s, it’s widely available, widely use may be implemented. And so he argues all the time that inventors play this special role in expanding the body of knowledge, as opposed to, u h, just researchers. I mean, a lot of vendors are also researchers, but the inventors go that extra step of exactly what you just described t o h aving to prove something actually works.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

You don’t often think about it from the standpoint of science, that the proof of science is to publish it in a peer reviewed journal. But the commercialization of that is a whole different process and, and very much , uh, very much different than what most academic people are used to dealing with.

Richard Miles:

My final comment. Uh Phil’s I can’t wait to win a bar bet or trivial pursuit game by saying that insects are actually attracted to blue and not yellow. So I know it’s going to, if I just wait long enough, I know I’m going to , I’m going to win some sort of argument somewhere. Phil, thank you very much for coming on Radio Cade has been very , uh, interesting and , um, good luck and best luck with your research and your product.

Dr. Philip Koehler:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

I’m Richard Miles.

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and vendor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme, Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song, featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson and special, thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.

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