Cesar Bandera, Ph.D.
October 25, 2019
NIEHS grantee Cesar Bandera, Ph.D., an electrical engineer, business owner, and professor of entrepreneurship, develops technologies for public and environmental health. He is an advocate for the NIEHS Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, which encourages small businesses to bring technology solutions to market through translational research.
Although entrepreneurship is promoted widely in universities today, this was not the case when Bandera was in school studying biomimetics, a field that combines engineering with life sciences to create different materials. Despite this challenge, Bandera found his way to entrepreneurship early on and learned how to build a strong team, manage technology, and create valuable products and services.
Throughout his years in entrepreneurship, Bandera has received multiple grants from the NIEHS SBIR E-Learning for HAZMAT Program, which supports the development of technologies that provide training solutions for workers. This grant support has allowed Bandera to develop different cell phone-based technologies and build partnerships with others, such as grantees in the NIEHS Worker Training Program (WTP), which provides health and safety training for workers across the nation.
Training Skilled Support Personnel and Emergency Responders
CellPodium, a technology startup co-founded by Bandera and physicist Peter Schmitt, Ph.D., creates digital solutions for emergency situations and public safety. The company’s Just-In-Time-Training-Emergency-Incidents-System (JITTEIS) is a video processing technology that provides on-site health and safety training to skilled support personnel (SSP) deployed to emergencies.
“This is a vulnerable population,” said Bandera. “They are often deployed to the same dangerous situations as emergency responders, but they don’t receive the same level of training.”
Along with the JITTEIS, Bandera and his team created a suite of brief training videos covering specific topics like how to wear personal protective equipment and evaluate hazards.
When an emergency occurs, an incident commander chooses relevant training videos from an online dashboard and instructs JITTEIS to send them to the cell phones of SSP. Once the videos are copied onto the phone’s memory, the cell phone user can play them at any time. The process is similar to text messaging and does not require the user to download any additional applications.
Bandera added that the resilient nature of the JITTEIS is demonstrated through its ability to work both nationally and internationally, in public health emergencies of all types. Additionally, because the system works like text messaging, it can be used without internet access.
The technology was used among responders deployed to New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Even though the internet was inaccessible to most cell phones across the region after the storm, the Emergency Operations Center of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was able to use JITTEIS to broadcast logistics and mobilization videos to responders.
Bandera also leveraged JITTEIS outside of his NIEHS-funded work, using the system to assist in Haiti during the cholera epidemic and in the Dominican Republic during the Chikungunya epidemic.
Pursuing New Technologies
In 2017, CellPodium received an SBIR E-Learning Program grant to develop the new Augmented Reality (AR) Sensor Simulation System for HAZMAT Training in collaboration with Mitchel Rosen, Ph.D., a WTP grantee and principal investigator for the New Jersey/New York Hazardous Materials Worker Training Center.
According to Bandera, the AR system improves the realism of HAZMAT training exercises and the ability of responders to find, classify, and isolate chemical and radiological hazards. Traditionally, HAZMAT field training involves instructors audibly calling out mock hazards and exposures. However, the AR system allows instructors to focus on learner assessment and learners to focus on practicing life-saving skills in realistic settings.
The AR system is inexpensive, consisting of tiny Bluetooth beacons placed on mock chemical and radiological hazards and a free phone application that mimics the handheld sensors. The GPS tracks the location of the learners while the Bluetooth beacons give off the locations of the mock hazards, allowing the system to calculate exposure levels in real time.
Bandera noted that marketing a product, and ensuring that it fits the target audience’s needs, can sometimes be a challenge in translational research. At recent conferences, like the 2019 American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo and the 2018 International International Hazardous Materials Response Teams Conference, CellPodium distributed AR system beacons to attendees. In return, the company asked for user feedback and suggestions.
Bandera uses this type of feedback to keep the system operating at low costs and to make improvements. This makes it appealing to WTP grantees and other programs that offer HAZMAT training.
Future improvements to the system may include the ability to simulate large-scale environmental disasters, such as contaminated floodwaters, and a 3-D printed cellphone case that mimics the shape of a commercial gas sensor.
“I think augmented reality is a term that deters people,” said Bandera. “Once people try the system, they like the simplicity of it.”
Paying it Forward
Bandera is optimistic about the future of entrepreneurship and readily promotes the NIEHS SBIR program in his curriculum.
“Entrepreneurship sometimes seems more focused on self-actualization than on societal need,” said Bandera. “The NIEHS SBIR program flips that model around, putting the needs of society first while acknowledging the challenges of commercialization.”
Bandera shows students how the NIEHS SBIR program evaluates technology proposals and business plans.
The students then work through an exercise of writing a research, development, and commercialization strategy in the SBIR proposal format. This encourages them to evaluate their ideas from other points of view and to understand what end users, investors, and federal agencies require. These skills are of value not only to entrepreneurs, but to anyone who needs to develop innovative solutions.