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Edison Awards 2021

The Edison Awards, an annual celebration of innovation and technology, aims to make Fort Myers the Cooperstown of Innovation, said Executive Director Frank Bonafilia.

It’s also becoming a showcase, networking opportunity and idea accelerator for the Black business community through the Lewis Latimer Fellowship. Bonafilia co-founded the fellowship with Jon Cropper, managing partner and founder of Futurlogic. He has assisted marketing international brands including Sony, Starbucks, Telefonica, Jaguar and AT&T among others.

More than 100 leaders from companies from 23 countries will descend upon Fort Myers for tonight’s black-tie awards ceremony at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center in downtown Fort Myers.

The celebration will continue at 9 a.m. Friday morning until 1 p.m. at the center and adjacent amphitheater, where high school students from across Southwest Florida will meet innovators with a full morning of presentations and learning and networking opportunities. The Friday events are open to the public.

“They’re really here to share their innovation stories,” Bonafilia said. “Innovation is a lonely sport. They’re failing all the time. But they’re getting up and trying, time and time again. They show their perseverance, and they’re sharing their stories.”

The influx of business world leaders into the City of Palms, where inventor Thomas Edison once roamed, could give local elected officials opportunities to connect and attract future business partners to the area, Bonafilia said, whether it be with Honda and Apple or a small company from Japan with a handful of employees.

“The Edison Awards is really the bridge from the world to Fort Myers and from Fort Myers to the rest of the world,” Bonafilia said.

It’s also a bridge for aspiring Black innovators with the rest of the world. Bonafilia and Cropper created the Latimer Fellowship Program during the summer of 2020, a momentous time for the Black community, Cropper said.

They recognized that Louis Latimore, a Black assistant to heralded inventors Edison and Alexander Graham Bell didn’t receive the acclaim he deserved.

“The story of the Louis Latimer program really started for us on August 28, 2020,” Cropper said. “That was the day when Chadwick Boseman passed away. He was the actor who played the Black Panther.”

The actor and character resonated not just with the Black community, but with the world, Cropper said, as he portrayed the first Black superhero who thrived and inspired by using advanced technology.

During that summer, systemic racism received more of a spotlight during the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who later was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison.

Bonafilia and Cropper brainstormed ways to connect rising Black business leaders and entrepreneurs. Each year, a committee selects six fellows for the program from hundreds of applicants.

“Frank and I have been friends for 20-plus years,” Cropper said. “And we said we needed to do something to inject an altruistic energy into the culture around the contributions of African American innovators. We got to build a program around that cult of personality, that spirit.”

This marks the second year of assembling the six fellows for three days in Fort Myers.

The first fellow is Lisa Dyson, CEO of Air Protein, a NASA-inspired technology that converts elements in the air into sustainable protein that eliminates compromise between taste, nutrition and climate threat.

Fox Harrell is a professor of digital media and artificial intelligence at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jacquelle Amankonah is founder and CEO of Fave, a new social platform and marketplace connecting superfans.

Shameik Moore, an actor, singer and rapper, is the voice actor of Miles Morales from the movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

Ian Randall, founder and CEO of Maglev Aero Inc., is developing electrical airplanes with an invention called the Vertical Take-Off and Landing Air Vehicle Landing Platform.

Soton Rosanwo, founder and CEO of Centinel, is advising insurance companies on climate or event-based disruptions.

Those six also will travel to Silicon Valley for workshops this summer and to Boston, where they plan on honoring Latimer.

The son of escaped slaves, Latimer was born in 1848 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and died in 1928 in an unmarked grave near Boston.

The Latimer Fellowship plans to install a tombstone on the grave. In addition to assisting Edison with the light bulb and Bell with the telephone, Latimer invented an evaporative air conditioner and improved toilet systems for railroad cars.

“We’ll have a proper ceremony, to celebrate this man’s contributions to culture,” Cropper said.

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