Memphis is a place where lifelong Memphians and newcomers alike can bring their ideas to life, get involved, and experience sweet success. For siblings Dr. Isaac Rodriguez and Kayla Graff, that’s exactly what happened – and we do mean sweet success.
The sibling duo co-founded SweetBio, a biotech company that makes membranes incorporated with Manuka honey for use in dental surgery to help regrow your gums. SweetBio was born out of the need for a better product, and the journey to bring it to life led Isaac from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he earned his doctor of philosophy in 2013, to the University of Memphis, where he helped set up a Tissue Engineering lab during his Postdoctoral Fellowship (2013-2015). Isaac’s Professor and Lab were approached by an oral surgeon who wanted an improvement on a very specific product for tooth removal and implant surgeries, and he continued to work on it and refine it until he had what they needed: a resorbable membrane unlike the plastics or metals that currently existed, and the first product for use after tooth loss or before implantation that used Medical Grade Manuka honey to protect bone growth and facilitate gum regeneration.
After sharing what he was working on with his sister, Kayla, the two knew they had an opportunity to collaborate and further develop the industry-changing product. Isaac, the scientist behind the product, and Kayla, an adept businesswoman working in San Francisco at the time, teamed up to put the product through an incubator program and build out their business model. Their product, an obvious feat, was accepted into two incubator programs, and the siblings had to choose between a Silicon Valley accelerator or a Memphis biotech accelerator. With Kayla already based in the San Francisco area and the widely-known appeal of Silicon Valley, the choice would seem like a no-brainer to many. But to Isaac and Kayla, the need for a city with a supportive medical community and plenty of opportunities to network made Memphis the ideal place to grow their business.
“As an entrepreneur, it is rare you are surrounded by most of the resources you need,” says Kayla. “Memphis is that rare gem and combines the forces of an experienced medical device industry, startup hustle connected by an entrepreneurial hub, and of course, Southern Hospitality. Layer on the cost of living and we were sold.”
Since Kayla’s relocation to Memphis and the continued success of SweetBio, they’ve attracted investors and raised $2 million to date. They were also the only team from Memphis chosen to participate in the state-wide Launch Tennessee The TENN Master Accelerator program. Alongside their own success, Isaac and Kayla remain involved in the Memphis Community and are active in Memphis’ own biomedical start-up scene:
“I’ve never lived in a city that puts so much effort into listening to the voice of young professionals,” says Isaac of Memphis’ young professionals’ scene. “We are involved with mentoring local start-ups and sitting on multiple boards including city and county mayors and local non-profits because Memphis has this culture of grit, grind, and giving, which is successfully contagious and fuels us every day.”
In 2018, the siblings will be submitting their FDA application to move their honey incorporated membrane to market. They’ve also begun exploring product opportunities outside of dentistry, including veterinary school partnerships so animals can benefit from the membrane as well as submission for a grant to apply different versions of their product to wound care. Visit their website to learn more about SweetBio.