2016 Innovation Awards Winners (Sept 2016)


by Richard J. Alley

Today we celebrated the 2016 Innovation Awards winners from Inside Memphis Business with a breakfast held at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis. Partnering with the university’s Fogelman College of Business & Economics, the awards presentation this year was sponsored by Waddell & Associates LLC. Our emcee for the event was Anne Pitts, executive director of the Levitt Shell, a winner of the 2015 Innovation Awards.
This year’s winners are BRIDGES, SweetBio, Dr. Guy Reed with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and Code Crew.

Nobody likes to be in the chair when it’s time for oral surgery, but the team at SweetBio is working to make that situation just a little bit sweeter. They have created a membrane made of medical grade manuka honey and proteins used to fill in the gaps after oral surgery. This membrane allows the bones to regrow and the gums to regenerate while preventing infection. Dr. Isaac Rodriguez began development of the idea at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013 after an oral surgeon came to him needing a solution to the problem of nearly 50 percent of adults aged 30 or older — about 65 million people — having signs of gum disease. Later, the effort moved to the University of Memphis and Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program, allowing the fast track to market.


Show Kayla Rodriguez a jar of honey, and she will tell you it’s medicine.

Against the odds is one way to describe the young, Latina entrepreneur in the predominantly white, male-dominated, global biotech industry. Kayla Rodriguez, a 28-year old of Puerto Rican descent, co-founded SweetBio, a start-up biotech company that uses honey to heal the body.

Rodriguez started the Memphis-based company with her brother Isaac, 31, who holds a Ph.D. and is CEO and chief scientific officer. Marsalas Whitaker, 25, also a co-founder, is chief marketing officer. Together, they are pioneers in adapting an ancient remedy into an oral-medicine treatment.

Honey has been used for thousands of years because of its wound-healing and antibacterial properties.

Medical patients already enjoy the benefits of manuka honey. Hospitals use it to treat burns, cuts and ulcers. Manuka honey even may be effective against MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection that sometimes plagues hospitals and kills patients.

SweetBio, which launched in 2015, is the first company to introduce honey into the practice of dental surgery. The epiphany came to Isaac who knew that skin cells are similar to gum cells and if honey can work on skin, why not on the mouth? SweetBio soon was born.

Heart and respiratory problems are some of the risks associated with gum infections. “This technology will help fight infections. It will decrease your chances of getting heart or lung disease,” Kayla Rodriguez said. “I want everyone to know this is a natural remedy.”

Dr. Martin Green, director of the University of Tennessee’s graduate periodontal program, agrees. “This will help grow back jaw bone structure, help people live a more fulfilled life, smile and eat better,” he said.

SweetBio’s product is designed to be easy to use and pain-free. The SweetBio membrane device is like a Listerine strip. It’s placed in the mouth after oral surgery. It helps one’s mouth heal correctly and dissolves on its own. This device can also be used after a tooth has been pulled.

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to greenlight SweetBio. This government-approval process can take months to years. Related FDA fees can cost from a few thousand to a quarter million dollars. Still, SweetBio hopes to be in market next year.

Kayla Rodriguez says her grandmother, Lluminda Rodriguez, inspired her entrepreneurship. “She left her kids in Puerto Rico to start a better life in New York,” Kayla Rodriguez said. ”She worked hard at a sewing factory. At a young age, she embodied the entrepreneur spirit of passion, persistence and self-awareness by making smart decisions to turn your life around.” Based in Puerto Rico today, Lluminda Rodriguez now owns one of the largest bridal chains in the Caribbean.

“Our community has helped to open doors for SweetBio,” Kayla said. “Unfortunately, because we are young, we get the door shut on us a little sooner than I like…Just because we are incredibly positive, that does not mean we are not aware of the prejudice, and we don’t feel these rejections. We live them and use them to empower us. I want young Latinas to know they can do this and not have to settle for less.”

“What appeals to investors about SweetBio and specifically about Kayla is her authenticity,” said Katie Milligan, director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship with the Delta Regional Authority. “In any pitch or any conversation, she loves her company, her team and she is always engaged in her community and wants to support other entrepreneurs.”

“It’s important for others in the medical field to see the journey of a young entrepreneur,” said Dr. Elena Rios, president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, which co-sponsored an event where Kayla Rodriguez recently spoke.

“If you are thinking about starting a business, do it now”, said Rodriguez. “You will never be ready, and there will never be a perfect time in your life. If you have a good idea, go talk to 10 people and see if there is a market. You need to see if someone else wants your product or service. If you find the interest of 100 people, you have something going.”

Startups head to Nashville for funding, feedback (May 2016)

Michael Ollukaren, one of the founders of Flexspark, a participant in this year’s ZeroTo510 accelerator, sees a lot of his company in SweetBio, an alumni of last year’s accelerator.

Ollukaren and Flexspark cofounders Syed Hasnain and Chidozie Ugwumadu attended the 2016 Southeastern Medical Device Association Conference (SEMDA) this week in Nashville.

“Last year, [SweetBio] didn’t have a lot of experience, but they were here,” Ollukaren says. “We’re in a similar place.”

During the 2015 SEMDA conference, SweetBio participated in PitchRounds, a sort of speed dating between investors and small companies. SweetBio didn’t generate any investment through the event, but the company did get feedback that its founders used to build the company, complete the 2015 ZeroTo510 cohort and raise $1 million in funding by the end of the year.

Isaac Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of SweetBio, said this year’s return trip to SEMDA was about showing what the company has accomplished over the last year and letting potential future investors know what SweetBio is capable of.

“People are starting to know who we are, even if they don’t know exactly what we do,” Rodriguez said. “We understand what they want to hear and we pitch that up front.”

Kayla Rodriguez, COO and co-founder of SweetBio, said while the company has made great strides since last year’s conference, they still have a long way to go and have a lot of questions to answer from potential investors. But, this year, it was a lot more real.

“I think we’ll be more challenged this year than last year,” Kayla Rodriguezsaid. “This year, their money is on the table. We need to listen to them because it’s getting real.”

But she was also encouraged by the presence of ZeroTo510 companies like Flexspark.

“They’re being bold,” she said. “We chose to move to Memphis and we chose to be in ZeroTo510, so we’ll stand up for the whole thing. It’s wonderful justification for what we did.”

Flexspark is developing a wearable electrical muscle stimulation device to decrease muscle atrophy during lengthy hospital stays.

Trep Talk: Sweet Bio (April 2016)

Welcome to Trep Talk! Trep Talk features some of our city’s compelling entrepreneurs who are boldly building what is uniquely Memphis. The spotlight series is curated by Elizabeth Lemmonds, Director of Talent Programs for the EPIcenter.

Summer in Memphis is accelerator season, when bio/tech startup companies with high growth potential (you know, like world domination) engage in rigorous three month programs of business building curriculum, mentors and seed investment. One of Memphis’ most exciting accelerators is Zero to 510, run by Bioworks and focused on medical device companies.

I first learned of SweetBio at the 2015 Memphis Demo Day last August, and was immediately… smitten. They had been accepted into Y Combinator in Silicon Valley but elected to be part of Zero to 510 here in Memphis, TN because of the program’s unique focus. I won’t steal their thunder below by giving anything away about their product (but, MAN, I love it). But I will add that their team is also unique in that IsaacIsaac Rodriguez and Kayla Rodriguez are brother and sister; also Marsalas Whitaker is a native Tennessean and serial entrepreneur. Bonus: Isaac caught the bug for entrepreneurship as he was a postdoctoral fellow in bio-medical engineering at the University of Memphis!

Finally, I’m not sure that you could find a more wonderful, hardworking, passionate and fun team of co-founders. I hope you love them as much as I do!


Give us your elevator pitch! What sets you apart? Sweetbio Inc. is a biomedical startup that recently raised over $1M and is revolutionizing healing, starting in dentistry. Our first entry into the market is a patent-pending dissolvable membrane used in dental surgeries, such as a socket preservation, that leverages our “sweet” ingredient – honey. While medical grade honey is used in hospitals today to treat burns and ulcers, we are the first company to leverage this naturally antibacterial and wound-healing ingredient in oral surgeries.

Kayla, what – or who – was your inspiration? My inspiration is my grandmother – Iluminada (Lumy) Rodriguez. At 19, she left her two children in Puerto Rico to come to New York and start building a better life for her family. After working for 6 months in sewing factories, she made enough to bring her two little boys over as they strove to live for the American dream. She worked hard. Really hard. But she also worked smart and at a young age, she embodied the entrepreneurial spirit proving that passion, persistence, self awareness, and smart decisions can turn your life around.

After decades of building her American dream and then moving back to Puerto Rico, I am so proud that my grandmother owns one of the largest bridal stores in the Caribbean – Lumy’s Bridals. Relentless dedication, hard sacrifices, and unrelenting love – this woman is my inspiration. It is because of her, and all the incredible women in my family, that I am able to do what I do and it is my honor to take up their touch to live out the dreams they have enabled me to create.

Isaac, did you always know you were destined for entrepreneurship? If not, what lured you in? As a bio-medical engineer by trade, I did not immediately see myself in entrepreneurship because the traditional routes are either industry (product R&D) or academic (professor). After graduating with my PhD I was unsure what I wanted to do which is why I took a Postdoctoral Fellowship position at the University of Memphis that would expose me to academics, industry, and a large medical device community.

One day in 2013 my adviser, Dr. Gary Bowlin, asked me, “How do you feel about starting up a company?” This question is what sparked my entrepreneurial spirit because we had some technologies in the lab that were in a good stage to form a company around and commercialize them. The one that I moved forward with was the honey membrane that has now turned into SweetBio. After graduating an accelerator and running SweetBio for a year now, I feel that I am uniquely skilled with my scientific background combined with my newly acquired business knowledge. Everyone at SweetBio has been learning so much outside of their educational background and I think that is what makes entrepreneurship so unique.

What are the most rewarding parts of owning this business? Any unexpected benefits?An unexpected benefit of being part of SweetBio has been the invitations to share our story. Every time we do, whether it’s an article, participating on a panel, or one on one, something amazing happens. One prime example is when we participated in MEM2NASH with the Memphis Chamber and traveled to Nashville to meet with state representatives. At one point, we (a one year old company) were in a room with the Lt. Governor and Senator Mark Norris sharing our story. As we later discovered, us sharing our story along with the stories of others in the room (St. Jude, EPIcenter, etc.), made a significant difference in support for legislation positively impacting Memphis. We are honored have been a part of it.

Another example coming this month is the opportunity to share the story of our journey to FDA Clearance with the Packaging Consortium group at Christian Brothers University. This Consortium is a CBU initiative where they are gathering companies and industry specific professionals to discuss packaging regulations, innovations, and more. We are excited to tell our story at their meeting because we never know who we can help or who we meet that can help us.

What is your best piece of advice for those considering taking the entrepreneurial plunge? It’s going to take longer and cost more than you think, but being patient and learning from others are two ways to be prepared. We try and mitigate this by having as many conversations as possible with entrepreneurs, industry experts, mentors, etc. Everyone in Memphis has been so open to talking to us about their experiences (successes and failures) and as a result, we’ve learned best practices for our business.

Which local resources helped you the most when converting your bold idea into a solid business model? Participating in the ZeroTo510 Medical Device Incubator hosted by Bioworks was by far the launching pad for SweetBio. Although we had another accelerator opportunity in Silicon Valley, we chose Memphis because of the rich biotech expertise and of course, the southern hospitality. We also worked closely with StartCo and EPIcenter who supported and introduced us to like-minded entrepreneurs. Memphis has developed a dynamic entrepreneurial culture where everyone wants you to succeed and its gaining national awareness.

What additional resource/s would you like to see developed in Memphis, to help smooth the path for future entrepreneurs? As a biotech company that came out of the University of Memphis and located in the top medical device hub in the United States, we would like to see a shared space that is stocked with laboratory equipment (e.g. cell culture hood, incubators, pipettes, centrifuges, microscopes, mechanical testing devices, etc.) where companies like ours can rent space as needed to perform critical translational research once out of the University, but before commercialization.

Marsalas, I know this isn’t your first startup. What are your favorite ways to unwind? I survive the intense entrepreneurial lifestyle by having time to myself to relax my mind. Some things I like to do are workout, go on runs in Overton Park, watch MCAT tutorials, listen to Pierre de la Rue sipping some Tennessee Whiskey while sitting in a dark room, drawing, painting, play ball and star-gaze deep off in President’s Island.

What should be on every entrepreneur’s bookshelf? “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, PhD

Who’s on your playlist right now? Marsalas: Young Dolph, Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Hendrix, War Paint, Jay-Z

Got any guilty pleasures you’re willing to share? After a long day of work we’ll take our drone for a spin at Shelby Farms Park close to sunset. We’re no drone experts, but we love technology, the outdoors, and having fun!

Memphis creative entrepreneurs share their stories, in their own words (March 2016)

Kayla Rodriguez
Chief operating officer of SweetBio

The leadership of SweetBio likewise thinks a lot about ingredients – about the ingredients of success for their startup, which specializes in wound-healing biomaterials with a dental focus, and on the actual ingredients it uses to do its work.

The venture’s first product is a guided tissue/bone regeneration membrane used in oral surgeries that uses honey to help increase gingival healing and decrease bacteria colonization. It’s based on three years of development, according to the company.

Rodriguez, a co-founder of the company, says its decision to participate in the ZeroTo510 accelerator sped up the company’s progress by at least a year.

“We’ve been reflecting on our decision to build SweetBio in Memphis,” she said, recalling the team’s choice between here and San Francisco.

It’s been busy ever since. The company announced at the end of 2015, for example, that it had raised more than $1 million in the last six months.

In the next few months, it will be completing testing to support a submission to the FDA and will be spending a significant amount of time, Rodriguez says, learning from dental clinicians in both private practice and universities as the company continues to shape its go-to-market strategy.

A few weeks ago, a SweetBio team was in Chicago for a dental conference and networked with clinicians and distributors. In recent days, the company also visited its membrane manufacturer in Texas, conducting a full run with them while becoming familiar with their facilities.

“Our success is driven by the Memphis ecosystem we call the trifecta,” Rodriguez said. “We’re surrounded by medical device and academic giants, we’re uplifted by organizations like EPIcenter, Bioworks, Start Co., the (Greater Memphis Chamber), and many more.

“We expect to be on the market in 2017, and after speaking with over 100 dental clinicians, we can’t wait to get our product in their hands.”

Local Memphis News: Channel 24 (ABC) Local Biz: 'Sweet Bio' Makes Mid-South Home

By Brandon Artiles | bartiles@localmemphis.com

Published 01/11 2016 04:13PM

Updated 01/11 2016 06:40PM



The trio behind a Memphis bio-tech start-up are ready to introduce their product to the dental world.

The company is called Sweet Bio.

Usually when you associate something sweet with dentistry, you think cavities. Not with honey though. At least not the way Issac Rodriguez uses it.

"That membrane is there to help prevent the gums from growing into that hole," Issac Rodriguez of Sweet Bio said. 

The membrane he is talking about is made out of all-natural manuka honey and proteins which regenerate bone and tissue The 30-year-old Virginia native has been working on it at this University of Memphis engineering lab for the past three years.

"This is a great product. We can do as much as we can all day in the lab, but this needs to be out there helping people,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez's mentor, Gary Bowlin, helped him develop it. To sell it he would need a team.

A year ago Isaac’s sister 28-year-old Kayla Rodriguez, specializing in business, came on as COO and 24-year-old Marsalas Whitaker, a recent grad of U of M’s engineering program, is Chief Medical Officer.

"When this opportunity came across the table I immediately jumped to it, because I already had vast knowledge of start-ups as-well-as a lot of knowledge in bio-materials," Whitaker said.

Investors jumped, too. Several venture capital firms putting up $1 million for the medical device start-up.   

"We're a team of three, so you really need an army behind you and Memphis provided that. We are so proud and thrilled and humbled to be here," Rodriguez said.

With investor financing, they are now manufacturing the membranes. They hope to get FDA approval by the end of the year, with Sweet Bio in the hands of dentist's in early 2017.

The owners had a choice between San Francisco and Memphis for Sweet Bio's home. They chose the Bluff City because of the strong presence of medical device companies like Medtronic and Smith and Nephew. They mentioned southern hospitality, too.

Copyright 2016 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



[VIDEO] Startup Spotlight: Sweet Bio

2015 was a great year for the Memphis entrepreneurial scene:

With Leslie Lynn Smith leading the Entrpreneurial Powered Innovation Center (EPIcenter), the Bluff City is only looking up as we strive to create 1,000 entrepreneurs in 10 years. 

Here's a look at one startup who has found Memphis the perfect place to set up shop. Say hello to Sweet Bio:

SweetBio Raises $1 Million Series Seed Equity Financing

For Immediate Release

SweetBio Raises $1 Million Series Seed Equity Financing

Biotech startup raises $1 million to develop medical grade Manuka honey dental product

MEMPHIS, Tennessee – December 3, 2015 – SweetBio, Inc., a medical device startup specializing in wound healing biomaterials and focusing in dental, announced this week a raise of $900,000 equity financing to support FDA 510(k) clearance and commercialization of the SweetBio GTR (Guided Tissue Regeneration) Membrane. SweetBio equity financing totals more than $1 million raised in 6 months. From May through August 2015, SweetBio participated in the Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s ZeroTo510 Medical Device Accelerator that provided $100,000 in equity financing and services. 

Investors in the round included previous investors Innova, a pre-seed, seed and early-stage investor focused on starting and funding high-growth companies in the Biosciences, Technology and AgriTech fields, and MB Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that provides capital and strategic direction to life sciences companies. Terms of the financing were not disclosed.

“The SweetBio team represents the best of the Memphis entrepreneurial ecosystem and the ZeroTo510 program in particular,” said Mike Sherman, partner at MB Venture Partners  “We are excited to continue supporting their efforts to bring their Manuka honey membrane technology to the periodontal market.”

 “We believe the general market trend for more natural products and solutions is quickly spreading to the healthcare field, and SweetBio's products are timed perfectly to take full advantage of this trend,” said Jan Bouten, partner at Innova. “On top of the great business opportunity, we're thrilled ZeroTo510 was able to attract such a great team to Memphis to build their company here.” 

 “The team’s very thorough research and documentation, and the potential benefit of this guided tissue membrane to the dental profession, is phenomenal,” said former ADA (American Dental Association) president Raymond Gist, DDS PC. 

By the year 2027, 200 million Americans will suffer from partial tooth loss. Without proper treatment, bacteria growth may cause oral infections, which can serve as a gateway to diabetes, heart and lung disease, and even death. Oral surgeons try to reduce these risks by installing a membrane as a barrier to allow the bone and the gums to heal before placing an implant. Current products are difficult to handle and often fail, reversing the healing process, encouraging infection and causing additional surgeries. SweetBio has created a patent-pending dissolvable membrane that uses our “sweet” ingredient -- honey -- to encourage healing and produce better outcomes. While currently used in hospitals to treat ulcers and burns, SweetBio is the first company to leverage this naturally antibacterial and wound-healing ingredient in oral procedures.  Although our product is still in development, our research to date indicates the SweetBio membrane will provide the predictability and superior results that oral surgeons and dentists seek and will improve outcomes for the patient.  

About SweetBio

SweetBio is a Memphis-based biotech startup that specializes in technologies that advance the wound-healing process. Their first product is a resorbable guided tissue/bone regeneration membrane used in oral surgeries that uniquely utilizes the encapsulation and slow release of medical grade Manuka honey from a gelatin-nanoparticle base with the intention to increase gingival healing and decrease bacteria colonization. Based on 3 years of in vitro development that derived from a surgeon's clinical need for better solutions, SweetBio completed the highly regarded ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator through Bioworks, has raised over $1 million to date. Operationally, SweetBio has clearly defined their specific FDA 510(k) regulatory path, reimbursement path, and currently has manufactured prototypes in testing.

SweetBio's vision is to "revolutionize healing because the world deserves to smile" and is currently led by co-founders CEO - Isaac Rodriguez, PhD; COO - Kayla Rodriguez, MBA; CMO - Marsalas Whitaker, serial biotech entrepreneur; and CFO - Kevin Graff, MBA, CPA in Memphis, Tennessee. SweetBio is located in Memphis, Tennessee and at www.sweetbio.com.

Headquarters: 20 Dudley Street, Suite 900, Memphis, TN 38103


For more information contact:

Isaac Rodriguez

Phone: 540-424-9027

Email: isaac@sweetbio.com

SweetBio uses honey for healing


Honey is more than just a sweet substance for SweetBio. It’s the main ingredient in the healing process that comes with its guided tissue regeneration membrane that will be used in oral surgeries.

SweetBio is a Memphis-based biotech company with a mission to make a membrane that can be used in oral surgeries to regenerate tissue and bone. It combines Manuka honey with natural wound-healing potential and antibacterial properties. 

SweetBio was founded in March, but the idea for the product has been in development for a few years, dating back to when CEO and co-founder Isaac Rodriguez was at Virginia Commonwealth University where he earned his doctor of philosophy in 2013.

“I had an oral surgeon who wanted a very specific product come to the lab,” Rodriguez said. “He sought out our lab. It went through several years of development, and when I moved to the University of Memphis he wanted to keep going. We came up with the idea of how to combine ideas out there for wound healing.”

Rodriguez’s dissertation was on bones. He said he felt this honey project was a great application to create a membrane.

So earlier this year the idea moved past the lab setting with the goal of developing something that could move to an actual project.

While Rodriguez was the brains behind the science of the product, he said he needed business experience. His sister, Kayla Rodriguez, moved from the San Francisco Bay area to help launch SweetBio. And Marsalas Whitaker, a recent biomedical engineering graduate of the University of Memphis who has experience in other medical startups, joined the team to serve as vice president of external research and relations.

“I met with Isaac about what he was doing and fell in love with the product,” Whitaker said. “It made sense since I was doing research on a similar project.”

Development of the technology began last year and a provisional patent was filed. It was converted to a non-provisional this year.

“Our vision as a company is we want to revolutionize healing,” Kayla Rodriguez said. “The world deserves to smile. We feel this can help save lives.”

The product will be used to help fill in gaps during oral procedures such as when a tooth is extracted. It will help prevent infections.

“I think it’s exciting that we’re using something everyone knows,” Isaac Rodriguez said. “You can relate to honey. The science and health benefits of honey are gaining traction. It’s being used for skin wounds. The way we’re using it is what makes it new. It’s fun being on the cutting edge, but going back to Mother Nature. We’re merging history and technology and being on the forefront of honey in healing. We’ll be one of the first products that uses honey in an implantable device.”

The team faces challenges, but Kayla Rodriguez said the opportunity was too exciting when she made the decision to relocate to Memphis.

“It’s pretty simple to start a company. You need time and an idea,” she said. “With a medical startup it’s a lot different. It’s incredibly regulated. You need a lot of resources and support. … But I relocated to Memphis to base the company here because of the support for biomedical that is here.”

Much is on the horizon for the company. The immediate future will see the company raising funds to help secure big milestones. The first is clinical trials. The goal is to submit to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the spring or summer and to have a product that is commercially available by 2017.

The immediate goal is to raise about $1 million to help accomplish FDA clearance and the product launch.

“The last 30 days have been incredible,” Kayla Rodriguez said. “Our network has opened up. We’re going to Utah in a couple of months to a large dental center where they will give us feedback on the product we’re working on.”