by Jon W. Sparks
Innovation: A membrane made of medical grade manuka honey and proteins used in oral surgery to fill in gaps that occur after a tooth extraction. Allows the bones to regrow and gums to regenerate while preventing infection.
What is music to an innovator’s ears? Something that sounds like this: “I wish I had a better product — can you invent something?”
This was the query that lit the fuse for what would become SweetBio Inc., a honey of a startup that is bringing scientific and business savvy to healthcare.
The request came from an oral surgeon who was dealing with a vexing fact in the field of dentistry in America: Nearly 50 percent of adults aged 30 or older — about 65 million people — have signs of gum disease.
That assessment from the Centers for Disease Control opens the door for better ways of dealing with a condition that is linked to diabetes and heart disease.
SweetBio’s novel product is a membrane used in oral surgery to fill in gaps that occur after a tooth extraction. It’s made of medical grade manuka honey and proteins that allow bones to regrow and gums to regenerate while preventing infection.
“People have used honey since the ancient Egyptians, but we’re the first to deliver it as an implantable device,” says Kayla Rodriguez Graff, COO of SweetBio.
Her brother, Isaac Rodriguez, started development of the idea at Virginia Commonwealth University where he got his Ph.D. in 2013. He continued working on it when he came to the University of Memphis where he worked with Dr. Gary L. Bowlin at the U of M’s Tissue Template Engineering and Regeneration Laboratory in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Isaac is now CEO and Chief Science Officer. While at the U of M, he met Marsalas Whitaker, a biomedical engineer with experience in medical startups who is Chief Marketing Officer of the company. The fourth co-founder is CFO Kevin Graff, who was recruited by Kayla, his fiancée at the time.
While this sophisticated use of honey is being developed specifically for dental care, SweetBio is aiming a whole lot higher than that. Its platform technology can be expanded for use in the entire body for a range of uses. “With our proprietary manufacturing process, we can create a bone graft and fill bone voids anywhere,” Kayla says. “We are a wound care product. The membrane industry is $118 million but wound care will grow to a $10 billion industry in the next 10 years.”
For now, though, the focus is on dentistry and the reason, beyond the original need, is that it’s easier to get to oral surgeons than going through hospitals to get to other kinds of surgeons.
“We have to prove it works and the fastest way was in dentistry,” she says. SweetBio has gone to 14 states in the last year, interviewing more than 100 dental clinicians. “We need to make sure they need and want to purchase it.”
The response has been encouraging for the company that incorporated a year and a half ago. “We went to Atlanta and pitched and got incredible response,” Kayla says, “including two offer letters for accelerator programs — one from San Francisco and one from Memphis.” She says the startup chose to go with the Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program that would let them get on the fast track to market.
It’s a complicated route. Product development has to continue, a support network has to be refined, and the FDA’s 510(k) fast-track regulatory pathway worked out. And, of course, there’s the money. Major investors Innova, MB Venture Partners, The JumpFund, and ZeroTo510 helped SweetBio get $1.15 million in funding by last June.
“We expect to submit and clear the FDA by the end of 2017,” Kayla says. Soon after that, she’s hoping the company will expand internationally. “Then we want to go into other applications, to orthopedic, cosmetic, and veterinary industries. We want to build a fantastic product line and brand that can be built and leveraged by a company that can spread it to more people than we can.”
She says the role of Memphis in making all of this possible has made all the difference.
“I love technology,” Kayla says. “I moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco to be in the startup scene, so it had to be something monumental to get me to move to Memphis. But the entrepreneurial ecosystem here is nothing short of amazing. I’ve never seen a city work so hard. It has the spirit, the infrastructure, and support, and it’s constantly developing.”
Memphis, she says, makes it easy for SweetBio, which she calls a young, fun, diverse team that wants to revolutionize healing. “We believe the world needs to smile with no pain. And we have grit and grind with a strong brand, strong business acumen, and strong science that makes it an easy sell.” •
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