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 Isaac Isaac 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!
What are some of your own favorite local businesses and organizations?
* Phillip Ashley Chocolates – His product is delicious and unique and he is entrepreneurial role model.
* Gus’ Fried Chicken – One of SweetBio’s favorite restaurants!
* The New Memphis Institute – Their energy combined with their programs for people of all ages are shining a positive new light on Memphis to attract and retain talent.
* STS (Setting The Standard) Enterprises – Their passion and mentoring opportunities for local youth is making Memphis a better place.