WHAT'S NEXT...Biotech Startup SweetBio's Kayla & Isaac Rodriguez Bring Innovation, Honey, to Dental Surgery
What's Next is a series dedicated to profiling innovative startups that are bringing the next big idea to the marketplace.
"Like many people, I do not like going to the dentist," said Kayla Rodriguez. "No offense to dentists," she continued, "but I've had 17 teeth pulled and had braces twice, so I don't want to spend any more time in that chair than I have to."
Kayla's career is inspired by that sentiment, even though she works with dentists all the time.
Kayla is the co-founder, with her brother Isaac, of the Memphis-based biotech startup SweetBio, which they founded this year. SweetBio has a new, innovative take on a tool commonly used in oral surgeries, called Guided Tissue Regeneration membranes (or GTR membranes).
"But really, we're passionate about changing the face of healing," said Kayla, in an interview, along with Isaac, with Latin Post.
In simple terms, GTR membranes are both protective barriers placed in the mouth after oral surgery and they also play an active role in helping your mouth heal correctly. Most, like SweetBio's, dissolve on their own.
They're commonly used after you have a tooth pulled, and they help make sure the bone and tissue grow back in a way that can make later surgeries -- like filling in the gap later with a shiny new implant -- as quick, uncomplicated and painless as possible.
What is the Rodriguez siblings' "sweet" (and patent-pending) twist on GTR membranes? Adding honey to the mix.
It's not a gimmick to make dental surgery taste a little better. Manuka honey has naturally antibacterial properties and, according to Kayla, is also naturally wound-healing.
"You could call it Manuka honey or say medical grade honey," she explained. "So while the competition creates a barrier to protect that bone and tissue growth, we are enhancing that with this antibacterial ingredient."
It may be a product for dentists, but what SweetBio hopes to improve affects a lot of people, and could end up helping you in the future.
"Over the next 10 years, 200 million people will suffer from partial tooth loss," Kayla emphasized. And if your wound doesn't heal correctly, resulting oral infections can pose an even bigger problem -- not just in your mouth, but also in your body, often in the form of diabetes, or heart or lung disease.
The Startup Siblings
It's not a coincidence that Kayla and Issac are in business together. Their parents predicted the siblings' respective roles in SweetBio back before they'd even started elementary school.
"When I was two years old, I asked my parents after a bath, 'Where did the water go after it went down the drain?'" said Issac. "My parents were like, 'He's going to grow up to be an engineer, for sure. He just needs to know how things work and where things go."
"I wasn't too much older than that," added Kayla "We were at a restaurant and my parents were getting change after the meal, and I calculated that they were a couple cents short," she explained.
"I was probably three years old at the time," she laughed, "and at that point they realized I was probably going to be in business."
The Rodriguez siblings -- whose parents were from Puerto Rico and had lived in New York and New Jersey before finally settling in Virginia for work and to raise a family -- trace their path to success back to being fortunate enough to have amazing mentors in school.
Their drive and intelligence probably had something to do with it as well: Kayla and Isaac both graduated with 4.0 GPAs and both earned scholarships to college. In fact, Isaac earned the prestigious Bill & Melinda Gates scholarship, which provides for students' education all the way from B.A. to Ph.D.
It was during college, followed by an MBA for Kayla and Isaac's road to his Ph.D, that the their business partnership began to take shape -- even though they didn't have a product for their business yet.
"Isaac and I would be on calls, just saying hi to each other," said Kayla, "and one day we were just like, 'We should start a company! Who cares what it is, but when that idea comes we want to be ready."
Suddenly, a Sweet Idea
They tossed around a lot of different ideas -- even a modern furniture company -- until the idea behind SweetBio suddenly appeared in the conversation.
"Right away, I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be huge. This is going to be a chance to change the world,'" recalled Kayla.
Isaac, the engineer of the duo, got the idea to use honey as an antibacterial ingredient while working on his Ph.D in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia.
"Before I graduated, an oral surgeon randomly reached out to our lab, through my advisor," said Isaac. "He wanted a better membrane for oral surgeries... that's what it all came out of: A clinician's actual need for a better membrane."
An indication that Isaac's solution was sound: That surgeon is now part of Isaac and Kayla's company. And so is Isaac's former Ph.D advisor.
"That clinical need, as a driving force for the product is really important to us, and especially me, as an engineer," said Isaac.
What he's describing is often called "Lean Startup" philosophy. It's a growing movement within the startup community, especially technology startups, that bases product development around the intended user -- whether it's an app, an IT service, or in this case, a tiny strip of nano-engineered, antibacterial, self-dissolving material.
Also common for lean startups, and part of SweetBio's blueprint, is being more-than-ready, long before launch. "Having all your ducks in a row," as Kayla put it.
It's been a very fast road for SweetBio to get those proverbial ducks in line. Kayla started up the company, started applying to startup accelerators (and being accepted to Memphis Bioworks), and otherwise laid the business groundwork. Isaac worked in the lab with his former advisor-turned-business partner, developing the product, testing it, redesigning the membrane, testing it again, redesigning it...
You get the idea.
"There were a lot of iterations," sent to SweetBio's oral surgeon tester (the same one whose initial request started the whole thing), said Isaac, perhaps with a hint of understatement.
The Road Ahead, and Beyond
Now, SweetBio is ready to start manufacturing. "It's a huge, proud moment for us to see it come to life," said Kayla. "We actually have our first design of our packaging" for the product as well.
There's still quite a process to go through before you see (or taste) a SweetBio membrane at the dentist's office. They'll be running more tests, finishing the accelerator program with a demo day in August, followed by more fundraising, before submitting for FDA clearance towards the end of this year.
If there are no hitches, SweetBio plans its full launch next summer. But Isaac and Kayla are already seeing beyond that horizon. "This is really just the beginning. It's one product in one market for just two procedures," right now, explained Kayla.
However, "We can expand into more procedures, we can expand into veterinary dentistry, and we can expand internationally," continued Kayla, "which is why in our vision we say 'The world deserves to smile.'"
"And not just people -- animals too," she laughed. And beyond dental? You bet they've thought about SweetBio's full potential.
"We're building a wound healing product," said Kayla, "We're just starting in dental."
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