Regional One partnership gives SweetBio a leg up as the startup introduces product

Memphis biomedical company SweetBio has entered into a yearlong project with the Regional One Health Center for Innovation that will test its mettle in the consumer market in a real clinical environment.

Under the partnership, Regional One clinicians will use SweetBio’s honey-infused dissolvable sheets in its wound care work.

Founded by Kayla Rodriguez Graff and her brother, Isaac Rodriquez, SweetBio will get clinical evidence, for one thing, which is vital for credibility in the marketplace.

But it will also have access to some of the best medical minds in Memphis in terms of positioning itself, creating prototypes, engaging in the revenue cycle and anticipating potential legal issues.

“We are doing what we do every single day,” said Alejandra Alvarez, Center for Innovation director. “For SweetBio, it is game-changing because their chances of going to market and being successful on the first run is greater.”

The innovation center opened two years ago. SweetBio, which is focused on healing for an older population, is the second startup invited in. The other is Cast21, a Memphis firm that came up with a way to make a lightweight, customizable, breathable and waterproof cast.

“This allows us to say, as a small company, where should we focus our commercialization efforts, which types of wounds, which physicians,” Graff said.

“We received (FDA) clearance for wounds across the body that involve plastic surgery, podiatrists, dermatologists,” she said, ticking off a list of specialties. “As we narrow our focus, Regional One will play a critical role in helping us focus on the highest impact we can make.”

The center is one of dozens in hospitals around the country swooping in to help medical startups and others through their built-in banks of institutional knowledge. For pay, Regional One’s center and others get a share in the new company’s equity, if it’s an external customer.

Access to hospital resources is based on what the new company needs.

“We put a value to that,” Alvarez said. “In exchange, we get equity in their company.

“A lot of these companies don’t have cash to give you,” she said. “We wanted something that was more of a commitment. We are looking to commit to them. If they are successful, we are successful. And this is one way to show that we are in this for the long run.

“We are going to reap the benefits – maybe not right away – but when they become successful,” Alvarez said.

Regional One’s center, which exists in a collection of offices throughout the hospital, is open to ideas from all kinds of places, including employees, vendor companies and third-party contractors.

“We want to make sure we are inclusive of everyone,” Alvarez said, “including clinical, nonclinical, technical, nontechnical – really anyone who has a suggestion and they need a place to test it without repercussion. A lot of times, we don’t explore things because we are afraid to fail or that we won’t be allowed.”

The center values “disruptive thinking,” the process of looking beyond the status quo to find a better way.

“We harness and embrace the idea of thinking, asking ‘What if?’ and taking the risk,” Alvarez said.

In SweetBio’s case, Regional One is a unique partner because it has a burn center, Alvarez said, but it also sees surgery wounds, pressure sores and diabetes wounds.

“As part of their access, we will help them figure out the product they should enter the market with,” she said.

SweetBio’s product, Apis, is made of Manuka honey from New Zealand and is now being produced by a third-party manufacturer. In the future, the brother-sister team intends to develop their own manufacturing base and bring it to Memphis, Graff said.

While honey has been used since ancient times in healing, it’s been generally limited to topical uses.

Isaac Rodriguez created a solid, “non-messy” application as a post-doc at the University of Memphis, working with Dr. Gary Bowlin.

“We received a patent on a solid, dissolvable sheet,” Graff said. “A physician would use the product to cover and protect the wound and maintain an ideal healing environment on the ulcer or surgery site.”

SweetBio, now based on the second floor of the new U of M research park in the former city library at 420 S. Highland, is a Memphis-grown company, even though the owners aren’t from here.

It was founded at the university, accelerated by ZeroTo510, funded by Innova Memphis, MB Ventures and a host of local angel investors, and then nurtured by Epicenter and Start Co.

“We decided to apply for a few accelerator programs,” Graff said. “We were fortunate to get into both.

“But when we looked at my background in corporate retail and Isaac’s in science, we realized we had a gap in how to build a medical device company.” 

“Memphis is the hub of medical device companies. So, we decided to come here. So many people were willing to help us. And then, when you layer on an affordable cost of living … .”

The team hired Martin Klazmer as vice president of commercialization. Its newly hired COO will arrive in a few weeks.