Biotech pioneer hopes to heal with honey


— 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.”