University District

Home, sweet home: SweetBio and others are first tenants of CommuniTech Research Park

The newly opened CommuniTech Research Park, at 460 S. Highland Street, will now be home to a range of innovative companies from software development, blockchain technology and a medical device maker looking to push technology development in Memphis with access to research and resources through the University District.

The startup incubator and research space developed by The University of Memphis and the FedEx Institute of Technology held its grand opening on Thursday, January 17. Alongside the technology businesses, campus police services and the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation will use a portion of the space as well.

One Memphis startup, the research park’s first tenant SweetBio, has developed an application for honey that can be used as a medical device. Honey has many uses besides a natural sweetener. The sticky stuff has long been used as a natural treatment for a sore throat and as the prime ingredient in topical products, like lip balm. Sweet Bio’s product, Apis, is a honey-incorporated resorbable sheet that breaks down over time and is absorbed into the body, with direct applications in wound, dental and veterinary care.

“We use medical-grade honey as one of our ingredients in our patch product. This came about because of my research studying honey and how honey helps wounds heal. Honey has medical properties to help you heal, but never has it been used in an implantable device, because it is topical, messy, and usually a short-term application,” said Dr. Isaac Rodriguez, chief science officer and co-founder of Sweet Bio.

The burgeoning business has relocated its operations to the CommuniTech Research Park, in a former branch of the Memphis Public Library, a physical space where technology startups can collaborate with the University of Memphis to build research capacity and will help create new jobs for university students.

SweetBio, along with others like Tech901 and DayaMed that work out of the CommuniTech space, will benefit from being embedded in the academic community by partnering with The University of Memphis.

The research park is planned out with three phases of development. Phase one was the official opening of the building. An applied research facility on the Park Avenue Campus, scheduled to be revealed later in the year, is the next phase. The final phase will be the recruitment of more research-focused businesses and labs to the district.

The startup incubator also established a set of “collaborator” companies who will be involved with the CommuniTech community. They include Blockchain901, Tech901 and Epicenter, to name a few. A total of 17 local organizations are participating as tenants or collaborators and all have connections to innovative technologies. Emerging technologies are to be a big part of the research park’s innovation landscape.

While more space was a key reason for SweetBio to relocate its operations, the access the university provides to graduate students and other companies at different phases of development will provide insight into SweetBio’s development. A walkable location on Highland was also a selling point. The company initially put down roots in Memphis in 2015.

“It’s more of a home for us that we call ‘the Hive.’ For us to have a suite here … our technology was born at the University of Memphis. To now call this our new home as we grow to prepare for the next stage, these are the resources that help make startups successful,” said Kayla Rodriguez-Graff, co-founder and Sweet Bio CEO.

The CommuniTech Research Park, at 460 S. Highland, will be home to businesses ranging from startups like SweetBio and blockchain companies to established names like Tech901 and Code Crew.

Dr. Rodriguez’s research into medicinal honey started around five years ago. His advisor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Dr. Gary Bowlin, a tissue engineer, had accepted an offer from the University of Memphis to open a lab. He offered Rodriguez a postdoctoral fellowship allowing him to continue his research and develop his ideas.

“We worked with a dentist. He said he needed a better product to help gums heal. So, that is where we married the original idea of honey can help soft tissue into an implantable device. We realized this product that helps dental could also help in wound care,” said Dr. Rodriguez, who also worked with a surgeon to study how wounds heal.

After a few years of research, the applications became apparent along with the idea for a business, which he pitched to his sister during a visit to Memphis from San Francisco, where she was living while earning her Masters in Business degree.

“Isaac and I always joked about starting a company … he pitched me this technology. He said ‘I really think this has some legs,’” said Rodriguez-Graff.

She, however, had a few fundamental questions. Could you use it outside of dentistry, which had been the focus of its development?  Also, could it be used and marketed outside of the U.S.? Her brother answered affirmatively.

“I decided this has some high growth potential. It has venture capital potential,” said Rodriguez-Graff, who had carved out a successful career within big-box retailer Target’s corporate structure in San Francisco while working her way through school.

With the siblings’ education and career fields complementing one another, a business plan quickly developed for what would become SweetBio.

“Together, we felt like a great team. Let’s start this company in 2015, apply to accelerators, get into them, get our first seed funding, which allowed us to prove ourselves over the summer that we had, not only technology that works, but that people were interested in it, and we were the team to push it forward,” said Dr. Rodriguez.

After applying to multiple accelerator programs, they were selected by Memphis-based ZeroTo510. They are also graduates of The TENN master accelerator from Launch Tennessee and finalists in Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest Pitch Competition.

“ZeroTo510 was a door-opener for us. They gave us that first ‘I believe in you’ statement and gave us our first seed funding,” Rodriguez-Graff.

After working out of their home for the first year, they gained an office space at Start Co., a startup support organization located downtown. During the second year of operations, they connected with Epicenter.

“Epicenter gave us our first big press. They introduced us to key business leaders and strategic partnerships in the Memphis area. They passionately stand beside startups with a stance saying “Memphis is investable.” Their support helped us securing funding, and they continue to lift up SweetBio in our current scale up phase,” said Rodriguez-Graff, who now sits on the board for Epicenter.

In addition to connecting startups with potential investors, Epicenter also provides resources to help educate on hiring talent, managing books, and dealing with culture.

“Epicenter serves along with Start Co. as an ecosystem — no matter what state you’re in — to start up, scale up and grow resources you need to be successful,” said Rodriguez-Graff.

So far, Sweet Bio has amassed $3 million to develop their product and ramp up operations with much of the support coming from local sources. Hilliard Crews, a notable local businessman and venture capitalist since 2000, saw potential in their product and came on as an angel investor in 2017.

“The quality of the management team, the scientific depth behind the product, and the breadth of potential market verticals led me to believe that their wound care product had a very good chance at being successful," said Crews, who serves on the board of University of Memphis and for whom the university’s Crews Center for Entrepreneurship is named after.

Related: "Startup support space, other new initiatives groom the University District to be an innovation hub"

"Being local to Memphis and a spin-out of University of Memphis research were also contributing factors because investing locally and in the University is important to me and to our local economy. Memphis is fertile ground for a medical device company such as this, and their product fits right in with a key regional competency.”

The next stage is FDA clearance. They expect to be cleared by the FDA in the next six months and ready to move to market.

This will be followed by seeking out further investment to carry the company through to its launch in early summer. The sought after $3 to 5 million will allow the company to hire needed staff and get a developed product ready for manufacturing, which will further help grease the skids for continued investment and push through to the next phase.

“I will say that Memphis has absolutely stepped up to the challenge. Ninety-nine percent of our money comes from the state of Tennessee and ninety-five percent of it comes from Memphis. It has been an unbelievable outpouring of support for our team,” said Rodriguez-Graff.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.