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"Rockstar Entrepreneur" Finds Sweet Spot in the Memphis Startup Scene


Kayla Rodriguez Graff thrives on activity, and these days the young entrepreneur is on fire. 
 
Her considerable energies are focused on her work as COO of a startup with a cool product and her passion for Memphis, blended in with her recent marriage and membership in SoundCheck, where she recently joined the leadership team.
 
As a co-founder of SweetBio Inc., Graff — who’s been called a “rockstar entrepreneur” — is paving the way for what could be a medical product full of possibilities. It came about because of a troubling statistic: nearly half of Americans over 30 have signs of gum disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The condition is linked to diabetes and heart disease, and oral surgeons are looking for something that can help. 
 
Graff’s brother, Isaac Rodriguez, developed the idea of using a membrane — made of honey and proteins — to fill in gaps that happen after a tooth extraction. It helps prevent infection as bones and gums regrow and regenerate.
 
Rodriguez is SweetBio’s CEO and Chief Science Officer who, Graff said, sets the vision. “I break that vision down into strategic formats so we can see the path forward and the steps to take for the solution.”
 
Also on the team are CMO Marsalas Whitaker, a biomedical engineer with experience in medical startups, and CFO Kevin Graff who was recruited by his then-fiancée, Kayla Rodriguez. 
 
Putting out a new product in the medical field is complex — you can’t just put up a web site and start selling. But there are resources to help with the hurdles of FDA approval and product development. A key one for SweetBio has been the Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program run by Allan Daisley who was immediately impressed by the young COO. 
 
“When Kayla joined the ZeroTo510 program, she struck me as driven, conscientious, detail-oriented, soaking up information like a sponge and not afraid to work hard,” he said.
 
Graff has also worked closely with the Entrepreneurship-Powered Innovation Center (EPIcenter), a collaborative strategic initiative led by Memphis Bioworks. Leslie Lynn Smith, president of EPIcenter, is the one who says Graff is a “rockstar entrepreneur,” adding that she “not only works tirelessly to grow her startup, but to support the entrepreneurial culture and movement in Memphis. SweetBio is not her first startup and we know it won't be her last. If we are lucky, the rest of them will all launch from Memphis because she is pure magic and all-in.”
 
The latest boost for SweetBio came in October when Launch Tennessee named it as one of eight companies in the state (and the only one from Memphis) to be part of The TENN, a master accelerator program for startups. “We’re growing from a Memphis base to a statewide base,” Graff said.
 
She acknowledges that when the opportunity came to join her brother in making SweetBio a reality, “I wasn’t 100 percent ready. My background is in corporate retail, but I’ve been learning to be a successful entrepreneur. I’d been boosting my analytical and strategic skills to tell a bigger story and improve my negotiating and persuasion skills. I knew what I didn’t know and I knew how to go find answers. When the SweetBio opportunity came up, I still had a lot more to learn, but I’ve also found the most amazing mentors in my life.”
 
Meanwhile, Graff has been active in the SoundCheck, the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Young Professional Council. 
 
“When we heard about SoundCheck — knowing we’d get that exposure and be surrounded by like-minded young professionals — we jumped on it immediately,” Graff said. She’s taken part in several activities, notably a trip to Nashville where SoundCheck members got to spend time with state lawmakers. 
 
Working with the Chamber is one of many reasons Graff loves doing business in Memphis. “To make a city successful there has to be an interplay with public and private sectors,” she said. “The Chamber is such a critical gear in the equation.”
 
And she’s still amazed at the access she has. “In other cities I’ve lived in you never get to meet anyone in those chambers let alone be a part of them,” she said. “Here, I’m part of SoundCheck and on Mayor Mark Luttrell’s Young Professionals Council, worked on Mayor Jim Strickland’s Minority Business Transition Team — so many groups to join and be part of.”
 
Graff has lived and worked in Minneapolis and San Francisco, but says it’s Memphis’ entrepreneurial ecosystem that matters. “You can jump in with Southern hospitality, and everyone is so encouraging,” she said.
 
It’s not just access that she adores about Memphis. Graff is a fan of Central BBQ, the Grizzlies and football. She’s an avid golfer, going to the Germantown Country Club every weekend she can make it. “Like a startup, you miss more shots than you make, but you cherish the ones you do. It takes patience, persistence and mental toughness.”

Story by: Jon W. Sparks
Photo by: Troy Glasgow

 

Posted: 1/5/2017 2:01:41 PM | with 0 comments
Filed under: Members, Profile, SoundCheck, YoungProfessionals



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THE M BLOG
The latest news from the Greater Memphis Chamber. For more information, contact Director of Communications Christina Meek at (901) 543-3504 (cmeek@memphischamber.com) or Communications Specialist Jenny C. Fish at (901) 543-3558 (jfish@memphischamber.com).

 

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