VCU Engineering’s pioneering work in tissue engineering drew Isaac Rodriguez, Ph.D., to the college for his master’s and Ph.D. He has developed a product that leverages Manuka honey to promote wound healing and, in 2015, co-founded the medical device company SweetBio. We recently caught up with him for a chat.
How did you get interested in biomedical engineering?
It’s actually a personal story. When I was an undergrad, my mom had a total hip replacement. My interest in engineering was fairly general then, but her experience made me fall in love with implants. I knew I wanted to use my engineering skills to design and develop materials that can go into the body to help patients recover. This was what steered me toward biomedical engineering for graduate school.
What brought you to VCU Engineering?
I earned the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which would pay my tuition at any school in the country. While researching graduate programs I discovered Dr. Gary Bowlin, who was a professor at VCU Engineering and a world-renowned tissue engineer. He was one of the first to do nanofiber electrospinning of materials that mimic the body’s structures, and among the first to do this with biodegradable polymers. I was excited about the research he was doing. His name and reputation, plus VCU Engineering’s tissue engineering program and the fact that I’m from Fredericksburg, were what brought me to VCU.
What did you research at VCU Engineering?
I did a lot of work in bone tissue regeneration in collaboration with [then-VCU Engineering doctoral student] Parthasarathy A. Madurantakam, D.D.S., M.D.S., Ph.D. My dissertation focused on engineering gelatin composite sponges that could be implanted at the site of a bone injury to help the body form new bone. I got to work on other tissue engineering research, including a vascular graft project with Dr. Michael McClure, who was in grad school around the same time. Another important project was a publication with [then-VCU Engineering postdoc] Scott Sell, Ph.D., which explored how the interaction of honey and growth factors from platelet rich plasma stimulate wound healing.
And this helped lay the groundwork for your company, SweetBio?
That’s right. SweetBio makes wound healing products that use Manuka honey, a collagen derivative and nanoparticles to support tissue regeneration. My sister, Kayla Rodriguez Graff, MBA, and I founded the company in 2015 in Memphis, Tennessee, where I had been working with Dr. Bowlin as a postdoc since 2013.
How do you use honey to heal wounds?
Honey has been used for medical applications for a long time — since ancient Egypt. But there have been problems with using honey for this purpose. It’s sticky and messy and, for wound healing, it has to be reapplied frequently. We developed a way to “unmess” honey, leverage its beneficial components and synthesize them with other materials to create uniform sheets. These sheets can be implanted at the site of a chronic wound, like the kind experienced by people with diabetes, to facilitate wound healing. This product is called APIS. It is fully absorbed by the body within 1-3 weeks and doesn’t have to be removed.
How’s your company doing?
It’s doing well. APIS is FDA-cleared and has been used in a number of hospitals and clinics around the country. APIS is approved for use in Veterans Administration hospitals nationwide and we are working closely with the Memphis location for usage. We’re also seeking coding for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. We’ve raised more than $5 million in investments since we began in 2015 and our technology is globally patented.
How did VCU Engineering help you advance your research and entrepreneurship?
There are so many answers to that question! As far as my research goes, at VCU I got to be part of a great biomedical engineering program that works very closely with a top-tier research hospital. I also think its diversity prepared me to be an entrepreneur because it exposed me to so many backgrounds, ideas and points of view. VCU Engineering was one of the original founders of the da Vinci Center, and that kind of multidisciplinary approach to product development is exactly what entrepreneurship is about. While I’m SweetBio’s chief science officer, I think with my entrepreneur hat on all the time.
What do you find most remarkable when you visit your alma mater?
It relates to what we were just talking about, the way the college keeps connecting engineering and entrepreneurship. Just walk through East Hall. You see engineering labs and classrooms, but a few steps later, you’re in the business building. There’s no wall in between them. (I can’t wait to see the new Engineering Research Building when I come back.) I have always stayed involved and am now on the college’s biomedical engineering undergraduate advisory committee. I see a lot of other alumni doing great things, and the excitement is just getting amplified every year.
If you had to describe VCU Engineering in three words, what words would you choose?
“Inventing with purpose.” VCU Engineering has a practical approach, with a focus on the real world. If something you invent in a lab works, but it costs the consumer $5,000 every time they use it, you don’t really have a product that can be used on the majority of the population and that can address a large healthcare problem. The college knows that.
When you are not in the lab or running a biotech company, what do you like to do?
I love seeing my nephews, who are four and two and just live eight minutes away. And I just got engaged in May, so we are pretty busy with wedding plans right now. I love being outdoors and have been playing Frisbee golf for about 20 years. I also like to play pool.
Fun fact: When I was seven, I was one of the youngest tae kwon do black belts in the country.