Kayla Rodriguez Graff
For taking an innovative approach to wound care
Kayla Rodriguez Graff knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur from a young age, when she saw her grandmother’s bridal business flourishing in her native Puerto Rico. “I’ve been fortunate my whole life to watch really strong women succeed,” she says. In 2014, when her brother Isaac, a biomedical tissue engineer, told her about a technology he was studying that could help wounds to heal, Graff was intrigued. “Like any good business student,” she says, “I started asking: ‘Would anyone buy this? Can we use it all over the body? Can we manufacture it for less than we can sell it for?’ And the answers were ‘yes, yes, yes.’ ”
Graff co-founded SweeBio with Isaac and her now-husband Kevin Graff the following year. The company manufactures a patch that contains gelatin, manuka honey--a natural ingredient with antibacterial qualities--and a nanoparticle called hydroxyapatite that helps tissue rebuild. All three materials are commonly used in the medical space, but SweetBio combines them on the molecular level to create an easy-to-use patch that can be placed over a wound and dissolves in several days. Graff says the treatments have shown effectiveness in quickly healing stubborn wounds, like diabetic ulcers, that can otherwise remain open for months.
SweetBio currently sells the FDA-cleared patch to doctors and hospitals, but its goal is to go directly to consumers. To help it get there, the startup has $4.6 million in funding and is in the process of raising more. Clinical trials with skin cancer patients are set to begin in October, and Graff hopes they will prove the product’s effectiveness. The startup has faced doubters along the way, but she remains unfazed. “If 90 percent of people think your idea is a good one,” she says, “you're already too late.”
Good Nature Agro
For helping Zambian farmers move into the middle class
Good Nature Agro has been a particularly long journey for Kellan Hays, who co-founded the company with Carl Jensen and Sunday Silungwe in 2014. The three originally met working on a class project at UC Davis. “I knew right away they had this vision, and I knew right away I had a piece of the puzzle to help them,” says Hays. The team won some business plan competitions that first year, which enabled Jensen and Silungwe to set up shop Zambia. There, they began the company’s work of helping farmers transition to higher-value crops (generally that’s meant legumes, instead of maize), and connecting the farmers with buyers. Hayes remained based in the U.S., working at various tech jobs to help subsidize the startup and working on the strategy and governance behind Good Nature as a very intense side hustle.
Meanwhile, the team in Zambia was expanding, and discovering that even finding appropriate seed for farmers was hard. Growing the actual crop is less difficult than growing the seed, says Hays, because the certification process for seed is so technical. Last year Good Nature Agro trained about 1,500 farmers to grow seed for higher-value crops, bought the seeds from them, and then sold those seeds to other customers, enabling about 200,000 smallholder farms to start growing different crops and getting more money for their efforts. The seed-growing farmers benefit from the initial sale of the seed and also through profit-sharing.
This year, Hays was finally able to shake her day job, and has been concentrating on getting some of the risk out of Good Nature for next year. With Covid, she’s expecting to see more restrictions on travel, and she knows the global capital markets could also look much different. And, she says, “There is a demand for seeds knowing there could be a food shortage in a year.” She is looking to various Covid response funds that are looking to help businesses, especially social impact ones, position themselves for a different world. (The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, maintains one database of such funds). And Good Nature continues to grow, to 76 full-time employees this year, a million dollars in funding with another round in the works, and a goal this year of working with 10,000 farmers to grow seed. –Kimberly Weisul
Because therapy should be available to everyone
Kimberlie Cerrone—a longtime silicon valley IP lawyer and startup strategist—started Tiatros in 2010 to make therapy more accessible. Her company provides employees, through their companies, online mental health programs that consist of 90 minutes of videos and activities, completed online every week while in digital conversation with peers, supervised by a Tiatros facilitator.
This isn’t meant to be deep Freudian analysis -- the programs are based on methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. Cerrone likens it to going to the gym for your emotional wellness. She isn’t speaking hyperbolically when she says she wants Tiatros “to have essentially infinite scale and reach.
Cerrone was inspired to start Tiatros in the early 2000s when both her sons, who enlisted after 9/11, came home to San Francisco with PTSD. Despite advantages such as affluence and familial support, they struggled to get mental-health care for two years, Cerrone says. “It’s a trillion dollar, worldwide problem,” she notes. In the pandemic, with spiking rates of reported anxiety and depression, the access issue has only become more acute. Her mantra: “People are way more important than ideas, and ideas don’t mean anything until they turn into plans.” –Gabrielle Bienasz
She's absolutely serious when she says it's never too early to learn a second language
Kristin Groos Richmond
Because during Covid, school kids aren't the only ones without healthy meals
Kristin Groos Richmond came to her passion for solving food insecurity by an unexpected path. After a stint on Wall Street, she helped start a school in Kenya, where “I saw firsthand what a difference good nutrition makes for students in and out of the classroom—how it affected their academic performance and energy and ability to succeed.” Back in the U.S., the company she co-founded in 2006, Revolution Foods, aimed to “completely transform the quality of meals offered to students” by reinventing school lunch.
In the intervening years, that mission has grown to include other vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, seniors, and the homebound, and the company now distributes several million meals per week in 170 cities across the country. This year, with schools closed amid the pandemic, Revolution’s mission became more important than ever, because many families rely on school lunch as one of their primary sources of food. The company pivoted in March to partner with cities to create new distribution models.
In order to serve diverse communities equitably, Revolution designs its meals to cater to different regions and backgrounds—and hires accordingly. “We are 66 percent female and 86 people of color across the company,” Richmond says. “Forty-four percent of management are leaders of color.” She sees that inclusiveness as a key to the company’s success—making sure that we are building in a way that supports the mission of listening to and responding to and designing for the communities we serve.” – Tom Foster