Cells of Innovation
March 2018 – A near-death experience propels the mission of a Minnesota startup.
StemoniX, founded in Minneapolis in 2014, strives to remove the realm of medical trial and error typified by the admonition to “take two of these and call me in the morning.” The company’s mission springs from the personal story of its co-founder, Ping Yeh. Diagnosed five years ago with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Ping was initially resistant to standard chemotherapy, leading his doctor to prescribe a more potent variety that could have been toxic to his heart. Adverse drug reactions, says Ping, are the fourth-leading cause of death in the US. Detailing his experience in a moving 2017 TEDx Talk, Ping asked, “Why are we all guinea pigs?”
In an interview with Site Selection, the 42-year old nanotechnologist and engineer expounded on the vision of StemoniX and the advantages of launching a med-tech startup in Minnesota.
Site Selection: Why “StemoniX?”
Ping: It’s a play off of stem cells and economics. We wanted to bring our individual backgrounds in semiconductor technology and materials/chemistry to change the economics of the production of stem cells and how useful they were.
What does StemoniX do?
Ping: StemoniX makes human microOrgan and microTissues from skin. We then use engineering techniques to further shape and structure them to make them more accurately reflect what’s in a human. It’s making for a more predictive model — something that reacts to therapeutics in a more accurate way. In our short existence we’ve come to support some of the largest pharma companies in the world.
Who are your pharma clients?
Ping: We can’t share them all. We probably work with half the top 20. Our headquarters and manufacturing plant are in suburban Minneapolis. We also have R&D labs in San Diego, in Johnson & Johnson’s JLABS incubator. We’ve worked locally in Minnesota with Humanetics, which works on a therapeutic to address the effects of radiation, whether it’s space travel or for cancer patients. Another is Pairnomix. They work on childhood epilepsy. Together, we’ve created seizure disease outside the body on our plates.
Where in Minneapolis is your headquarters?
Ping: We’re in the upper northwest of Minneapolis in a town called Maple Grove. It has tons of amenities from restaurants to parks to shopping. Medtronic and Boston Scientific are just a couple of the many large anchor corporations just a few minutes away. They help establish a strong community foundation. It’s also beautiful here. Lakes and ponds are scattered all around us, and nice affordable homes are great options for our new hires. It’s nice to have those options for our employees.
What differentiates StemoniX?
Ping: First is our ability to scale and grow lots of these iPS cells, billions of cells. Second is biological relevance. That’s making the cells and structuring the cells in the right way and doing it very accurately and consistently. There are other dimensions of diversity and core values of the company that I think set us apart.
Have you reached the point where you can say you’re saving lives?
Ping: That’s the vision. Our vision is to make medicine work the first time. Some of our most recent data on the cardiac side show that we can identify recalled drugs in a way that couldn’t be done when the cells were not structured correctly. Our ability to make heart fibers quickly, at scale, and efficiently, really surprised a lot of scientists around the world, and I think that data is going to drive new products forward.
What can you tell our readers about Minnesota’s innovation ecosystem?
Ping: I’m quite pleased with the energy that the Minnesota ecosystem is producing as compared with other parts of the country and the world. From a connectedness standpoint, we rate very high. From an investment standpoint, we do extremely well because of the high number of angels within the community. The angel groups like Gopher Angels are run extremely well, and they’re syndicated with other Midwest funding bodies.
Why did you start the company in Minnesota?
Ping: I love Minnesota, and my wife and my daughter love it, too. It’s number one for child well-being, one or two for health and was just ranked number one for happiness. So, although we have longer winters than most states, in general it’s mentally a great place to live. Second, you have access to hardworking, talented, passionate people in the Twin Cities. Third is capital efficiency. A million dollars here is going to last at least six times [longer than] it would in parts of California.
Were there economic incentives you were able to take advantage of in starting the business?
Ping: We received funding from the Minnesota Angel Tax credit. Angels get 25 percent of their investment credited back to them, and those investors could be anywhere in the country. Many poured the credits back into the companies they supported. We also received an investment loan from the state. Medical Alley, which is one of the largest trade organizations for medical-related companies, is here, and they were very helpful, too.
Do you feel that Minnesota is branding itself adequately to attract young science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers?
Ping: I think we do very well because of the high quality of life here and the strong educational system. Recently, I’ve met people coming here from the coasts and putting down roots. As Steve Case would say, it’s “the rise of the rest.” People are realizing that, from a cost of living and quality of life standpoint, you don’t need to be in a 24/7 city.
Do you plan to stay in Minnesota as you grow?
Ping: Yes, we do. There’s a great opportunity to grow here. We get wonderful support from the community, and we look forward to seeing where this journey takes us.
StemoniX® is transforming how medicine is discovered. By using skin or blood to create functioning microHearts® and microBrains®, StemoniX is making it possible to test medication on humans without that medication ever entering their bodies. This method of drug testing will speed up the search for new cures and enable the ability to test drug effectiveness on an individual person, so medicine works correctly the first time. For more information visit www.stemonix.com.
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