Q&A: Ping Yeh, Cofounder Of MN Cup Winner StemoniX
StemoniX is a young company that wants to flip medical diagnosis and treatment on its head. The Minneapolis-based startup, founded in just 2014, is able to create stem cells for research and drug-reaction screening. It’s helping lead the field toward a future where medicine is personalized for everyone to ensure treatment works effectively the first time it’s given.
This game changer helped the company win the MN Cup this year. TCB chatted with one of the company’s cofounders, Ping Yeh, on why the company was founded, how the company’s services align with insurer and health care provider priorities and why Minnesota is an ideal place to headquarter a business like this.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
TCB: What is the StemoniX origin story?
Ping Yeh: Well, StemoniX was started when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma four years ago, almost to the week. When I was going through Hodgkin’s, I learned four months into treatment that I was actually resistant to the standard treatment and they had to give me the maximum potency, which was very cardiotoxic. It could have cured my cancer, but I could have died from treatment [due to] heart failure. And so one of the things that experience made me wonder was, “How can we test drugs outside of the body?”
What does StemoniX do?
Stemonix turns anyone’s skin, blood, or fat into stem cells and then into human micro-organs. Today, we make beating heart cells and synapsing brain cells, and we use this to accelerate the discovery of new medicines for drug-discovery companies. In the future we will use this technology for personalized diagnostic tools, but that’s going to be after we tackle this current customer base of large drug-discovery companies.
We have what are called cell lines which is a group of cells that have the same genetic code. We have our own cell lines and our own libraries with diseases and controls that we can sell to companies to test efficacy and toxicity. What’s really amazing about this technology is that the micro-organs that we make of the patient with the disease mimic the patient. The problem is that this technology to date is very expensive. StemoniX went to address that problem.
What sets StemoniX apart on the market? Is there anything like it?
There are several things that differentiate StemoniX from other companies in this space. The first is that we have cracked the code on scale so that our pricing model is very different. It actually allows for drug companies to integrate our technology into the overall drug-discovery effort. Second, we grow billions of cells in a very short amount of time, and we’re very consistent. Third is that we shape our cells to be more biologically relevant. So, it makes them more like the actual cells in humans.
In the last, say, year and a half, we have generated 14 original, provisional patents. And we’ve licensed about 11 technologies. So we have 25 patents or provisional patents in our intellectual property portfolio.
What do you mean by “biologically relevant” and the “shaping” of cells?
What we do is kind of like 3D printing, but we’re a passive technology that’s a lot lower cost. Basically, when our cells are in our plates, they self assemble—they automatically take the shape that we have designed. Because of that, it’s a lot lower cost. You don’t need a million-dollar machine making the structure. You just put cells on our plate and they auto-align.
And when you say “micro-organs,” you don’t mean miniature-scale hearts, I assume?
No, it’s not a tiny heart, but rather a tiny piece of a heart. For example, a human heart’s cells look rod-like—they’re elongated cells. Nobody in the world makes heart cells like that except for StemoniX. This has really big implications on cell structure, tissue function and gene expression.
What’s your background? And is this your first entrepreneurial venture?
I’m a nanotechnologist by training and have a mechanical undergraduate and masters. I’ve been an intrapreneur in some of the largest companies in the state of Minnesota, but I haven’t founded any companies unless you count nonprofits—I founded two nonprofits prior to this. It’s actually quite useful, because many of your partners in this space are nonprofits: hospitals, foundation and things like that. But my cofounder has founded at seven companies, three of which have gone public and four or five of which have been acquired. UnitedHealth Group acquired one.
Given this breakthrough technology, you surely had interest before the MN Cup. So what made you join?
This is actually our third try [at the Minnesota Cup], but we didn’t get through to the first round the first two times. We kept trying because we believe in what we’re doing, but also because the competition improves you. We want to be a part of the really bright future of Minnesota innovation ecosystem that’s really taking off. And, once you can get out of the first round, you get so much coaching and support. It’s really worth it because when you go through five rounds of judging, by that point, you’re honing and refining your message to the public and investors.
Have you been approached by new investors since winning the MN Cup?
Yes, we were approached the day of the MN Cup final. They invested within 24 hours. We also got a potential customer on the day-of. We got a potential customer on the day of.
What does the future of medicine look like for StemoniX?
We want to end “guinea-pig medicine.” Everything before this point in time is guinea pig medicine: Your doctor says, “Take two of these [pills] for the next two weeks and come back and tell me how you feel.” The future of medicine that’s being created today is your doctor saying, “There are four drugs out there for your disease: A, B, C and D. Based on your genetics, you should take C and D in these combinations and concentrations because that’s what’s going to work for you.” StemoniX is part of that transition and it has huge implications for our world’s health care system. Our vision is to make medicine work the first time. So right now we’re focused on putting “populations on a plate.” Eventually, we want to transition to making each of our plates represent an individual.
That idea might sound a little crazy. But the truly breakthrough ideas [often] sound crazy. If 20 years ago someone said, “There’s this technology that’s going to connect everyone in the world, and you can watch ESPN on your phone in HD,” people would have laughed in your face. But this is real: We’re engaged with at least half of the top pharmaceutical companies – we’re already selling to one of the largest in the world.
How specific are the cell lines you have?
Right now, they’re individualized from the standpoint that the diseases [on the plates] are from a person. But, there are situations where cell lines are modified to represent a disease. [But in the future], you’ll be able to give a little blood. So if you suffer from a genetic heart disease, you can have the optimized treatment given to you right at the point of diagnosis.
It’s already kind of happening, it’s just expensive. In Finland, they’re already coming up with personalized leukemia treatments. We hope to make it cheap enough that we can scale, because our mission is to make personalized medicine acceptable for all. We want to make these technologies so low cost that all of us can take advantage of it.
What’s does an affordable price point look like?
It’s not so much about being affordable for a patient. We’ve been invested in by some of the big insurance companies because we see the same vision: Getting medicine right the first time. And so, really, it’s not so much affordable, but rather about being reimbursable. The future vision that we’re helping to craft is one where we are aligned with hospitals and insurers. Hospitals want to get diagnoses right the first time, insurers want treatment to work the first time—because trying to solve an issue multiple times is really expensive.
But we’re currently working a lot with drug-discovery companies, and in that sector, it’s about being at a price point that’s similar to using [test] animals and getting companies to move away from that. [Animals] are expensive, it’s unethical to use them and they’re not that predictive, especially in the new wave of medicine like immuno-oncology. So it’s about being at the same or near the same price as an animal so the transition is a no-brainer. If you can have a human model at the same price as an animal, why wouldn’t you switch?
StemoniX has locations in Minnesota and San Diego. Why is the company in these two places, and how does it fit into Minnesota’s medical technology sector?
Our vision of Minnesota is to have our headquarters and manufacturing, while San Diego will have most of the research and development. One reason we have this colocation strategy, much like [2015 MN Cup winner] Astropad, is that San Diego is a biotech hub—it’s good for drug discovery companies—but Minnesota is a hub for medical manufacturing and medical devices. StemoniX is a blend of those two things. It’s a diagnostic consumable. It plugs and plays into the existing structure for drug-discovery companies, so we’re actually making something, but it also helps the biotech industry. So we need to be in both from a manufacturing and customer standpoint. But Minnesota, because of the workforce, cost of living and quality of life, is a really good place to be headquartered.
We’re currently headquartered in TreeHouse Health as their newest company. And we’ll be there until we find our headquarters and manufacturing space, which we’re currently searching for.
Any locations in mind?
It could be anywhere in Minnesota, whether it’s the city or the suburbs. It could even be in Rochester.
What does the future of StemoniX look like? Do you intend to grow, sell or partner with others?
We want medicine that works the first time—whether it’s through partnerships or any other kind of business relationship, we’re open. Our goal is just to make that vision happen. Mission-wise, we see StemoniX being a part of Minnesota’s ecosystem around regenerative medicine and personalized medicine and diagnostics. We see StemoniX playing our part in a community to accelerate these medicines for the world and make them accessible for all. Minnesota has all the ingredients to make this happen, including the workforce and a top notch university, as well as it’s hospitals, insurers, CROs (contract research organizations) and drug-discovery companies.
We’ve all known somebody that’s been ill or had a serious disease, and so we work extremely hard every day to make this possible. When I was barely able to feed myself going through chemo, I promised myself that if I survived that I’d transition my skills to something more meaningful. It’s amazing that’s it’s coming true.