When the leaders of Minnesota’s most promising startups went looking for a place to put down roots, Maple Grove felt like home right away.
Founded in 2014, StemoniX set up shop last summer in a former manufacturing building. The 16,000-square-foot space serves as StemoniX’s headquarters, with executive team, laboratory and manufacturing floor under the same roof.
“Right now, we have 15 people working here, but I expect a workforce of 30 to 40 as we expand,” says StemoniX CEO and co-founder Ping Yeh.
The company is on a fast track growth curve, boosted by winning the grand prize in the 2016 Minnesota Cup, the largest statewide startup competition in the country. They bested 1,500 other hopeful candidates in the entrepreneurial competition sponsored annually by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
Yeh’s personal health crisis sparked the genesis for StemoniX. When he battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2012, his doctors put him on a high-potency drug.
“The chemo was super-strong; at my low point I couldn’t lift my arm to feed myself,” says Yeh, now 41. “The drug was keeping the cancer at bay but not killing it, so I got the side effects without the efficacy.”
Why did his doctors have to use a trial-and-error approach with medication he wondered? Why couldn’t chemical reactions be tested outside the body to find out which ones worked?
Those questions put Yeh on a mission to end what he terms “guinea pig medicine.”
A mechanical engineer with an MBA, Yeh studied innovation in Silicon Valley and worked as a nanotechnologist, leading teams at several large Minnesota businesses. But his career path forked following his recovery.
“I quit my well-paying corporate job and burned through my savings to immerse myself in medicine," he says.
Yeh learned lean startup techniques, then met his co-founder, a serial inventor who had just taken a patent on the mass scale printing of living cells. StemoniX uses that proprietary technology, taking cells from patients and growing them in the lab, then testing to determine how they interact with medications.
“We’re really at the cusp of a new era in personalized medicine,” Yeh says. “One of the leading causes of hospital readmissions is adverse reactions to FDA-approved drugs; it causes 100,000 deaths every year. What we are doing cuts health care costs and saves lives.”
Yeh’s own health journey changed more than his career trajectory. In the midst of developing a fast-paced business, he is careful to make time to practice yoga, take solitary walks and cook, play board games and go camping with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Laura.
“My daughter was just 2 when I was diagnosed,” he says. “She’s 7 now and we like to dance, color; I’m teaching her to play tennis. She is going to bring really special positive energy to the world. She’s my motivation.”