Eden Prairie resident starts company to transform drug industry

StemoniX CEO Ping Yeh (left) and head of cell biology Fabian Zanella gear up for work. (Submitted photo)
StemoniX CEO Ping Yeh (left) and head of cell biology Fabian Zanella gear up for work. (Submitted photo)

A key component to any startup business is identifying a product or service that isn’t being provided, or improving an existing one. That niche can be found in a variety of ways, and might not even be a product or service that’s personally interesting to the person pursuing the idea.

That’s not how things happened for Ping Yeh, Eden Prairie resident and CEO of StemoniX.

“It started four years ago, when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” recalled Yeh. “Four months into treatment, they told me I was resistant — it wasn’t working, four months in. I had all the toxicity, without the efficacy.”

The doctors caring for Yeh changed gears, adopting a different chemotherapy technique in use in Germany. Yeh learned that people of different ethnicities respond to treatment in different ways, sometimes with profound consequences.

“I took that fact and kind of planted it in the back of my head at some point,” said Yeh.

He explained that one in 10 breast cancer patients will have a reaction to standard chemotherapy that can be deadly. The only way method those patients or their doctors currently have to find out if they’ll react in that way is, well, to try it.

A similar challenge faces drug discovery companies when developing new compounds. Clinical trials may reveal how a drug will work for a majority of patients, but can’t give a comprehensive picture of how people of different ethnicities will respond to the compound.

Those clinical trials can be dangerous or even deadly for those who take part in them. Partially because of this, it takes more than a decade and some $2 billion for most drugs to reach market.

A plate like this can be filled with microOrgans and used for a variety of medical purposes. (Submitted photo)
A plate like this can be filled with microOrgans and used for a variety of medical purposes. (Submitted photo)

What Yeh’s company, StemoniX, seeks to do is revolutionize that entire process by using stem cells. As Yeh explained, the name is a combination of “stem,” referring to the stem cells that the company works with, and “economics.”

“What we’re trying to do is make that process really low cost, so that eventually, these technologies can be used more widely,” said Yeh. “That’s why the name, StemoniX – we’re changing the economics of stem cell technologies, so that they can be applied for all of us.”

Here’s how that works: StemoniX takes a person’s skin or blood cells and converts them into stem cells. From there, they convert them into human organ cells, referred to as “microOrgans.” Then, those organ cells are sent to drug discovery companies, so that they can test their drug compounds on them.

The advantages of testing compounds on microOrgans are many. Primarily, it allows drug discovery companies to test their compound with human cells much earlier in the process than they would have been able to otherwise.

This accelerates the process, which should allow drugs to reach market faster. But, as Yeh explained, just as valuable, both to the companies themselves and to the drug discovery process en masse, is the ability to find out when a drug won’t work earlier in the process.

“What we’re trying to do is help these companies to fail early on, so that they don’t misuse their investments and funding on drugs that aren’t safe or don’t work for a particular disease,” said Yeh. “When [drugs] fail late, that can be very crippling to companies. It’s crippling to large ones, and it can basically end the smaller ones.”

According to Yeh, 90 percent of drugs fail before reaching market – for some medicinal areas, like heart and brain medicines, as few as 3 percent succeed. StemoniX is at the forefront of advancing the widespread use of stem cell-grown organ cells in order to revolutionize the drug discovery process, creating a new industry in the process.

“We think it can be called – it’s not sexy, but – ‘regenerative diagnostics,’ which is basically using regenerative medicine, but using it for diagnostic purposes rather than implantation,” said Yeh. “I think that will translate to drugs that will be more effective for all of us, with less safety risks and a higher probability that it will work.”

The addition of regenerative diagnostics to the drug discovery process has other benefits, as well. Some drugs get through animal-testing phases only to find that the drug works poorly in humans. Regenerative diagnostics would allow many drugs to fail before even reaching the animal-testing phase.

Further, depending on whom the skin or blood cells are taken, drug discovery companies can test their compound on people of different ethnicities to look for adverse reactions or other differences.

“We are making and have a vision for products that can represent a more diverse population, so that drug discovery companies can design drugs that work for all of us,” said Yeh. “We can give them a plate of a representative population that allows them to not have any safety failures or deaths or injuries while they’re testing these new therapeutics.”

Yeh himself has a background in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in nanotechnology. Also adding to the mix are an MBA from the Carlson School of Management, as well as two international professional certifications in project and program management.

The team at StemoniX is small, but growing on almost a weekly basis. According to Yeh, part of the team’s strength comes from their diversity, in a plurality of ways.

“We are a combination of many disciplines,” said Yeh. “Whether it’s manufacturing, chemistry, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, stem cell biology, molecular biology – what we do is we combine all of these expertises into one company and come up with kind of our own language, and tackle this problem that really hasn’t been solved before.”

Nearing two dozen employees now, StemoniX started not long ago in Yeh’s unfinished Eden Prairie basement. He recalled the tumultuous start to what has become a burgeoning company.

“My sister-in-law had just moved into town, and they didn’t have a place to say,” said Yeh. “So I had a dog upstairs, my niece was like one, my daughter was like three, so it was chaos upstairs. But, I think one thing that’s really cool about the Minnesota ecosystem is that is has all of the ingredients to start amazing companies.”

He shared that the number of new companies started in the state recently is the highest it has ever been. He said he is proud that StemoniX is one of them.

“I think that this region has exciting things that it’s doing, but it has perhaps even more exciting things in its future,” said Yeh. “It’s great to be part of this ecosystem to help do our part to progress it forward.”