Nsight Barbara Nelsen on the business of science.

Filed under Biomedical, Business growth, Innovation, Minnesota funding, Life science

Minnesota Life Science Companies to Watch – Part 2

Minnesota is known as a leader in medical device and healthcare and its presence in biopharma is growing. Adding to the list of exciting companies to watch from Part I of this series, here are a few more Minnesota highlights.


ApoGen Biotechnologies is a start-up based off technology developed by University of Minnesota scientists Reuben Harris and Daniel Harki. Harris, who is also a distinguished Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, discovered a key enzyme, APOBEC3B, that may be involved in many cancers. Harki designed highly selective and potent small molecule inhibitors of APOBEC3B in this pathway. The scientific founders teamed up with serial entrepreneur, John Santini, and in 2014 Apogen was born. Santini has a strong track record of creating and growing life sciences companies, having served as a CEO of MicroCHIPS, On Demand Therapeutics, and RadioRx, developing next-generation pharmaceuticals, drug delivery systems, and biosensors. He has been named in Popular Science Magazine’s “Brilliant Ten”, Technology Review Magazine’s Top 100 Young Innovators. He has over 60 issued patents, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer award and an Edison Awards Gold Medal in the Science and Medical, Game Changers category (see profile here). In December 2016, Apogen raised their Series A of $7 million from Accelerator Corporation for the development of this new class of cancer therapies. It will be interesting to see what Apogen does next.


Vyriad is a Minnesota-based company spun out from technology developed by Stephen Russell and Kah Whye Peng at the Mayo Clinic. Their goal is to engineer oncolytic viruses to develop potent, safe and cost-effective cancer therapies. Currently, they have seven oncolytic viruses in the pipeline targeting a variety of cancers, both solid tumor and hematologic malignancies. With strong clinical and commercial activity since their formation just over a year ago, Vyriad is a company to keep an eye on. They’ve already caught Big Pharma’s interest and licensed out their VSV-IFNb technology to MedImmune/AstraZeneca, now Phase I clinical trials. Three more Phase I clinical trials are planned to launch in the first half of 2017. And they’ve made several deals to further improve their technology, develop companion diagnostics and combine it with other therapies.

Of note, Vyriad’s funding came from private investors to accomplish the company’s goal of remaining in Minnesota, where the right talent and the right team existed. For more on funding strategies see here and here. And for more on where to find funding see here and our article, The View Beyond Venture Capital, published in Nature Biotechnology.



As we discussed in Part I of this series, StemoniX’s platform is a ‘clinical trial on a plate’ that can be used for drug discovery and personalized medicine applications. While, several companies are using human induced pluripotent stem cells as drug screening platforms, what’s different about StemoniX’s approach is their unique bioprinting and self-assembly technology that recreates biologically relevant micro-organs for customized drug discovery.

We asked Ping Yeh, StemoniX’s CEO what three factors have contributed to StemoniX’s success to date:

  1. Think outside the box. Leverage both local and national resources from incubators and start-up competitions to tax credits and loan programs in order to stage funding momentum. For example, we have:
    • Resided within incubators in both Minnesota (Treehouse Health) and California (Evonexus, JLABs).
    • Participated in the MN Cup three years in a row, winning the Grand Prize in 2016. With this visibility, we landed a potential customer and new investor within 24 hours.
    • Raised nearly $2 million in angel funding in 2016 resulting in $450,000 angel tax credits.
  2. Select values to shape the mission and vision of the company. These will drive the culture and create a team that can lead a successful endeavor.
  3. Understand that uncertainty comes with the start-up world. Enjoy the process of discovery and drive it to commercialization.