Innovation. Drive. Purpose. Conversations with the enterprising entrepreneurs and leaders behind beloved and up and coming brands.
Vyant Bio Chief Innovation Officer Ping Yeh
“Is there a better way to find safer and more effective medicine?”
That’s the question Ping Yeh pondered as he fought his way back from the brink of death in 2012. Having survived a chemotherapy cocktail so intense that doctors worried it could destroy his heart, he found himself wondering: with all the technology available, why do we still use the patient as the guinea pig? Pursuing an answer led to the 2014 formation of StemoniX, a biotech company that makes microOrgans used for drug discovery. Says Yeh, “Instead of waiting 8-10 years to see how humans respond (to a new drug), let’s just do it now.”
In March 2021, StemoniX joined forces with Cancer Genetics Inc., a New Jersey-based drug discovery leader, and together the two formed Vyant Bio (VYNT on the Nasdaq). The new biotech business has offices around the world including Pennsylvania, California, Australia, and Germany, with StemoniX operating as a wholly owned subsidiary based in Maple Grove, Minn.
StemoniX microOrgans are now used to test treatments for Rett Syndrome, a rare form of autism.
“In the grand history of biology, you have a hand in creating a new way of doing things,” Yeh says.
He talks about the process of building a biotech business—out of his basement and into the Johnson & Johnson JLabs science incubator. He credits the lean startup method with helping him and his partner to create a product that was not only scientifically advanced, but a market fit. Almost as challenging as creating “mini brains” in petri dishes, “we had to figure out how to make them at scale, and ship them all over the world.”
The recent merger allowed Yeh to move away from the business side of StemoniX to focus on innovation. He shares two keys to innovative thinking:
1. Be careful of the beliefs that you have. They are these invisible bars and walls that might hold you back.
2. It’s definitely over if you choose to quit. If you don’t, and every day you wake up and say we’re going to figure it out and do our best..you’ll figure it out.
For more takeaways from Yeh’s story, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. Associate professor John McVea encourages entrepreneurs to approach the problems they hope to solve from a human perspective.
“Often people start out asking: what do I have to do to become a successful entrepreneur,” McVea says. “What this story reminds us is that a much better question is: how should I be to become a successful entrepreneur.”
He points out the a fundamental tenet of lean startup: the answer is not in the room. “It’s staying in constant contact with all sorts of people…constantly networking with people who are open to new ideas and thinking about how to create something that solves something for humans. Carry yourself in a way that makes you open to entrepreneurship.”
Fueled Collective Co-Founder Don Ball
The pandemic called into question everything that made coworking desirable: shared work areas, in-person networking. But industry pioneer Don Ball has seen work culture trends cycle more than once before. And indeed, demand for flexible workspaces is already swinging back.
“Hybrid work opens an opportunity for coworking—it’s a professional office that’s not your home, and not your [company] HQ. If you have one close to where you live, I think what we’re going to see is suburban coworking…do really well.”
The opportunity in 2021 is not unlike what inspired Ball to get into coworking more than a decade ago. A career freelancer, Ball recalls “going stir crazy” working by himself at home in the mid-1990s. He rented an office, just to get out of the house and remembers thinking: “What if I invited others to join me? It seemed like a goofy idea at the time.”
Laptop computers and high-speed internet made it more feasible. In 2010, Ball and partner Kyle Coolbroth got a good deal on a vacant space in the Lowertown area of downtown St. Paul. They resisted turning it into separate office suites—the two weren’t interested in becoming landlords; they wanted to create a community for software engineers, freelancers, and business founders to connect and share ideas. So they invested in some Ikea furniture and opened CoCo, the Twin Cities’ first modern-day coworking community. Soon after, then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak convinced them to open a second CoCo in the Grain Exchange Building.
“There was a hunger for people to see what happening” in the startup community, Ball says. CoCo’s expansive space in the middle of downtown Minneapolis became that symbol of innovation. “It was the first time you could walk into one space see that it’s happening here.”
But while Coco became a local success story, WeWork, which launched the same year, became an international sensation—right up until its failed IPO. Ball talks about doing business in WeWork’s shadow.
“It was fantasy fueled by funny money. That was obvious to all of us in the business from day one,” Ball says. “They were acting like [real estate] was a software platform—like they could absorb all the costs of onboarding, and it would someday make money. It created downward price pressure…coworking as a business itself is okay, but it’s not great. It’s not going to make anyone rich. We were always looking for a twist.”
In 2018, Ball and Coolbroth teamed up with Fueled Collective and set about franchising their coworking communities and turning them into modern conference centers that would keep the spaces activated beyond 9 to 5. Ball stepped away from day-to-day operations in 2019. He sits on the board of Fueled Collective, which downsized during the pandemic and now operates two Minneapolis spaces. There’s a third in Cincinnati.
Today, Ball is back to freelancing, including a project related to regenerative agriculture, which isn’t as far afield as it sounds: the concept is to create shared growing space for crops and production space for small food producers. Coworking, for the ag industry.
For more perspective on work culture, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business where adjunct faculty member Rod Hagedorn teaches management.
“Instead of trying to second guess where everything is headed, we should think in terms of drivers of change," Hagedorn says. "The pandemic taught all of us about the need for agility in terms of business operations.”
And with a disruption in office work comes the opportunity to consider which activities are best done in person: “innovation, creative problem solving—two areas critical for our economy and even our national security. The best way to come up with innovative solutions is still the old-fashioned way: in the office, with colleagues. We need people around us to be able to sense what someone is feeling and see reactions
Zipnosis Founder Jon Pearce
In March of 2020, as the U.S. shut down offices and clinics to guard against Covid-19, the telehealth platform Zipnosis saw an unbelievable spike in traffic, from around 1,800 visits a week to 65,000. Founder Jon Pearce had been preaching for more than a decade that the smartphone was the medical clinic of the future, but it took a global pandemic for the industry to make significant change.
In April of 2021, Zipnosis sold to another Minnesota-based startup, Bright Health, a giant among new health insurance companies that has raised more than $1 billion since 2016. Pearce and his team joined Bright Health Group and continue to work on transforming patient and provider connections. So it may surprise people to hear that Pearce believes telehealth as we know it is dying.
“The best analogy is the difference between Blockbuster and Netflix,” Pearce says. “Remotely getting care from a doctor is the same thing as renting a movie from Blockbuster. That business model is dying—you’ve got negative unit economics. What’s coming is Amazon care, Walmart. The tech itself is commoditized and integrated into a digitally enabled business. You will have more choice. The option to get care when you want it, how you want it,
at the price you want is going to be the most radical transformation.”
Of course, it takes grand vision, tenacity and sacrifice to pursue such radical transformation, and Pearce also talks about the darker side of entrepreneurship, which he says factored into the collapse of his first marriage and struggles with mental health.
“We have unfortunately created this myth around entrepreneurship. There’s a destructive cycle that comes from unwieldy expectations of financial returns,” Pearce says. “We need to reframe role of entrepreneurship. To say, my job is to help change the world, take ideas and put them into action. To be effective, I need to set boundaries, delegate, find other people. When I go back to do the next thing, I’m going to start with the thesis that my vision is big and I’m going to build and find best people to help me do that. I’m not going to work 120 hour weeks. It’s not sustainable for me, and it’s not even good for the business.”
Pearce says he’d also be reluctant to take venture capital on his next venture, particularly early in its development. “I’ve become a lot more old school. Build a profitable business with customers who pay you.”
Following our conversation with Pearce, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business where Daniel McLaughlin is a senior executive fellow whose research focuses on making health care work more effectively.
“it’s an exciting time for health care—the pandemic accelerated technology rapidly,” McLaughlin says. Beyond telehealth, he sees digital therapeutics on the horizon—“devices we’ll have in our homes or wear on our bodies—personal AI systems for much better, more customized health care.”
Hippy Feet Co-Founders Sam Harper and Michael Mader
“When you bring someone to tears by describing what you do, that seems viable.”
Michael Mader and Sam Harper started their sock business, Hippy Feet, with a mission: to support young people experiencing homelessness. Inspired by brands like TOMS and Love Your Melon, they launched in 2016 with a one-for-one model, a pair of socks donated to someone in need for every pair sold. But the business, a certified B-corp, really began to gel when they integrated the mission into making their product.
“We were going into shelters, donating socks, and we started to see familiar faces,” Harper says. “We told customers we would do this great thing by donating socks, and we did, but we were seeing the same people. People were still homeless. It felt hollow.”
Adds Mader, “[Socks] address a symptom of homelessness, but by just treating the symptom, you’re not doing anything to resolve the issue itself… We realized that simply donating a pair of socks was strong marketing, but it wasn’t a strong impact. We wanted to have a strong impact.”
In 2018, Hippy Feet piloted a Pop Up Employment program, bringing socks to shelters and paying those interested in hourly work to package product. By 2019, Hippy Feet dispensed with the one-for-one model to focus on employing homeless youths. “A job moves you along the pathway to self-sufficiency,” Mader says.
But in March of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic brought Hippy Feet’s Pop Up Employment program to a halt, along with sales. Mader says the company was within weeks of bankruptcy when a new plan came together that puts Hippy Feet in a better position for long term success.
“The pandemic caused us to solve the issue of scale around employment,” Haper says. Hippy Feet now offers short term, part time contracts to those in need of a job—just enough to get them on their feet, with confidence and connections to plan their next move. They’re working on partnerships that would lead Hippy Feet workers to future opportunities. And they’re thinking about ways to replicate the Minneapolis employment program in other cities.
As Hippy Feet hit its stride on mission, sales followed. “When we got our values dialed in, it allowed us to share our values with consumer in a way that was much more digestible,” Mader says. The company improved its digital marketing and e-commerce experience to grow direct-to-consumer sales.
What this process has taught the founders about the one-for-one model: “There are much deeper ways to give,” Harper says. He encourages brands considering this approach to ask themselves, “Are you actually meeting a real need? Many times, you’re better off giving money—empowering a community, giving agency to whomever you’re trying to help.”
“We’ve been able to bake mission into our core business,” Mader adds. “We never have to ask ourselves, do we want to donate an inferior product to save money, or delay a donation. If you’re holding a pair of Hippy Feet socks, it’s gone through the hands of young person experiencing homelessness. It’s a more authentic, deeper way of giving.”
Then we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business where David Alexander is an associate marketing professor. While he appreciates the Hippy Feet mission, Alexander says the founders could have crafted their business plan more efficiently.
“Hippy Feet tried to create an opportunity. What we want, from a brand perspective, is people who buy into your commitment. Do the research to figure out who is going to support you and then change your dream to satisfy the opportunity.”
Entrepreneur + Community Builder Houston White
Serial entrepreneur Houston White’s business endeavors include barber shop, apparel collection that has been featured by Target and JCPenney, a coffee cafe and product brand, and housing development. But he’s building something bigger than all of that combined. He’s building community.
“Culture plus capacity,” was White’s pitch to U.S. Bank, which invested in his vision. “It’s my belief that in Black communities, the smallest institutions have the greatest impact…church, barbershop. Typically, folks start big and trickle down. In community development, you’ve got to start small and level up. Let’s start with things we can do.”
What White wants to do is build a neighborhood where Black culture and Black owned businesses thrive. White’s Camdentown, as he calls the Weber-Camden area of North Minneapolis, is a place where people of all backgrounds can shop, meet for coffee, get a haircut, and live—together, at various income levels. They key, he says: it has to be fueled by Black entrepreneurs.
“I believe that Black Minnesota’s been held back because we have not unleashed human potential,” White says. “Entrepreneurs are the one missing link.”
White’s Get Down Coffee Co. will open in the fall of 2021 adjacent to White’s barbershop and store, all in a predominantly Black part of town that has lacked the sort of resources and attractions to draw visitors. Phase two of White’s expansion includes a 12-unit market rate apartment building next door. “I am a firm believer that we can’t concentrate poverty,” White says. “You need mix of incomes, race, and it has to be Black led in order to really move community forward. If we want better schools, we need to create a mix of incomes.”
The vision struck White earlier In his career. “I had done what I hoped I’d never do: get successful and leave my community. I was become a wealthy Black man and my giveback was money. I spent no time in the inner city. I realized I had no connection to a village like it was growing up for me in Mississippi. I had to figure out how to grow as an entrepreneur and maintain connection to my tribe.”
White was entrepreneurial from his days biking the neighborhood giving haircuts. Spending summers in Mississippi and the school year in Minneapolis was a “cultural collision” that White says gave him a broader perspective on race and meant he ‘didn’t grow up with an inferiority complex.” Today, he fields calls from the governor of Minnesota and the CEO of Target. And as White scales his own business, he’s plotting out the opportunity to create a local legacy much bigger than himself.
“It’s going to take a radical shift in way people think about what Black people need, and it’s much more than a job.”
After our conversation with White, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. Associate Dean Laura Dunham shares White’s believe in the importance of entrepreneurship as a tool to build both wealth and community.
“Small businesses play an important role in upward mobility,” Dunham says. “Business owners have much higher levels of wealth.”
Challenging economic times often lead to business formation and Dunham notes a spike during the Covid-19 pandemic of Black-led startups. But disparities in funding for Black entrepreneurs persist.
“Give people a bit of bandwidth and capital,” Dunham says. “They have the insight, experience and knowledge to see needs to be filled.”
Footwear Designer Marion Parke
Manolo Blahnik. Jimmy Choo. Christian Louboutin. Marion Parke. It takes moxie, clear vision, and a major investment to launch a luxury footwear brand with no experience in the field. But Marion Parke has something those other designers don’t: a medical degree. As a podiatric surgeon, Parke, who counts First Lady Jill Biden as a fan of her collection, spent a lot of time thinking about shoes. “Every patient consultation led to talking about shoes,” she recalls, “because everyone is there for a foot problem.”
That’s when inspiration struck the Oklahoma native: her knowledge of the foot and biomechanics, combined with her love of fashion helped her see the opportunity to create a luxury footwear brand that delivers on both style and comfort. “The novel concept was doing it in an elevated and tasteful way—that didn’t scream you’re wearing a shoe that’s designed by a doctor.”
She launched in 2015 and Bloomingdale’s became the brand’s first major retailer. Parke learned the business through trial and error: pattern making, production, wholesaling, e-commerce, branding. Heading into 2020, Marion Parke shoes were sold through nearly 50 boutiques and stores including fashion sites like Shop Bop.
But the Covid-19 pandemic caused a major disruption—not only in distribution, but in shopping habits. Suddenly, in early 2020, no one needed heels. Marion Parke made the decision to skip an entire season of heels and stilettos, instead broadening the collection to include flats, sandals and wedges for the first time. “Covid fast-tracked that for us,” says Parke, a mother of three who suddenly found herself trying to save her brand while homeschooling her young children. “We had to think about what women’s activities were like.”
Now with the backing of investors who are experienced in the shoe industry as the owners of Minnetonka Moccasin, Marion Parke brought on its first CEO in late 2020 to “professionalize the business.” The move allows Parke to focus on what she loves most: design.
“In fashion you’re expected to see the future, to know what women want a year before they want it. The stakes have never been higher,” Parke says. I believe that our relationship with clothing has changed. Women have gotten comfortable, and they want something more functional, more wearable. I believe women aren’t going to want to go back to the traditional high heel….we want to show that we’re here to support women, so that you’re not distracted by shoes at the most important moments in your life.”
Following our conversation with Parke, we go back to the classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Marketing professor Steve Vuolo explains the four key components to clarity of positioning that help a brand gain traction.
Clarity: “Clarity is the art of sacrifice. You’re not going to be relevant to some in order to be really important to others.”
Target: “Know who you’re marketing to.”
Frame of reference: “Understand the arena in which your product is competing.”
Market differentiation: “What reason do consumers have to believe your claim? In Marion Parke’s case, being a doctor gives her instant credibility. Plus, her shoes being manufactured in Italy adds believability.”
"It's amazing how many entrepreneurs don't take the time to write these things out," Vuolo says. "Think about the persona of your brand."
This was a delightful conversations between Midwesterners. A narrative fitting for the type of creativity, courage, and resolve needed to make an impact in what will be the most exciting decade in human history. Big Trusss.
A different view
I really enjoy at the end when another perspective is brought in. Enjoy your show!
I really enjoy listening to Ali and the guests. Very insightful questions are asked and I always come away learning something. Fantastic, interesting people who have been interviewed. I especially enjoy hearing the interviewee's background and their thinking of what makes them tick. And I don't even live in Minnesota!