When a recruiter called in 2010 asking if he had heard of Eden Prairie-based Miromatrix Medical’s work with perfusion decellularization, Dr. Jeff Ross was initially cautious.
He was happy with the job he was at, he said. The recruiter said they should talk — and detailed an opportunity to be a part of a team endeavoring to end the transplant waiting list by bioengineering organs and tissues from pigs without triggering rejection in human bodies.
It would be an unclear risk to leave his job. Miromatrix showed significant promise but was experiencing challenges with funding, Ross said.
Ultimately, two motives led him to accept the position. One was his desire to help people. The second was a moment he pictured and couldn’t get out of his head.
He imagined the day of the first transplant and the consequent positive effect upon an exponential number of lives. Could he live with himself, he wondered, if the day arrived and he hadn’t been a part of it?
“The answer was: There’s no way,” Ross said.
Ross, 42, joined Miromatrix as vice president of product development. Last February, he became CEO of the company.
Miromatrix Medical works with bioengineered organs, decellularizing pig organs, then using the vasculature when they recellularize them with human cells.
The process, Ross said, is similar to remodeling a house when you maintain the structure but modify the interior to fit your needs. They hope to have the first human transplant by 2020.
The organs could be the key to ending the wait lists like the liver transplant wait list, where 17,000 people each year wait for a viable organ. The long wait has fatal consequences for 1,500 people annually, according to the American Liver Foundation.
Miromatrix has wound closure products, too, called Miroderm and Miromesh. Some patients had been trying different methods of wound closure for up to 15 years before they found success with Miromatrix’s product. Ross has met several of the patients implanted with the material.
“These patients who have wounds, who can’t walk, or they’re faced with an amputation,” Ross said, “and suddenly we’re able to give them a product and save them their limb or get them up and be mobile again. That’s huge for them.”
Toward the beginning of his 20 years in biomedical research, Ross had accomplishments such as publishing a paper in the scientific journal Nature and working on graduate-level research fresh off of his undergrad. He continually had mentors who trusted him, a quality he tries to implement today at Miromatrix, he said.
Ross achieved his B.S. in biochemistry and cellular biology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Later, he completed a masters at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in biomedical engineering. His doctorate in cell biology, genetics and development was also from the Twin Cities campus.
In 2002 he was hired at Guidant Corp., now Boston Scientific. Dr. Steve Girouard was director of research at the time. Girouard remembers the company was hiring people who could lead project direction, and Ross was a terrific fit in both studies and interpersonal skills.
“He hit the ground running. He’s always been a really positive, can-do type personality. He took on a lot of responsibility quickly. Within a few months of arriving, he was personally put in charge of putting together the first-ever biologics lab at Guidant,” Girouard said. “We quickly threw him into the fire, and he did very well with it.”
An ardent fan of the outdoors, Ross was raised in Prior Lake. His father was a “serial entrepreneur,” and Ross helped his parents at their bait shop and pizzeria. Being outdoors frequently as a child, he said, nurtured his appreciation for problem solving.
“I think it fostered this curiosity of how things work and to break those down,” Ross said, “and that really led me to science.”
If his father was a serial entrepreneur, Ross may be the equivalent in community involvement.
Following his undergraduate, he supplemented his job in research by serving as a volunteer firefighter in Roseville for eight years. Some of the group mentality, training, exercises and drills in firefighting, Ross said, have translated into his knowledge of management.
Now he is on the school board for Eastern Carver County Schools as a vice chair and clerk. Ross dedicates anywhere between two-to-10-plus hours working on the board each week. He expressed pride for the metropolitan ring of schools.
“I feel really strongly about the value of public schools and strong science and engineering and thought that would be a great opportunity to give back,” Ross said.
The obligations of a CEO of an early-stage company range from in-depth research and development meetings to status reports, deep data dives and meetings with potential investors.
Amid these duties, participating on the school board and being present at home, Ross found a way to balance the three. “Part of it is that my wife is amazing,” Ross said, but he also fits in runs each week, sometimes during lunch, to clear his mind.
Ross’ wife, Laura, is a physician’s assistant in cardiology for Park Nicollet in Methodist Hospital. They connect over their shared enthusiasm for each others’ professions, he said.
“She can understand what we’re working on and is fascinated by it, and then give my cardiovascular background to it, so it’s good to catch up with her on some of those things,” Ross said.
They have three daughters, ages 9, 7 and 2. The girls understand the concept of perfusion decellularization, Ross said. In the past when he’s brought work home with him in Chaska, the bioreactor that would appear on the kitchen island enraptured them.
“They’ve seen many hearts, many livers,” Ross said. “The younger you can get kids really curious and into science, the better. It keeps that passion.”
The family unwinds together at their cabin up north, where they enjoy the “Minnesota experience” of fishing out on the lake. Their dog, a rescued black Lab and pointer mix, tags along.
By Monday, however, he’s back at work at the Eden Prairie office. It’s all part of making that dream of the first transplant a reality.