The Twin Cities have long been dubbed a hotbed of creativity, but we've always had a difficult time explaining exactly how we became so. We explore how this bend in the Mississippi managed to cultivate such an innovative community and what being a creative mecca means outside of the arts arena.
by Chris Clayton, Dana Raidt, Quinton Skinner, Laura Vaillancourt and Drew Wood
Social scientist Richard Florida has made a career out of arguing that a "creative class" of artists, educators, scientists, computer programmers and others has emerged in recent decades to galvanize economic growth through innovation. Whether or not you buy into this somewhat nebulous concept, it's clear that the Twin Cities is a forward-thinking place (Florida himself frequently cites Minneapolis as a creative-class safe haven) where trailblazers of all stripes boost the economy with their weird, wild and often extraordinary ideas. What follows is an ode to our visionary spirit, a sort of State of the Creative Union for Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The Land of (at least) 10,000 Innovators
What is the creative class-and why are the Twin Cities at the head of it?
by Quinton Skinner
The only constant is change, and innovation, creativity and originality will be essential in defining the identity of the Twin Cities in the decades to come. We look to the creative class-in the arts, business and technological professions-to lead the way. But who exactly are these agents of change, how did they come to be here and who will they be tomorrow? The answers are elusive, frequently enlightening and woven deeply into the region's fundamental character.
The notion that the Twin Cities is a creative hotbed is so ingrained in our psychosocial landscape that we announce our distinctiveness almost as an incantation, a charm against the obvious drawbacks we all face: Yes, it's ghastly outside, but how about all those theaters? We may not live on either coast, but how about that glorious Chain of Lakes?
A tinge of boosterism and reflexive horn-blowing isn't unique to Minneapolis-St. Paul; talk to a New Yorker about the egregious rent and you'll hear about the clubs and restaurants a stone's throw from her cramped walk-up. But a close look at the nature and breadth of the Twin Cities creative class reveals a unique confluence of geography and social history that drives both commerce and culture.
"Without a doubt, the Twin Cities are a model for other communities when it comes to economic development, especially in ensuring an environment that is socially inclusive," says University of Toronto professor Richard Florida, author of the recent Great Reset and the earlier Rise of the Creative Class, which crystallized scholarly research into a compelling argument that the presence of creative professionals drives economic prosperity. (Florida, a resoundingly in-demand speaker and writer, responded to our questions through email.)
A snapshot of the Twin Cities creative class includes writers, performers, visual artists, musicians and the technicians who make it all happen behind the scenes. In a chart of "density of artistic and cultural creatives," Florida places Minneapolis fifth in the nation, a hair behind San Francisco; in another graphic anticipating national growth in creative jobs, Minneapolis-St. Paul lands in Florida's top 10. The Minnesota State Arts Board estimates that arts in the state have more than a billion-dollar annual economic impact.
But hand in hand with conventional notions of creative professionals are innovators in marketing, entrepreneurship, law, advertising, manufacturing and retailing. If anything, the concept of the creative class broadens in scope the deeper you peer into it.
"A lot of the criticism that the ‘creative class' argument initially launched was because it was defined based on education," says Anne Gadwa, owner and principal of Metris Arts Consulting and the author of studies on the arts and regional ecologies. "If you're trying to [look through] a big lens, remember the blue-collar jobs-a hairdresser or a carpenter-to figure out the right balance between education versus creativity."
A reminder that Bill Gates was a college dropout is hardly necessary. The notion of creativity and community connectivity is potentially so strong in the Twin Cities that it might indeed subvert conventional, college-degree-based notions of who drives the culture and the economy. Creativity, then, should be viewed as potentially coming from any direction.
"The Twin Cities has two important hinterlands," explains Humphrey Institute professor Ann Markusen, who has done extensive work focusing on the creative arts and civic economies (Markusen is currently in Scotland and communicated via email). "First, there are the states surrounding us-Iowa, the Dakotas, Wisconsin-and our own rural areas and small towns. Young people leaving high school and many of our good state colleges and university branches head for the Twin Cities in droves. If you are an engineer or a theater major and you want a job in a large labor market where the costs of living are affordable and there are lots of things happening in business or the arts, you head to the Twin Cities."
This sense of creativity and inclusion might be hard-wired into the region. The site of the biggest natural waterfall on the Mississippi, this frozen district first powered 19th-century lumber mills; when the abundance of wood ran out, industrialists turned to milling flour from wheat, which in turn drew the railroads, a booming economy and, eventually, the novelty of radio advertising to sell all that bread. With successive waves of European immigration, the Twin Cities grew, as it demonstrated a brand of foresight that modern-day residents now regard as a given.
"Who does this city want to be? What decisions did they make that encourage this positive experience for the rest of us?" says David Motzenbecker, landscape architect and designer with Oslund and Assoc., whose recent projects include Gold Medal Park and the I-35W Memorial. Reflecting on Minneapolis history, he continues: "It's the choice to create an open park system more than a hundred years ago, and to build a green necklace around the city to make sure the best parkland isn't taken by private citizens and is kept for the public. That foresight has set it up to be a place where people can prosper."
Corporations and the business community have been integral cogs in a larger social mechanism that has fostered the creative environment. The early millers, besides investing in an ambitious park system, helped establish the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, an early example of the business-culture symbiosis that epitomizes the Twin Cities. More recently, department-store magnate Ken Dayton founded the Five Percent Club in 1976 (now known as the Keystone Club, with 214 members contributing between two and five percent of pretax income for philanthropic purposes), formalizing a decades-long commitment to community and throwing down the gauntlet to other corporate citizens to join in-which they did, including such giants as Medtronic and General Mills.
So the history of the creative class in Minnesota is a parallel union between innovators in business and the arts, and how these two stories have unfolded in concert. That's been especially fortuitous, because once the regional economy turned from hard industry, a different kind of professional, of necessity, emerged. The area's innovative spirit turned increasingly to broader notions: Dayton's transformed into Target, General Mills from strictly grinding grain into an international food brand.
The advertising business flourished and brought in new creative professionals, and advances in technology required perhaps as many generalists as specialists.
This new class of professionals shared their forebears' interest in fostering culture. While it's impossible to quantify any individual's passion for an orchestra or the theater, it's much easier to pin down the results: the creative business professional has consistently looked across the divide at the creative artist in Minnesota, and seen an intersection of interests. Target, for example, funds free Thursday nights at the Walker, and more than 150 Minnesota-based companies contribute to the Guthrie.
"For communities to be appealing to the creative class, they must provide access to cultural amenities and recreation opportunities: arts, galleries, theaters, parks and restaurants," adds Florida. "Leaders can invest cautiously in the arts and help foster the organic development of a creative scene that is unique to their community. Minneapolis has done this effectively, too-using its status as an arts center to help guide community development."
Culture has been good business in the Twin Cities, then, and for visual evidence one need look no farther than the new Walker and Guthrie, both built in the aughts and designed by starchitects, with no small amount of corporate involvement. The artists reap obvious benefits, but so do the businesspeople.
"They're bottom-line companies," says Dominic Papatola, former theater critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and now program officer for the community-focused Otto Bremer Foundation, when asked about corporate culture and arts philanthropy. "They realize that having this kind of environment makes this a better place to live and recruit employees. That gets into the municipal bloodstream, and that means you start to view creativity from a different perspective."
"If you're looking for a scientist at 3M or General Mills, or someone for Best Buy or Target, how do you convince their [spouse] that this is the place to come?" asks Patrick Hanlon, founder and CEO of branding company Thinktopia. "Well, this is what the place is about: the greatest theaters, the best contemporary art museum, great design companies that win all these awards. Basically, they decided that they didn't want to be like other towns."
Motzenbecker echoes those sentiments: "A lot of people in town say that you can't get people to come here," he adds. "But then you can't get them to leave."
The Rising Generations
We enjoy our status (and self-image) as a magnet for the young and the creative, but looking ahead, we also must recognize that the historical tides and swells of immigration didn't end with Europe. A 2010 study in the International Migration Review noted that new immigrants are trending away from major cities and focusing on mid-size locations such as Minneapolis-St. Paul. We have growing populations of East Africans and Latinos, raising the question of how easily they can and will join the next generation's creative class.
According to Florida, our collective outlook means the odds are good: "Places like Minneapolis and St. Paul that are receptive to immigration, alternative lifestyles and new visions on social status and power structures will benefit significantly in the creative age."
That's the hope, at any rate. For the moment, however, English-language learners are lagging in academic achievement and graduation rates, and public investment in education and social advancement is squeezed as tight as any other aspect of Minnesota's state budget. On the brighter side, remember that that those waves of European immigrants in the 19th century also arrived without immediate cultural or linguistic toolkits, and in relatively short order left their cultural mark on the area.
"This is a city of bridges-both literally and metaphorically," says Hanlon. "Look around. There are a lot of incredible bridges architecturally, yet also the highest Hmong population, the highest Somali population _ there's really an interesting cross-pollination that goes on around here."
Innovation and inclusion, business and culture: These are the touchstones of Twin Cities history that gave rise to our creative class, and laid the foundation for both the longtime native and the first-generation immigrant to step into the distinctive dance that takes place here between the stage or studio, the workshop and the corporate boardroom.
From this perspective, the creative class is you, me and anyone else who adds to this social fabric and strives to sew something new from its cloth.
"I'm amazed by the high level of literacy writ large that I encounter with people here," says Papatola. "They're sharp, focused, engaged, they think about things holistically _ people here are full-fledged citizens of their communities because they engage the world and their work with such a strong sense of creativity."
Not bad, really, for a single outsized waterfall on an obscure branch of the Mississippi
There are some serious rock stars in the advertising business. They're talented, accomplished people who invariably ruin everything by acting like arrogant hipsters. Tim Blevins, senior writer at Carmichael Lynch, is not that type of advertising talent. Among the more unassuming personas you're likely to meet in an agency, Blevins lets solid writing and a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality, not flagrant self-promotion do the talking. With iconic work for iconic brands (Red Wing Shoes, Jack Links and Subaru of late) and more awards than mentionable in 100 words (see: his documentary about lottery ticket collectors, Lotology, which was nominated for Best Short Documentary in the 2010 Midwest Advertising Community Shorts Program at the Midwest Independent Film Festival in Chicago), Blevins is an ad man not concerned with the perceived lifestyle trappings of the job, but rather the pure joy of creating for a living.
The salary cap in professional football presents one of the most complex mathematical conundrums known to man: How do you field a championship-caliber roster of 53 players-many of whom are making salaries well into the millions annually (New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning signed a $97.5 million, six-year deal in 2009) and whose contracts vary anywhere from one season on up-and not break your league-imposed budget of, in 2009 at least, $128 million per season? The answer, which varies from team to team, situation to situation and year to year, is never definitive and requires some finely honed yet unusual mathematical chops. In the case of the Minnesota Vikings, the man with the answer is vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski. A 17-year NFL vet-11 with the Vikes-Brzezinzki is widely considered one of the league's great cap sages, and is credited with taking the Viking's one-time cap deficit into one of the league's most favorable cap scenarios, while adding coveted, expensive free agents like Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson and Brett Favre.
Consumer Communication Solutions at UnitedHealth Group
Using technology and electronic media that many cutting-edge businesses are adopting, Consumer Communications Solutions at UnitedHealth Group is being seriously innovative in an industry not known for its innovative approach to marketing and public relations. Snap a picture of that QR code to get your plan information, visit a touch-screen kiosk to see if you're at risk for diabetes and log on to be paired up with a buddy to meet your health goals. This group is putting to bed the attitude that health care is conservative and communicating with members where they are now.
In December, the National Portrait Gallery pulled a short film by the late David Wojnarowicz called "Fire in My Belly" after a controversy over its use of Christian imagery. Inspired by the filmmaker's struggle with AIDS, it contained a sequence including ants and a crucifix. In response, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso hosted the film, so those on all sides of the debate could see it for themselves.
Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos
Regents Professor of Neuroscience; McKnight Presidential Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience; chair of American Legion Brain Sciences; professor of neuroscience, neurology and psychiatry; director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota: It's pretty safe to say that Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos' resume speaks for itself. But in the event you need more convincing why we think he's creative, it's because he's figured out how to determine the previously indeterminable. His novel synchronous neural interactions test analyzes relations between spatial signals in the brain via patterns of brain signals and, as it proves out, brings the world monumentally closer to understanding some of the most mysterious and debilitating-think Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and PTSD-psychiatric disorders. And with better understanding comes better treatment.
Sometimes the most influential people in media are the ones furthest from the limelight. Taylor Carik is precisely that person. After winning a regional Emmy for his work as managing producer at KARE 11's Metromix Twin Cities, Carik was instrumental in the launch of Rick Kupchella's Bring Me the News, all while receiving state and national recognition for his blog "mediation" (City Pages Best Blog of 2008) and a second regional Emmy nomination, this time for his Internet radio show on Flak Radio. A crusty industry vet, yet only in his early 30s, Carik's latest endeavor is no less ambitious than his path thus far: He's the new owner and publisher of Secrets of the City.
A self-proclaimed "urban hippie," Foss is the guy whom the denizens of "green" turn to for advice and inspiration. The founder of Minneapolis-based Thrive Design Studio and a sustainable-living advocate who teaches by example, he's one of the main reasons that the Twin Cities is leading "green living" from aspirational to the new normal.
T. Scott Major
Last summer T. Scott Major gently lobbed an interactive resume into the digital stratosphere. He didn't do it because he was looking for a job-he's keen on his employer mono (where he's currently an interactive art director)-or because he was looking for an ego boost. Nope he just packaged his reel of recent work with the deft touch of a digital craftsman and pushed it out to sea, purely out of curiosity. What it got in return was a meaningful set of applause from some, a confused murmur among others but, understandably irksome to Major, also a resounding smattering of boos. Some thought the reel-long since pulled from digital existence by Major himself-too self-promotional, some thought it lacked substance, but maybe that's just because what Major showcased-work for Sesame Street, General Mills and others-was work they never could do themselves.
The director of the Antarctic Geospatial Information Center at the U of M heads a team of computer whizzes and mapmakers who compile information from ground level to outer space in order to map the remotest corners of the world's frozen continent. Working with the U.S. Antarctic Program, Morin and crew produce maps that are startling visually as well as invaluable to scientists-and put them on the web for all to see. [agic.umn.edu]
What does Jake Nyberg do? Why, "the business" of course. At least that's what his "production company, post house, boutique creative firm" Three Volts' website says. Nyberg is one part court jester, one part smartest guy in the room, and to witness his uber-candid persona on Twitter, you'd swear any given move he makes would shatter his professional credibility. The reason he's on this list, however, is because his all-too-literal Shakespearean "to thine own self be true" take has done just the opposite: He has become one of the most respected, sought-after talents in the Twin Cities.
Nick Thomley, CEO of Minneapolis-based Pinnacle Services, managed to reinvent one of the most humbling industries around: home health care, housing and employment services for seniors and people with disabilities. His Inc. 5000, $11.5 million company's success is predicated on Thomely's novel approach to company culture. Among the welcome distractions you'll find in Pinnacle's Northeast Minneapolis offices: a foam pit that employees hurl themselves into from the second to the first floor, an inflatable Velcro wall and lunchtime dance-offs. His employee turnover rate? Among the lowest in the industry.
Politics In Minnesota
This non-partisan suite of digital newspapers, newsletters and an annual Minnesota government directory recently began charging $150 a year for access to most of its content. This sounds like a lot until you consider PIM's target audience-wonks and insiders looking for in-depth local political reporting-as well as its talented staff, which includes former City Pages editor Steve Perry. It's too early to tell if the site's aggressive new pay model is paying off, but it's refreshing to see such a sharp turn away from the devaluation of editorial content that's been plaguing the publishing industry. [politicsinminnesota.com]
Salovich Zero + Campus Design Project
A zero-energy building is defined as producing as much energy through on-site renewable sources as it consumes per year. The U of M's Zero + project is pulling together a curriculum based on interdisciplinary creativity, drawing in building designers, landscape architects, facilities management and environmental specialists toward optimizing energy-efficient campuses. This is the sort of intellectual cross-pollination that will inform how structures of the future will be built. [zeropluscampus.umn.edu]
Reasoning and Rehabilitation
A significant percentage of our prison and jail population keep returning because of a lack of crucial social skills: problem-solving and negotiating, conflict resolution. Among other strategies, Hennepin County Probation Services offers Reasoning and Rehabilitation-a 39-session curriculum that focuses on thinking about thinking, and how to order one's thoughts and emotions to steer clear of future trouble. It's a cognitive strategy that has shown positive results in Canada and the U.K., and a positively creative approach to fixing lives and saving public money otherwise often wasted on more punitive outcomes.
Amherst H. Wilder Foundation
For a century this foundation has been at the forefront of St. Paul's strides in community development. The organization recently had a hand in helping a 250-block area spanning the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods obtain a Promise Neighborhood planning grant from the Department of Education. From researching the effects of incarcerated mothers to providing innovative eldercare and youth programs, Wilder walks the walk by making palpable change. [wilder.org]
Throwing your soda cans and newspapers out on the curb once a week is a step in the right direction, but Eureka Recycling knows that environmental responsibility doesn't end there. With a lofty goal of zero waste, this nonprofit offers curbside recycling pickup in St. Paul and a handful of suburbs-and it's also a resource for practical education about composting, waste-free living and waste-related social, economic and health issues.
Stratasys 3D Printer
This Minnesota company's 3D printer is as insanely space-age as it sounds. Creating plastic prototypes from computer specifications in a matter of hours, it literally builds layer upon layer until you have a durable object that can even feature parts that snap together. It's not a Star Trek Replicator, but we're getting there. [stratasys.com]
This innovative funding platform is changing the way creative projects are financed. Arts entrepreneurs apply for a page on Kickstarter's website and, if accepted, raise money directly from supporters. Creatives cut through bureaucratic arts-funding logjams by appealing directly to supporters, and investors can put money where their interests lie-like local Kickstarter success stories The Donut Cooperative and musician Martin Devaney, who (thanks to contributors) released The West End in December. [kickstarter.com]
This North Minneapolis housing development broke ground a year ago in its namesake neighborhood, and when completed will offer residents affordable, sustainable housing. The EcoVillage is part of a larger effort by area residents and community agencies to redevelop and revitalize a pocket of the city that's been plagued with crime and foreclosures in recent years. [hawthornecommunitycouncil.org]
Based in Maplewood, MG McGrath is the award-winning architectural metal construction company responsible for the sleek iconic curves of Target Field and the cool rust tones of the Ramsey County Library renovation in Maplewood, as well as vibrant and imaginative custom exteriors for buildings in New York and Florida. [mcgrathshtmtl.com]
Hovan, the engineering coordinator for the Mahtomedi school district and a Ph.D. candidate at the U for science education, recently won a Tekne award for innovation in teaching, an honor that recognizes creative use of technology in K–12 classrooms. Hoven incorporated model-building activities to improve students' reasoning skills, led nighttime events to promote engagement and excitement around engineering and implemented required engineering classes for students.
Rise of the Small yet Mighty
Why ma-and-pa agencies are infiltrating the local ad scene.
By Drew Wood
When the most iconic brand this side of The Beatles launched the iPad on its Cupertino stage last year, the sexy new tablet was the star. But its chief visual aid, a graphic projected behind proud papa Steve Jobs, wasn't too shabby either. Why bring it up? Because it was designed by a local ad firm lucky enough to count Apple as one of its clients. The rub? The firm isn't one of the usual suspects of MinneADpolis. Not Fallon or Carmichael Lynch or Campbell Mithun or any of the other global advertising stalwarts based here. At 11 people strong in 2005 and still fewer than 50 today, they're not even close. But with clients like Apple, Herman Miller, MSNBC and Harvard Business School, they're indicative of how powerful the little guy has become in the advertising industry. They call themselves mono, yet they're not alone.
An increasing number of world-class creatives are turning their backs on local scions of the industry in favor of small-scale shops with uniquely broad creative capabilities. Spearheading this trend with mono are firms like Pocket Hercules (clients: Pearl Izumi, Rapala), Werner Design Werks (3M, University of Minnesota, Target Corp., VH1), Duffy and Partners (Jim Beam, Gander Mountain, Wolfgang Puck, Aveda), Cue (Briggs & Stratton, Southern Comfort), Zeus Jones (Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, Cheerios, Nordstrom) and Barrie D'Rozario Murphy (Best Buy, United, UnitedHealth Group, Bissell).
"The draw and the lure is having the opportunity to partner with other people who have a similar vision of what the culture should be like," says Barrie D'Rozario Murphy's David Murphy. "The world doesn't need another ad agency, but when you have people who understand the role of culture, the right culture, the right people will be attracted to that."
High-profile clients have come to realize that boutique firms, bolstered with an influx of premier talent, can produce big-agency results. As Murphy says, when a client hires a large agency, they're not really getting the whole agency but rather a team within said agency. "There are never 200 or 300 people working on one client's business," says Murphy. "The team we have working for BDM on United's account is no different than the number of people who would be working on it at a bigger agency." With one notable difference: At big agencies the small teams might get bogged down in company bureaucracy. Adds Murphy:"[The] bureaucracy and compartmental silos [at large agencies] do not encumber our team. We have the same brain power, the same resources, but they are more directly applied to the client and their jobs."
When clients hire smaller shops, they get unfiltered access to the agency's best and brightest, and that talent gets to work with national and global brands on their own terms. Which is good for the client and, ultimately, good for the creative.
"In a large agency, you don't have the chance to work as closely on an account, and see all the different angles you can take with brand development or public relations," says Jack Supple, partner and chief creative officer at Pocket Hercules. "When you're this small, it works easily; you can be nimble."
A Change of Heart
Dr. Doris Taylor leads the charge for rebuilding human organs.
by Chris Clayton
In 2008, Doris Taylor hit what she calls a "scientific home run" when her team grew a beating rat heart in a lab at the University of Minnesota. It was a medical first and an Olympic long jump toward growing human organs for transplant and repair. Using a process called "whole organ decellularization," Taylor and company applied detergents to dead rat hearts to wash away old cells, leaving pale, white "ghost hearts" composed of valves and external structure. The researchers injected fresh heart cells onto these blank biological canvases and watched in awe as the ghosts awakened. The medical world cheered, but Taylor wasn't finished. The head of the U's Center for Cardiac Repair is now going for an encore in Madrid, where last year she and a group of Spanish colleagues set up a lab to try to rebuild a human heart. We spoke with Taylor over the phone recently for an update on her increasingly ambitious R&D.
Dr. Doris Taylor: A couple years ago, our work hit a bit of a standstill in the U.S. because we couldn't get access to human organs for research. In Spain, unlike America, the presumed position is that you will donate your organ for transplant and potentially for research, so there are more cadaver organs available. Also, the Minister of Science and Innovation in Spain [Dr. Cristina Garmendia] is a businesswoman who understands moving ideas forward, and it looked like we had the opportunity to put a grant application forward, so we did and we got some funding. And really, the bottom line is about where you can afford to do the work.
How's the research coming?
We're not at the point where we're rebuilding a human heart yet, but we've stripped all the cells out of about 10 human hearts and have begun to put different kinds of cells back on those to see how they fare. We're looking at different types of human cells-bone marrow-derived cells, non-bone marrow-derived cells-to find the best cells for this process.
What do you mean by "best cells"?
To make a heart, you don't just need one cell type. For example, you need cells for blood vessels, heart muscle and for the fibroblasts that underlie the heart muscle. Figuring out how to get hundreds of millions of the different types of cells we need has meant saying, ‘OK, what do we think is the best cell type to build a blood vessel?' Well, probably bone marrow-derived cells. ‘What's the best to build a heart muscle?' Well, if we need hundreds of millions [of cells], probably human embryonic and human IPS cells. As the field moves forward and people are learning what the potential for these stem cells are, we're plugging them into our system.
Ultimately, will human cadaver hearts be used for transplants?
The cool thing is we're probably not going to use human hearts as a scaffold. We're probably going to use animal hearts like pig hearts. But proving that what we can do with a pig heart and human cells is very similar if not identical to what we can do with a human heart and human cells has to be our goal, and that's the reason we've wanted access to human organs and tissues.
So one could potentially receive a pig heart as a transplant? That's fascinating.
Yes, potentially the pig scaffold covered in your cells. It's cool!
Could your hearts erase the need for anti-rejection drugs?
Maybe. When you get an organ transplant now, you have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of your life. What that means is that you're essentially trading one disease for another. You're trading your organ failure for hypertension, vascular disease, renal failure-all of these side effects that go along with taking these drugs. But you're willing to do it because it beats the heck out of the alternative. If we could build an organ using your own cells, we could potentially overcome that need.
Does whole organ decellularization work with other organs?
It works for every organ. We've decellularized muscles, skin, brain, eye, kidneys, livers and even bone. What that means is we've opened a door that now provides an intelligent scaffold or matrix for building any organ or tissue.
How far away are we from growing organs for transplant?
If you look at simple organs and tissues like the trachea, this has already been done. In Spain a couple years ago, within a year after our work came out, a woman's trachea was decellularized and recellularized with her cells and transplanted in a case where a tumor had been present. So the concept is not as many years away as you would think. I predict within the next five years, some human organ will be grown and transplanted.
So you pioneered this technique?
The idea of decellularizing pieces of organ or tissue like a heart valve was not new. That's been done for years. But the idea of decellularizing something complex in a way that maintained the integrity of the matrix? Absolutely we pioneered that.
What drew you to the U of M?
I had an opportunity in an endowed chaired position [the Medtronic Bakken Chair] to think about ideas that were high-risk, high-payout options. I thought, ‘If you can't, in a position named after Earl Bakken, think outside the box, then you'll never be able to.' I will say it's not always fun and pleasant to swim against the tide because people don't always like new ideas until after the fact. The flipside is many colleagues have said that our work is one of the top two inventions in the cardiovascular field in the past 10 years.
Isn't immortality one of the broader implications of your work?
I think it's possible to reverse us on the aging continuum, and building an organ is just one piece of that. But what I really want to think about for the next ‘X' number of years is creating ways for us to age healthily and move us backwards on that continuum. I believe it's possible to define health, define disease and really define aging as a chronic disease and begin to treat it, if you will. Now, do we all want to live forever? Probably not. But do we all want to live well as long as we live? I would say we probably do.