While some companies are engineering microbes to produce components in breastmilk, such as proteins or human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), that can be added to infant formula – TurtleTree Labs (and fellow startup US-based BIOMILQ) are culturing human mammary cells that produce ‘real’ breastmilk.
The composition of the milk is not identical to breastmilk produced in the body because the cells may not be exposed to all of the antibodies and other components circulating in the mother’s blood (so TurtleTree Labs' milk doesn't contain immunoglobulin, for example).
However, it’s much closer to the real thing than any formula on the market today,* and offers millions of women that either cannot breastfeed, or are unable to breastfeed for as long as they would like, something they can feel good about, claimed co-founder Max Rye: "We don’t want to encourage anyone to stop breast feeding."
Sights set on cow’s milk over the long term: ‘We have to get the price down so we can reach an inflection point, so it no longer makes sense [to raise cows for milk]’
“If we plug in any mammalian cells, we can get milk,” said Rye, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after raising $3.2m in a funding round backed by Green Monday Ventures, KBW Ventures, CPT Capital, Artesian, and New Luna Ventures.
“The reason we’re starting with human breastmilk is because it’s one of the most expensive things out there, there’s a lot of interest from the infant nutrition industry.
“And if we just stuck to infant formula, the [addressable] market is huge,” added Rye, who is working with law firm Sidley Austin to help navigate the regulatory approval process in the US and is “in talks with the regulatory folks here in Singapore,” about securing the relevant approvals locally.
“But we want to make a major global impact, so longer term, we’re looking at all milk; we have to get the price down so we can reach an inflection point, so it no longer makes sense [to raise cows for milk].”
TurtleTree Labs was founded in January 2019 and emerged from stealth mode at the end of 2019 after raising an undisclosed amount of capital from Lever VC, KBW Ventures, and K2 Global. It has just raised a further $3.2m from backers including Green Monday Ventures, KBW Ventures, CPT Capital, Artesian, and New Luna Ventures.
The business model: Technology licensing and royalties
The plan is to work with leading dairy processors, equipment suppliers, and CPG brands, explained co-founder Fengru Lin, who has built a team of 20+ scientists and engineers to help build a technology platform capable of producing a range of milks from mammalian cells.
“We’re looking at a licensing and royalty model; we want to be the R&D hub for the industry.”
Rye added: “Some conversations with potential partners are now very advanced, we’ve been talking for at least eight months, and others are very early stage. We want to work with multiple companies, not do exclusive deals, so the licensing model is built around that.
“It’s one of the reasons why early on we didn’t take money from the big companies [strategics] because we didn’t want to have exclusivity issues, and so far we’ve had great feedback, the entire industry is very excited about this, they don’t see it as a threat.”
‘What’s special about our type of bioreactor is that our process can be linearly scaled up’
To make the milk, TurtleTree extracts stem cells from donated breastmilk, which can differentiate into mammary cells that are capable of lactating, said Rye. “We’re not manipulating them at the moment but in future we might be able to genetically engineer them so they could produce higher amounts of certain component so the process could be more efficient.”
Unlike cell-based meat companies where the cells themselves are the end product, TurtleTree’s cells are factories that churn out milk, and can “last for several months so we don’t have to keep going through this proliferation process on a continuous basis,” said Rye.
“We use [more costly] growth media during the proliferation phase, but after that we use a different [cheaper] lactation media that uses food grade materials, and we have some IP around that.”
The focus for 2020 is optimizing the process in a five-liter bioreactor, said Lin: “Our goal for the end of the year is to have that continuously churning out milk in an optimized manner.
"But what’s special about our type of bioreactor is that our process can be linearly scaled up to a 1,000 or 50,000 liter bioreactor, which is very different to cell-based meat bioreactors, which are using large stir-tank bioreactors [where the fluid dynamics and other factors change with scale].”
Hollow fiber bioreactor
TurtleTree is using a hollow fiber bioreactor, which it worked on with a research institute
“Imagine a giant steel cup and inside are hundreds and thousands of little perforated straws so certain components can flow in, and the cells adhere to the outside of the straws,” she said.
“The lactation media pass through the cells, the cells produce milk and pass through the inside of the straw to an output, which allows us to separate the lactation media from the milk, and the milk that comes out is quite pure.”
*Existing infant formulas typically contain dairy milk proteins (whey, casein) and milk sugar (lactose), corn maltodextrin, vegetable oils, vitamins and minerals, and other functional ingredients depending on the manufacturer such as DHA, probiotics, human milk oligosaccharides (made via microbial fermentation), and lutein.
“Now more than ever, people are waking up to the benefits of food technology and the massive positive implications of innovations in cellular agriculture.” Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, founder and CEO, KBW Ventures
"If the rapidly deteriorating climate change situation isn't enough to convince the world, the pandemic surely hammers home the urgency that we need to overhaul the food system for the sake of public health, food safety, and food security.” David Yeung, founder, Green Monday Group