The startup - which has offices in Singapore and San Francisco - will use the funds to accelerate research and production of functional, bioactive proteins and complex sugars found in human breastmilk.
HRH Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud (an investor in TurtleTree Labs via KBW Ventures), will join as an advisor to TurtleTree, which was founded in January 2019 and emerged from stealth mode at the end of 2019.
Co-founder Fengru Lin told FoodNavigator-USA: "On top of being able to optimize our process for scale, we are now working with global manufacturing partners who have the capabilities to produce enough for our potential agreements.
"Currently we are in discussions with potential partners to include TurtleTree's functional ingredients in health food products. These high-value components have potential benefits in gut and brain health, which can be applied to both infant and senior nutrition."
While some companies are engineering microbes to produce components in cow's milk (Perfect Day (Emeryville, CA), New Culture (San Francisco, CA), Remilk (Israel), Legendairy Foods (Germany), and Those Vegan Cowboys (Belgium) and in some cases components in human 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, co-founder Max Rye told FoodNavigator-USA in a recent interview: "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'
“If we plug in any mammalian cells, we can get milk. 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 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].”
The business model: Technology licensing and royalties
The plan is to work with leading dairy processors, equipment suppliers, and CPG brands, explained 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."
‘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.”
"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.
GALLERY: Food tech companies to watch in 2021
From a flurry of startups using microbes – instead of plants or animals – to produce proteins, to AI-driven platforms exploring ‘the dark matter of nutrition,’ and real honey produced without bees, check out our gallery of foodtech companies to watch in 2021.