How This S’pore Startup’s Disrupting The US$2.6B Infant Formula Industry

The instant formula industry is expected to more than double, from US $ 2.66 billion (S $ 3.69 billion) to US $ 5.07 billion (S $ 7.03 billion) by 2026.

And that growth is not expected to stop anytime soon. Feeding practices and increased awareness of the developmental needs of infants have led to improvements in the nutritional components of formulas over the years.

To curb demand, TurtleTree Labs, a Singaporean start-up, is creating laboratory-grade human breast milk as the best alternative to infant formula.

Using stem cell technology, the startup is able to recreate the breast milk of mammals of all species.

The startup is well positioned to meet the growing demand for breastfeeding alternatives in the market.

Disrupt the infant formula industry

Founded by Fengru Lin and Max Rye in 2019, TurtleTree Labs is a biotechnology company that aims to reduce the planet’s carbon footprint and provide access to safe and reliable food products.

Image Credit: Turtletree Labs

The local startup derives cells from genetic material, which are multiplied and put into internal lactation media, then converted into milk.

The method can be used to produce milk from other mammals, ranging from cows to snow leopards to dolphins.

TurtleTree’s patent-pending method has the potential to disrupt the billion dollar infant formula industry.

It is the closest thing to breastfeeding.

TurtleTree’s laboratory breast milk is made up of oligosaccharides, proteins and fats essential for healthy infant development.

This is a leap forward as studies have shown that breastfed infants tend to grow up healthier and are more resistant to disease.

Alternatives to infant formula are needed

Globally, only 40% of infants under six months of age are exclusively breastfed, according to a 2017 WHO article.

The Global Breastfeeding Collective calls on countries to increase breastfeeding promotion to improve child health and nutrition around the world.

Despite the benefits of breastfeeding, factors such as the increase in the number of working mothers, household responsibilities and individual preferences make infant formula substitutes a necessary option.

The health conditions of infants are also a problem. Lactose intolerance, although rare, requires that affected infants be fed personalized dairy products. Mothers with HIV cannot breastfeed their infants either.

In addition, some mothers simply cannot breastfeed. This is not uncommon – it is estimated that one in five mothers is simply unable to produce enough breast milk to feed her baby.

This is where TurtleTree comes in to deliver the next best alternative to breastfeeding.

Laboratory milk for all

Currently, TurtleTree Labs is licensing its technology to dairy conglomerates.

Targeting the US and Asia-Pacific markets, TurtleTree Labs is in talks with the largest cheese maker in the United States and the largest dairy company in New Zealand.

“We aim to sign our first license agreement by mid-2021,” says Harith Bahren, co-head of business development.

Image Credit: Eat For The Planet

The goal is to achieve price parity, which is more likely if production takes place on a larger and faster scale. Laboratory milk is destined to become a viable purchasing option for the average consumer.

We believe that everyone should have access to clean, nutritious and sustainable milk.

– Harith Bahren, Co-Head of Business Development at TurtleTree Labs

For now, ready-to-drink laboratory milk remains a work in progress. In 2019, TurtleTree Labs was producing milk at $ 180 per liter.

However, the future looks bright. TurtleTree Labs Just Completed Its US $ 3.2 Million Seed Funding Round [S$4.4 million] and won the 2020 livability challenge, cashing S $ 1 million.

The competition is a global call for the best solutions to some of the biggest problems facing cities in the tropics in the 21st century.

In 2020, TurtleTree Labs aims to produce 5 liters of milk every 24 hours in a small scale continuous flow bioreactor.

By the third quarter of 2021, the goal is to bring this commercial scale bioreactor to 50,000 liters.

Barriers to adoption

Despite the promising beginnings, persuading consumers to adopt lab milk was a challenge.

Among the main concerns are the religious complications associated with the production and ingestion of artificial breast milk.

One of TurtleTree’s main investors is Prince Khaled of Saudi Arabia.

In Islam, family relationships are established between those who breastfeed from the same source, which can lead to complications in areas such as marriage.

We plan to work closely with religious leaders to adhere to the protocols required to make it halal.

– Harith Bahren, Co-Head of Business Development at TurtleTree Labs

Buying and feeding on breast milk is also a relatively unconventional and “strange” practice.

This is in part because of the underground market for harvested human breast milk, referred to as “liquid gold” in an article in Wired.

The industry is a quasi-legal network of traders who buy breast milk from mothers and resell it to customers.

However, breast milk is technically legal in trade since it is classified as a food, as opposed to a body fluid. Mothers who sell breast milk can earn up to US $ 20,000 (S $ 28,000) for 30 ounces of milk per day.

The benefits of acquiring human breast milk are gaining ground. Nonprofit “milk banks” buy raw or pasteurized milk at home from new mothers.

Since TurtleTree Labs cultivates its milk under sterile laboratory conditions, it is likely that consumers will be more than willing to adopt its product.

Breastfeeding is always recommended

Although laboratory breast milk has many benefits, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that breastfeeding is the “cornerstone of child survival and child health,” in its Global Nutrition Targets 2025 Breastfeeding Guidance Note.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months.

However, TurtleTree lab milk is not yet identical to natural breast milk. The antibodies in breast milk that confer immunity to babies have not yet been reproduced in the laboratory.

Image Credit: TurtleTree Labs

“We don’t think lab milk will replace breastfeeding,” says Harith.

“However, we also know that not all mothers can breastfeed for a variety of reasons,” he added.

Is laboratory milk production the way to go?

Food grown in labs is slowly gaining momentum as the Covid-19 pandemic raises fears of food shortages.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has suggested that meeting food demand would require a 50% increase in production by 2050.

Image Credit: SEA.Mashable

Milk production is also not environmentally friendly. Cattle farming has produced over 37 percent of the world’s methane emissions and it’s also impossible to run in Singapore, where land is scarce.

In short, technology from companies like TurtleTree Labs may be the most sustainable way to create dairy products.

If all goes according to plan, one day we might see lab cow’s milk as well as human breast milk on the shelves of local supermarkets.

“We know it will take time to change consumer behavior,” says Harith.

(But) our goal is to enable the use of cell-based milk technology around the world, delivering the best nutrition to infants and adults in the most sustainable way.

– Harith Bahren, Co-Head of Business Development at TurtleTree Labs

Featured Image Credit: Asia Tech Daily / Nutra Ingredients

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