At the forefront of cellular food production, TurtleTree Labs claims to be just a few years away from hitting the market with its cell-based milk production technology
Fengru Li and Max Rye
From left: Fengru Lin and Max Rye, founders of TurtleTree Labs

Hormones- and antibiotics-pumped milk was all Fengru Lin could find during years of travelling across Asia. A cheese connoisseur, she was looking for quality milk for making good cheese, but then she had an idea. “Hearing about companies like Redefine Meat and BlueNalu, I thought making milk out of cells should be possible, too,” she says. TurtleTree Labs is on its way to proving her right.

I would be telling you a different story today if Lin hadn’t approached Max Rye at the end of a talk he gave at Google in Singapore, where she worked at the time. US-born Rye was in the city-state, working as chief executive of DeepCloud, managing teams of engineers and R&D experts in the latest AI tech to enhance existing cloud computing systems. The conversation they had back in 2018 was not about ‘deep tech’ but on what it would take to produce milk from cells.

The entrepreneurial duo joined forces and launched TurtleTree Labs in January last year, and five months after the start-up’s inception they saw the first technology breakthrough, prompting the business to scale up to 20 full-time scientists and engineers. “No other company was doing this, so we built the tech from scratch,” says Lin.

From the outset, TurtleTree Labs built a collaborative network with a handful of scientific institutions in Singapore to develop patent-protected technologies to produce full composition milk from mammalian cells.

The company has received support from various Singapore government agencies, as its mission aligns with Singapore’s goals to produce 30% of its own nutritional needs by 2030.

R&D work began with a six-figure budget. The team managed to collect a pool of bovine milk cells, and develop the technology to simulate the natural process of milk production in the lab.

“Soon we can make milk without pollution, or inefficient use of land, water and energy, free from pathogen and disease risk, and tangled regulatory politics,” says Lin.

The science of making cell-based milk

Lin and Rye don’t have a biotechnology background, but they explain the complex ideas behind the business with ease.

Fengru Lin

“Cell-based milk is created by extracting viable cells from the milk of mammals,” explains Lin. “We then proliferate these cells, which means we grow them to a large number,” she continues. “These cells are then put in lactation media, and when they start to lactate, we’ll get the end product – milk.”

Lin explains that the cell-based milk production process that TurtleTree developed is different from making meat from cells where the food products are the cells itself. In cell-based milk, the cells are the factories that produce the milk.

“The bovine milk cells [we work with] can potentially produce milk for an extended number of days, so the cost of production is dramatically reduced,” she says, noting that the resulting milk has a similar composition of the mammalian milk cells used, including fats and all the nutritional profile that is so important for making high-value cheese, cream, butter, and yoghurt.

Besides traditional dairy products, TurtleTree Labs is also on track to become a producer of ‘liquid gold’. Aiming to use cell-based methods to achieve the structure and nutritional composition of human milk, the start-up is looking into producing human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) – sugar molecules found in high concentrations exclusively in mother’s milk. These HMOs act as prebiotics in the human body and help maintain gut health.

The global HMOs market was estimated at $19.3 million last year, according to Grand View Research, and the market is expected to expand at a 23% annual rate up to 2027. The increasing consumer interest in gut health is said to drive growth in the market, as well as demand for kids’ nutrition and infant formulas.

Investors appeal

TurtleTree Labs made headlines in June when the start-up raised $3.2 million in seed funding. The round was backed by impact investor New Luna Ventures and alternative protein funds Green Monday Ventures and CPT Capital, alongside strategic venture capital firms Artesian and KBW Ventures.

Max Rye

Many investors tell me that a crucial element to factor in the decision to invest in an early-stage foodtech business is the team. They argue that if founders reveal their passion, dedication and expertise when they speak, that’s the sign the start-up has the fuel to embark on the road to market – notwithstanding the hurdles along the way. Investors say they feel more comfortable with managing the risk if such strong personal qualities are evident.

Nonetheless, how could TurtleTree Labs attract investors despite the founder’s having limited  scientific knowledge? Lin says: “We’re not science folks, but we’re working with a talented team of scientists focused on innovating on the science behind this process. Max and I are focused on finding the fastest way to market.”

TurtleTree Labs has proprietary technology to make milk from all different mammals, including humans. “That’s really powerful,” says Rye. “We are working on extracting high-value protein and complex sugars that are in human breast milk that everybody wants because of its nutritional and therapeutic value,” he adds, noting that work is under way for producing milk from cows, goats and human cells.

“We’re moving quickly out of the lab, working to commercialise our technology,” says Rye. The first commercial run is planned for in the near future.

Market potential

TurtleTree Labs is tapping into the dairy industry, which is a $700 billion-dollar market, one of the biggest in the food space. It is a small start-up but its science and mission resonated with the Singapore government, which has given support to build the initial manufacturing facility in the island nation – a pilot plant outside the lab.

“We are planning to go for a Series A round next year to build the large-scale manufacturing facility. We expect more global investors in the round,” says Rye.

With a business-to-business model, TurtleTree Labs is not scaling up for increasing production volume, but to ensure the process works on an industrial scale with the same results as in the lab. The company’s go-to-market plan is based on licensing its milk-producing technology to dairy manufacturers and alternative protein brands.

Rye explains: “We complement plant-based dairy because many [characteristics] that we’re able to reproduce in the milk are very difficult in the plant-based process to attain. There’s great potential for us to collaborate with the other plant-based dairy companies.”

When it comes to market opportunities, Lin and Rye said that, if everything goes as planned, TurtleTree Labs would be a leader in the sustainable foodtech space. “Our goal is to make an impact globally, build a more sustainable world. It’s not going to be done overnight, but we want to be part of that process,” Rye concludes.

Date published: 28 October 2020

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