The instant formula industry is projected 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 this growth isn’t set to stop anytime soon. Dietary practices and increased awareness of infant development needs have led to upgrades in the nutritional components of formula over the years.
To curb the demand, TurtleTree Labs, a Singaporean startup, is creating lab-grown human breast milk as the better, spunkier alternative to infant formula.
Using stem cell technology, the startup is capable of recreating the mammalian breast milk of any species.
The startup is well-poised to meet the growing demand for breastfeeding alternatives on the market.
Disrupting The Infant Formula Industry
Founded by Fengru Lin and Max Rye in 2019, TurtleTree Labs is a biotech company that aims at reducing the planet’s carbon footprint and providing access to safe and reliable diary products.
The local startup derives cells from genetic material, which are multiplied and put into in-house lactation media, then converted to 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’s the closest thing to breastfeeding.
The composition of TurtleTree’s lab-grown breast milk includes oligosaccharides, proteins and fats essential for healthy development in infants.
This is a leap forward as studies have noted that breastfed infants tend to grow up healthier and are more resistant to diseases.
Infant Formula Alternatives Are Necessary
Globally, only 40 per cent of infants under six months are exclusively breastfed, according to a 2017 WHO article.
The Global Breastfeeding Collective is calling on countries to increase the promotion of breastfeeding to improve global infant health and nutrition.
Despite the benefits of breastfeeding, factors such as the increase in number of working mothers, household responsibilities and individual preferences render infant formula alternatives a necessary option.
Infant health conditions are also an issue. Lactose intolerance, while rare, require affected infants to be fed with customised milk products. Mothers with HIV also cannot breastfeed their children.
Moreover, some mothers simply cannot breastfeed. This is no rare occurence — an estimated 1 in 5 mothers are simply unable to produce enough breast milk to feed their babies.
That’s where TurtleTree is stepping in to offer the next best alternative to breastfeeding.
Lab-Grown Milk For Everyone
Currently, TurtleTree Labs is licensing its technology to dairy conglomerates.
Targeting the American 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 licensing agreement as early as mid-2021,” says Harith Bahren, Business Development co-lead.
The goal is to achieve price parity, which is more probable if production occurs at a larger and faster scale. Lab-grown milk is intended to become a feasible purchase option for the average consumer.
We believe everyone should have access to clean, nutritious and sustainable milk.– Harith Bahren, Business Development co-lead of TurtleTree Labs
For now, consumer-ready lab-grown milk remains a work-in-progress. In 2019, TurtleTree Labs was producing milk at S$180 per litre.
However, the future looks bright. TurtleTree Labs just closed their seed funding round of US$3.2 million [S$4.4 million] and won the 2020 Liveability Challenge, cashing in a S$1 million.
The competition serves as a global call for the best solutions to some of the greatest problems facing cities in the tropics in the 21st century.
In 2020, TurtleTree Labs aims to produce 5 litres of milk every 24 hours in a continuous flow, small-scale bioreactor.
By the third quarter of 2021, the goal is to increase this to a commercial scale bioreactor of 50,000 litres.
Barriers To Adoption
Despite the promising start, persuading consumers to adopt lab-grown milk was a challenge.
Among the key concerns are religious complications concerned with the production and ingestion of artificial breast milk.
One of TurtleTree’s key investors is Prince Khaled, of Saudi Arabia.
In Islam, bonds of kinship are established among those who breastfeed from the same source, which may lead to complications in matters such as marriage.
We plan on working closely with religious leaders to adhere to the protocols required to make it halal.– Harith Bahren, Business Development co-lead of TurtleTree Labs
Purchasing and feeding on human breast milk is also a relatively unconventional and “strange” practice.
This is partially because of the underground market for harvested human breast milk, termed “Liquid Gold” in a Wired article.
The industry is a quasi-legal network of traders that purchase breast milk from mothers and resell them to customers.
However, breast milk is technically legal to trade since it is classified as a food, as opposed to a bodily fluid. Mothers selling breast milk can earn up to US$20,000 (S$28,000) for 30 ounces of milk a day.
The benefits of acquiring human breast milk is gaining traction. Non-profit “milk banks” purchase raw or home-pasteurised milk for new mothers in need
Given that TurtleTree Labs grows its milk in sterile lab conditions, it is likely that consumers will be more than willing to adopt its product.
Breastfeeding Is Still Recommended
While lab-grown breast milk has many benefits, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that breastfeeding is the “cornerstone of child survival and child health,” in its Global Nutrition Targets 2025 Breastfeeding Policy Brief.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months.
However, TurtleTree’s lab-grown milk is not yet identical to natural breast milk. Antibodies in breast milk that grant babies immunity have yet to be reproduced in lab settings.
“We do not believe that lab-grown milk will replace breastfeeding,” explains Harith.
“However, we also know that not every mother is able to breastfeed for various reasons,” he added.
Is Lab-Grown Milk Production The Way To Go?
Lab-grown food is slowly gaining momentum as the Covid-19 pandemic raises fears over food shortages.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization suggested that meeting demand for food could require a 50 per cent increase in production by 2050.
Neither is milk production environmentally friendly. Cattle farming produced over 37 per cent of global methane emissions and it is also impossible to execute in land-scarce Singapore.
In short, technology by companies like TurtleTree Labs may be the most sustainable way of creating milk products.
If all goes as planned, we may see lab-grown cows’ milk as well as human breast milk on the shelves of local supermarkets one day.
“We know it’s going to take time to change consumer behaviour,” says Harith.
(But) our goal is to allow cell-based milk technology to be used globally, providing the best nutrition to infants and adults in the most sustainable way.– Harith Bahren, Business Development co-lead of TurtleTree Labs
Featured Image Credit: Asia Tech Daily/Nutra Ingredients