Becoming a mother is a pivotal moment that often bestows a woman with a renewed sense of purpose. For Jolene Ruth Tan, founder of Wonderbewbz, becoming a mother gave birth to her first ‘a-ha!’ moment in life, inspiring her to offer a breast milk freeze-drying service.
Jolene shared that she first came up with the idea while she was in her third trimester in 2022, and started to research on the technology behind the freeze-drying process with her husband. She explained that breast milk can only last for a maximum of six months when stored in regular freezers, while freeze-dried breast milk has a longer shelf life.
Despite the novelty of her business concept and the high costs associated with the process, Jolene took a leap of faith and secured an investor. Together, they jointly invested approximately S$120,000 to S$130,000 into launching Wonderbewbz in April 2023, exhausting Jolene’s entire life savings.
Through the business, Jolene hopes to support and help other mothers in their breastfeeding journeys, as well as spread awareness on the benefits of breastfeeding. She also noted that while there has been a positive shift in people’s attitudes towards breastfeeding, it still remains a taboo topic for some.
If our bodies are made to be able to produce milk, why is the natural way of feeding our babies not being encouraged? There are still too many misconceptions and stigma around breastfeeding. It’s time we normalise it!– Jolene Ruth Tan, founder of Wonderbewbz
Her breastfeeding journey spurred her to launch Wonderbewbz
However, Jolene’s plans to launch Wonderbewbz had to take a backseat when she gave birth to her son, Kyler, and started her very own breastfeeding journey.
Jolene shared that although she read up on breastfeeding before giving birth, it was still an unfamiliar experience for a new mother and although it is a natural process, it is also a learned skill. “Nothing comes close to experiencing it firsthand,” she added.
In an article by the Singapore Medical Journal, it stated that two of the most common challenges that inhibit a mother from breastfeeding her newborn are incorrect latching and insufficient breast milk production – problems that Jolene knows all too well. She shared that while her newborn latched well, she struggled to produce enough breast milk for her son.
Newborn babies consume colostrum, also known as ‘first milk’ when they are breastfed by their mothers. Jolene shared that as Kyler’s appetite grew, her mature milk supply did not keep pace.
She recounted that as she was exclusively breastfeeding at that time, she was unable to gauge the quantity of breast milk she was producing and whether her baby was getting enough. To her dismay, she found blood stains on baby Kyler’s diapers, a sign that he was dehydrated. Consequently, she temporarily turned to baby formula until she could produce enough breast milk for her son.
However, she experienced many ups and downs while trying to increase her supply of breast milk. She tried various approaches, from diligently pumping every two hours to to power pumping, a technique used to mimic cluster feeding. However, she could only produce a meagre amount of 10 to 20 millilitres after a 45-minute session. “It was really demoralising,” lamented Jolene.
Feeling desperate, she consulted her lactation masseur, who recommended sunflower lecithin, an ingredient commonly used to release clogged milk ducts in women’s breasts during breastfeeding. Eventually, this increased her supply of breast milk, which allowed her to continue breastfeeding her son. However, this only lasted for four months as baby Kyler’s intake continued to increase, and Jolene had to return to feeding him formula.
Despite the difficulties faced, Jolene remained a staunch advocate for breast milk, firmly believing it is the best source of nutrition for babies, even after weaning. She shared that she continued to pump small amounts to store in her freezer for when her son needed an immunity boost, but little did she know that her efforts would come to naught during the thawing process.
To my horror, he refuses to take the thawed milk! My breast milk is likely high in lipase and that changes the smell of the breast milk, especially after it’s thawed. It was really very painful to see it going down the sink.– Jolene Ruth Tan, founder of Wonderbewbz
Furthermore, by the time she wanted to freeze-dry her own stash of breast milk, she discovered that half of her supply had expired. Undeterred, Jolene resolved to launch Wonderbewbz as soon as possible. She indigenously repurposed and used her expired breast milk to refine and improve her freeze-drying processes.
Remaining steadfast in her conviction, Jolene continues to feed her son with reconstituted breast milk, which he consumes without any difficulty. “[I’m] happy to say that I still have two litres worth of freeze-dried breast milk for my son!” Jolene exclaims.
The science behind freeze-drying
One might ask, what is freeze-drying? How does it work? What are the benefits? Is it safe? It seems that Jolene has the answers to all these questions.
“Typically, the lower the moisture content, the longer the shelf life. With freeze-drying, ‘low and slow’ is the name of the game,” Jolene explains.
The process involves placing packets of breast milk on large racks inside a vacuum chamber, where the temperature decreases to below freezing and is then slowly raised to less than 37 degree Celsius. During this process, the water content in the breast milk is removed through sublimation, which reduces most of the weight, maintains its original formula, and allows most of the essential nutrients to be preserved and retained.
Jolene adds that freeze-dried breast milk offers convenience for mothers, as it is easy to prepare and babies can continue to get the required nutrients from consuming breast milk.
“All you have to do is add warm water, pour your powder in, swirl the bottle, and it’s ready to go,” said Jolene. In essence, it is similar to preparing baby formula, but with breast milk. Additionally, freeze-dried breast milk powder does not require refrigeration and freezing, making it convenient for travelling.
However, the convenience of freeze-drying has sparked concern about safety and hygiene. In an article by US-based pregnancy and parenting website WhatToExpect.com, it stated that although freeze-drying has antibacterial properties due to their low moisture content, it is not entirely sterile and still has a risk of contamination.
Jolene acknowledges these risks and emphasises that hygiene and safety remains the top priorities for the business. Prior to the launch, a series of extensive trials were conducted for over a year, and Wonderbewbz continues to uphold strict control and maintenance procedures. This includes environmental swab tests to ensure the effectiveness of their sanitisation practices.
To better ensure that all breast milk is handled safely, Wonderbewbz only accepts breast milk that has been frozen for six months or less, to which Jolene personally oversees the delivery and freeze-drying processes.
Jolene ensures that the process remains fuss-free for customers as they can place an order via their website and communicate via WhatsApp to arrange a delivery.
Balancing costs remains her biggest challenge
Wonderbewbz offers a trial package of 1.5 litres, starting at S$188, with pricing increasing based on the amount of milk sent in for freeze-drying.
While the price of freeze-drying breast milk may seem more expensive, Jolene is quick to clarify that there are valid reasons for the cost. Operating the freeze-drying facility comes with high costs, with electrical bills running high everyday to maintain the overall temperature and sanitisation. Moreover, the freeze-dryers are designed for industrial use, demanding significant maintenance.
Jolene also shared that she personally purchased her machines from the United States (US), which led her to take on more roles as a technician and repairman. This resulted in many back-and-forth late-night calls with the US hotline due to the time difference. “The initial stage was really a very steep learning curve,” said Jolene.
She explained that as freeze-drying is still a new idea in Singapore, she enquired with some of the local authorities on the viability of establishing Wonderbewbz. However, the responses came after significant delays, inevitably stalling her progress.
Finding the best location to build her facility posed another major challenge for Wonderbewbz. Building a freeze-drying facility requires a space that facilitates efficient cleaning that also maintains high standards for sanitisation. Jolene shared that she spent a lot of time and effort in searching for a space that met her standards, but this also led to an early loss of funds due to an error in judgement.
The first unit that I rented seemed okay while viewing as it was tenanted, but after the teardown of the unit, the condition of the place was simply not acceptable. [As a result], I broke that lease at a loss and found my current unit which is perfect.– Jolene Ruth Tan, founder of Wonderbewbz
Despite all odds, Wonderbewbz is now on the path to breaking even and has gained popularity among mothers in Singapore.
Plans to expand her team and penetrate other markets in Asia
Currently, Jolene is running all of Wonderbewbz’s operations – from facilitating the freeze-drying process, to running for deliveries. She expressed that she is looking forward to building a team to ease her workload, as her production queue is currently full with her waitlist being a month to one and a half months out.
Wonderbewbz continues to maintain close customer relationships with the mothers they have helped thus far, and prides themselves in being a part of their breastfeeding journey. This also inspired Jolene to pursue a certification as a Lactation Consultant to provide additional professional advice and help other mothers in need.
Every mum would have faced struggles during their journey and a strong support system is very crucial for mums in their breastfeeding journey.– Jolene Ruth Tan, founder of Wonderbewbz
For now, Jolene is committed to increasing brand awareness in Singapore and is on the lookout for new partnership opportunities with like-minded brands that share the same vision.
“We believe in joining hands and collaborating with partners to get the word out. This is not something that is achievable by ourselves,” Jolene explained. One of the business’s key partnerships is with Kai Singapore, a premium luxury confinement hospitality centre, where Wonderbewbz’s freeze-drying service is included in Kai’s packages for their guests.
Looking ahead, Jolene envisions Wonderbewbz to be a brand centred on lactation, with a strong focus on acquiring or creating products and services that champions their ‘Mums first’ philosophy. She also hopes to penetrate other markets in Asia by offering freeze-drying services to more breastfeeding mothers.
Embark on your startup journey with MAS-regulated ANEXT Bank, one of Singapore’s first digital banks for SMEs.
Featured Image Credit: Wonderbewbz