Cultured breast milk: disrupting the infant nutrition market

Cultured breast milk: disrupting the infant nutrition market

By
Laura Robinson
September 8, 2020

Many of us are ditching the dairy in droves for all kinds of alternatives. But so far, the tiniest members of our families have not been so spoilt for choice.

When it comes to infant nutrition, breast may very well be best. But moms who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently left with limited options. Milk bank coverage is patchy and demand outweighs supply in many areas. And many parents are reluctant to run the risk of buying milk from unregulated private marketplaces. So that leaves infant formula: a global market estimated to be worth $45 billion in 2018 and expected to grow to $103 billion by 2026.

But given that so many startups are intent on putting cows out of a job, it was only a matter of time before someone turned their attention to human milk. This week, we get to know the cell-based breast milk pioneers and explore the opportunities and challenges they’re facing while disrupting this promising but highly sensitive market.

Trend drivers: demand for a natural, nutritious and ethical alternative


Although the infant formula market is growing, replacing breast milk with an artificial alternative remains a divisive issue. The industry has certainly come a long way in the last few decades, but the category is still dominated by products based on cow’s milk protein or soy protein. Given that cow’s milk is created for baby cows, it naturally has a different composition to human milk and is often not as easily digested. Of course, formula can be adapted and supplemented, but its nutritional profile cannot yet fully match the full constellation of proteins and sugars offered by the real deal. Couple that with a series of health scares and a growing focus on natural products and it’s easy to see how a cultured alternative could appeal to health-conscious millennials parents.

Many new parents have also weaned themselves off the white stuff for environmental or ethical reasons. Infant formula typically uses a huge amount of water to produce and sometimes contains environmentally suspect ingredients, like palm oil. But when the newest member of their family arrives, they struggle to find alternatives that reflect their values. The fact that cultured breast milk could help to reduce this environmental burden has already helped the startups in this space attract funding. And it’s also likely to win over parents who don’t want to choose between what’s best for their child and what’s best for the planet.

Making milk in a lab: how does it work?


Although the exact techniques used vary slightly from company to company, scientists typically use cellular agriculture to grow mammary gland cells and then add these to a nutrient rich fluid in a hollow fibre bioreactor, where they begin to lactate milk. The process takes about three weeks and the cells then continue to produce milk for about 200 days. The approach also uses 95% fewer resources, can be adapted to produce milk from any mammal and scientists can even control the level of fat or cholesterol in the final product.

And, of course, once teams have cracked it, there’s no reason for them to stop at breast milk. Some of the leading lights in this field have already made it clear that they’re setting their sights on disrupting the $716 billion global dairy market in the longer term.  

The race to market: BIOMILQ and TurtleTree Labs


Fengru Lin, Max Rye and Rabail Toor, the founders behind Singapore-based TurtleTree Labs, have a big vision: they want to create clean milk for people and planet. After investing half a million dollars of their own money, they’ve now raised an additional $3.2 million in seed funding to do just that. Already crowned the first company in the world to produce real, whole milk from cell cultivation, the team are now focussing on human breast milk, given the potential to reach price parity more quickly than for cow’s milk alternatives. Rather than selling directly to consumers, the team is looking to license its technology to companies. So they’re working closely with industry groups to accelerate adoption and are working hard to get leading regulatory and IP experts on board to make sure that their future customers can license their IP without flouting regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger are taking a different approach. Michelle - a former food scientist at General Mills - and Leila - an accomplished cell biologist - decided to found BIOMILQ after discovering that they shared a passion for using science to solve malnutrition. After successfully creating casein and lactose in February, the team has gone on to raise $3.5 million in seed funding, led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. They’re now focussing on optimising their product, getting new experts on board and working closely with families, health experts and the breastfeeding community to prepare for market entry. One glance at their website shows how their parent-centred approach has enabled them to develop effective, consumer-friendly marketing messages that help parents understand how their products put an end to the typical formula trade-offs.

Teething troubles: Scaling, cost, safety and preservation


Cell-based milk may be able to replicate the nutritional content of the real deal in a way that formula can’t. But it can’t replace the immune benefits of the antibodies that are passed between mother and child during breastfeeding. Nor is it able to adapt its composition to reflect the baby’s changing needs. So all startups working in this space recognise that their product isn’t a straight replacement - more an alternative for those who need it.

As with many animal-free products that draw on novel technology, cell-based milk companies will need to invest in scaling production to keep costs low. Given the challenges of testing products on newborns, innovators will also need to start with animal and adult trials, meaning that regulatory approvals may take some time to come through. Finally, even when they’ve got the green light, there’s the question of how the milk will be preserved and sold, as experts currently think that pasteurising, freezing or dehydrating it might change some of its components.

But even though the market is still in its infancy, cultured milk pioneers remain optimistic. After all, with 250 babies born every minute and parents craving nutritious, sustainable and convenient solutions, demand for their product is likely to grow just as quickly as their tiny customers.

The 30-second pitch: Cultured breast milk


🔎 What

  • Startups are developing cultured breast milk that provides the nutrition of natural breast milk with the ease and availability of formula.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Alternative options for women who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently limited.
  • A growing number of parents are looking to avoid dairy or soya-based infant formula due to ethical, environmental or health concerns.


🧬 How

  • Cell-based human milk is made by culturing mammary cells in a bioreactor and typically uses 95% fewer resources than dairy milk.


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Cell-based breast milk may help parents avoid making trade-offs between the health of their child and their environmental or ethical values.
  • This technology - and the market it creates - is likely to unlock wider opportunities for new product development in the broader cultured milk market.


👎 The bad

  • Cell-based milk can’t offer the same immunity benefits as breast milk, nor can it adapt to baby’s needs.
  • Innovators still need to develop their technology to be able to scale effectively and keep costs low.
  • Safety testing and regulatory approvals may take some time to come through.


💡 The bottom line

  • The cultured breast milk market is still in its infancy, but if this promising product category can overcome its teething troubles, it’s likely to disrupt the dairy alternatives markets more broadly in the years to come.


Written by
Laura Robinson

From policy geek to digital consultant, Laura has always enjoyed bringing people together through words or tools to drive positive change. She is most proud of finally taking the leap into entrepreneurship by founding Pink Pear Agency - a network of passionate specialists who help food businesses grow innovative projects and share their stories with the world. Laura is currently interested in project development and management, digital tools, content strategy and copywriting.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Read Unlimited Articles
  • Access Member Directory
  • Get Event Discounts

Many of us are ditching the dairy in droves for all kinds of alternatives. But so far, the tiniest members of our families have not been so spoilt for choice.

When it comes to infant nutrition, breast may very well be best. But moms who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently left with limited options. Milk bank coverage is patchy and demand outweighs supply in many areas. And many parents are reluctant to run the risk of buying milk from unregulated private marketplaces. So that leaves infant formula: a global market estimated to be worth $45 billion in 2018 and expected to grow to $103 billion by 2026.

But given that so many startups are intent on putting cows out of a job, it was only a matter of time before someone turned their attention to human milk. This week, we get to know the cell-based breast milk pioneers and explore the opportunities and challenges they’re facing while disrupting this promising but highly sensitive market.

Trend drivers: demand for a natural, nutritious and ethical alternative


Although the infant formula market is growing, replacing breast milk with an artificial alternative remains a divisive issue. The industry has certainly come a long way in the last few decades, but the category is still dominated by products based on cow’s milk protein or soy protein. Given that cow’s milk is created for baby cows, it naturally has a different composition to human milk and is often not as easily digested. Of course, formula can be adapted and supplemented, but its nutritional profile cannot yet fully match the full constellation of proteins and sugars offered by the real deal. Couple that with a series of health scares and a growing focus on natural products and it’s easy to see how a cultured alternative could appeal to health-conscious millennials parents.

Many new parents have also weaned themselves off the white stuff for environmental or ethical reasons. Infant formula typically uses a huge amount of water to produce and sometimes contains environmentally suspect ingredients, like palm oil. But when the newest member of their family arrives, they struggle to find alternatives that reflect their values. The fact that cultured breast milk could help to reduce this environmental burden has already helped the startups in this space attract funding. And it’s also likely to win over parents who don’t want to choose between what’s best for their child and what’s best for the planet.

Making milk in a lab: how does it work?


Although the exact techniques used vary slightly from company to company, scientists typically use cellular agriculture to grow mammary gland cells and then add these to a nutrient rich fluid in a hollow fibre bioreactor, where they begin to lactate milk. The process takes about three weeks and the cells then continue to produce milk for about 200 days. The approach also uses 95% fewer resources, can be adapted to produce milk from any mammal and scientists can even control the level of fat or cholesterol in the final product.

And, of course, once teams have cracked it, there’s no reason for them to stop at breast milk. Some of the leading lights in this field have already made it clear that they’re setting their sights on disrupting the $716 billion global dairy market in the longer term.  

The race to market: BIOMILQ and TurtleTree Labs


Fengru Lin, Max Rye and Rabail Toor, the founders behind Singapore-based TurtleTree Labs, have a big vision: they want to create clean milk for people and planet. After investing half a million dollars of their own money, they’ve now raised an additional $3.2 million in seed funding to do just that. Already crowned the first company in the world to produce real, whole milk from cell cultivation, the team are now focussing on human breast milk, given the potential to reach price parity more quickly than for cow’s milk alternatives. Rather than selling directly to consumers, the team is looking to license its technology to companies. So they’re working closely with industry groups to accelerate adoption and are working hard to get leading regulatory and IP experts on board to make sure that their future customers can license their IP without flouting regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger are taking a different approach. Michelle - a former food scientist at General Mills - and Leila - an accomplished cell biologist - decided to found BIOMILQ after discovering that they shared a passion for using science to solve malnutrition. After successfully creating casein and lactose in February, the team has gone on to raise $3.5 million in seed funding, led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. They’re now focussing on optimising their product, getting new experts on board and working closely with families, health experts and the breastfeeding community to prepare for market entry. One glance at their website shows how their parent-centred approach has enabled them to develop effective, consumer-friendly marketing messages that help parents understand how their products put an end to the typical formula trade-offs.

Teething troubles: Scaling, cost, safety and preservation


Cell-based milk may be able to replicate the nutritional content of the real deal in a way that formula can’t. But it can’t replace the immune benefits of the antibodies that are passed between mother and child during breastfeeding. Nor is it able to adapt its composition to reflect the baby’s changing needs. So all startups working in this space recognise that their product isn’t a straight replacement - more an alternative for those who need it.

As with many animal-free products that draw on novel technology, cell-based milk companies will need to invest in scaling production to keep costs low. Given the challenges of testing products on newborns, innovators will also need to start with animal and adult trials, meaning that regulatory approvals may take some time to come through. Finally, even when they’ve got the green light, there’s the question of how the milk will be preserved and sold, as experts currently think that pasteurising, freezing or dehydrating it might change some of its components.

But even though the market is still in its infancy, cultured milk pioneers remain optimistic. After all, with 250 babies born every minute and parents craving nutritious, sustainable and convenient solutions, demand for their product is likely to grow just as quickly as their tiny customers.

The 30-second pitch: Cultured breast milk


🔎 What

  • Startups are developing cultured breast milk that provides the nutrition of natural breast milk with the ease and availability of formula.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Alternative options for women who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently limited.
  • A growing number of parents are looking to avoid dairy or soya-based infant formula due to ethical, environmental or health concerns.


🧬 How

  • Cell-based human milk is made by culturing mammary cells in a bioreactor and typically uses 95% fewer resources than dairy milk.


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Cell-based breast milk may help parents avoid making trade-offs between the health of their child and their environmental or ethical values.
  • This technology - and the market it creates - is likely to unlock wider opportunities for new product development in the broader cultured milk market.


👎 The bad

  • Cell-based milk can’t offer the same immunity benefits as breast milk, nor can it adapt to baby’s needs.
  • Innovators still need to develop their technology to be able to scale effectively and keep costs low.
  • Safety testing and regulatory approvals may take some time to come through.


💡 The bottom line

  • The cultured breast milk market is still in its infancy, but if this promising product category can overcome its teething troubles, it’s likely to disrupt the dairy alternatives markets more broadly in the years to come.


Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Read Unlimited Articles
  • Access Member Directory
  • Join a Global Community
UPGRADE NOW
Cancel anytime

Many of us are ditching the dairy in droves for all kinds of alternatives. But so far, the tiniest members of our families have not been so spoilt for choice.

When it comes to infant nutrition, breast may very well be best. But moms who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently left with limited options. Milk bank coverage is patchy and demand outweighs supply in many areas. And many parents are reluctant to run the risk of buying milk from unregulated private marketplaces. So that leaves infant formula: a global market estimated to be worth $45 billion in 2018 and expected to grow to $103 billion by 2026.

But given that so many startups are intent on putting cows out of a job, it was only a matter of time before someone turned their attention to human milk. This week, we get to know the cell-based breast milk pioneers and explore the opportunities and challenges they’re facing while disrupting this promising but highly sensitive market.

Trend drivers: demand for a natural, nutritious and ethical alternative


Although the infant formula market is growing, replacing breast milk with an artificial alternative remains a divisive issue. The industry has certainly come a long way in the last few decades, but the category is still dominated by products based on cow’s milk protein or soy protein. Given that cow’s milk is created for baby cows, it naturally has a different composition to human milk and is often not as easily digested. Of course, formula can be adapted and supplemented, but its nutritional profile cannot yet fully match the full constellation of proteins and sugars offered by the real deal. Couple that with a series of health scares and a growing focus on natural products and it’s easy to see how a cultured alternative could appeal to health-conscious millennials parents.

Many new parents have also weaned themselves off the white stuff for environmental or ethical reasons. Infant formula typically uses a huge amount of water to produce and sometimes contains environmentally suspect ingredients, like palm oil. But when the newest member of their family arrives, they struggle to find alternatives that reflect their values. The fact that cultured breast milk could help to reduce this environmental burden has already helped the startups in this space attract funding. And it’s also likely to win over parents who don’t want to choose between what’s best for their child and what’s best for the planet.

Making milk in a lab: how does it work?


Although the exact techniques used vary slightly from company to company, scientists typically use cellular agriculture to grow mammary gland cells and then add these to a nutrient rich fluid in a hollow fibre bioreactor, where they begin to lactate milk. The process takes about three weeks and the cells then continue to produce milk for about 200 days. The approach also uses 95% fewer resources, can be adapted to produce milk from any mammal and scientists can even control the level of fat or cholesterol in the final product.

And, of course, once teams have cracked it, there’s no reason for them to stop at breast milk. Some of the leading lights in this field have already made it clear that they’re setting their sights on disrupting the $716 billion global dairy market in the longer term.  

The race to market: BIOMILQ and TurtleTree Labs


Fengru Lin, Max Rye and Rabail Toor, the founders behind Singapore-based TurtleTree Labs, have a big vision: they want to create clean milk for people and planet. After investing half a million dollars of their own money, they’ve now raised an additional $3.2 million in seed funding to do just that. Already crowned the first company in the world to produce real, whole milk from cell cultivation, the team are now focussing on human breast milk, given the potential to reach price parity more quickly than for cow’s milk alternatives. Rather than selling directly to consumers, the team is looking to license its technology to companies. So they’re working closely with industry groups to accelerate adoption and are working hard to get leading regulatory and IP experts on board to make sure that their future customers can license their IP without flouting regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger are taking a different approach. Michelle - a former food scientist at General Mills - and Leila - an accomplished cell biologist - decided to found BIOMILQ after discovering that they shared a passion for using science to solve malnutrition. After successfully creating casein and lactose in February, the team has gone on to raise $3.5 million in seed funding, led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. They’re now focussing on optimising their product, getting new experts on board and working closely with families, health experts and the breastfeeding community to prepare for market entry. One glance at their website shows how their parent-centred approach has enabled them to develop effective, consumer-friendly marketing messages that help parents understand how their products put an end to the typical formula trade-offs.

Teething troubles: Scaling, cost, safety and preservation


Cell-based milk may be able to replicate the nutritional content of the real deal in a way that formula can’t. But it can’t replace the immune benefits of the antibodies that are passed between mother and child during breastfeeding. Nor is it able to adapt its composition to reflect the baby’s changing needs. So all startups working in this space recognise that their product isn’t a straight replacement - more an alternative for those who need it.

As with many animal-free products that draw on novel technology, cell-based milk companies will need to invest in scaling production to keep costs low. Given the challenges of testing products on newborns, innovators will also need to start with animal and adult trials, meaning that regulatory approvals may take some time to come through. Finally, even when they’ve got the green light, there’s the question of how the milk will be preserved and sold, as experts currently think that pasteurising, freezing or dehydrating it might change some of its components.

But even though the market is still in its infancy, cultured milk pioneers remain optimistic. After all, with 250 babies born every minute and parents craving nutritious, sustainable and convenient solutions, demand for their product is likely to grow just as quickly as their tiny customers.

The 30-second pitch: Cultured breast milk


🔎 What

  • Startups are developing cultured breast milk that provides the nutrition of natural breast milk with the ease and availability of formula.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Alternative options for women who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently limited.
  • A growing number of parents are looking to avoid dairy or soya-based infant formula due to ethical, environmental or health concerns.


🧬 How

  • Cell-based human milk is made by culturing mammary cells in a bioreactor and typically uses 95% fewer resources than dairy milk.


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Cell-based breast milk may help parents avoid making trade-offs between the health of their child and their environmental or ethical values.
  • This technology - and the market it creates - is likely to unlock wider opportunities for new product development in the broader cultured milk market.


👎 The bad

  • Cell-based milk can’t offer the same immunity benefits as breast milk, nor can it adapt to baby’s needs.
  • Innovators still need to develop their technology to be able to scale effectively and keep costs low.
  • Safety testing and regulatory approvals may take some time to come through.


💡 The bottom line

  • The cultured breast milk market is still in its infancy, but if this promising product category can overcome its teething troubles, it’s likely to disrupt the dairy alternatives markets more broadly in the years to come.


Many of us are ditching the dairy in droves for all kinds of alternatives. But so far, the tiniest members of our families have not been so spoilt for choice.

When it comes to infant nutrition, breast may very well be best. But moms who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently left with limited options. Milk bank coverage is patchy and demand outweighs supply in many areas. And many parents are reluctant to run the risk of buying milk from unregulated private marketplaces. So that leaves infant formula: a global market estimated to be worth $45 billion in 2018 and expected to grow to $103 billion by 2026.

But given that so many startups are intent on putting cows out of a job, it was only a matter of time before someone turned their attention to human milk. This week, we get to know the cell-based breast milk pioneers and explore the opportunities and challenges they’re facing while disrupting this promising but highly sensitive market.

Trend drivers: demand for a natural, nutritious and ethical alternative


Although the infant formula market is growing, replacing breast milk with an artificial alternative remains a divisive issue. The industry has certainly come a long way in the last few decades, but the category is still dominated by products based on cow’s milk protein or soy protein. Given that cow’s milk is created for baby cows, it naturally has a different composition to human milk and is often not as easily digested. Of course, formula can be adapted and supplemented, but its nutritional profile cannot yet fully match the full constellation of proteins and sugars offered by the real deal. Couple that with a series of health scares and a growing focus on natural products and it’s easy to see how a cultured alternative could appeal to health-conscious millennials parents.

Many new parents have also weaned themselves off the white stuff for environmental or ethical reasons. Infant formula typically uses a huge amount of water to produce and sometimes contains environmentally suspect ingredients, like palm oil. But when the newest member of their family arrives, they struggle to find alternatives that reflect their values. The fact that cultured breast milk could help to reduce this environmental burden has already helped the startups in this space attract funding. And it’s also likely to win over parents who don’t want to choose between what’s best for their child and what’s best for the planet.

Making milk in a lab: how does it work?


Although the exact techniques used vary slightly from company to company, scientists typically use cellular agriculture to grow mammary gland cells and then add these to a nutrient rich fluid in a hollow fibre bioreactor, where they begin to lactate milk. The process takes about three weeks and the cells then continue to produce milk for about 200 days. The approach also uses 95% fewer resources, can be adapted to produce milk from any mammal and scientists can even control the level of fat or cholesterol in the final product.

And, of course, once teams have cracked it, there’s no reason for them to stop at breast milk. Some of the leading lights in this field have already made it clear that they’re setting their sights on disrupting the $716 billion global dairy market in the longer term.  

The race to market: BIOMILQ and TurtleTree Labs


Fengru Lin, Max Rye and Rabail Toor, the founders behind Singapore-based TurtleTree Labs, have a big vision: they want to create clean milk for people and planet. After investing half a million dollars of their own money, they’ve now raised an additional $3.2 million in seed funding to do just that. Already crowned the first company in the world to produce real, whole milk from cell cultivation, the team are now focussing on human breast milk, given the potential to reach price parity more quickly than for cow’s milk alternatives. Rather than selling directly to consumers, the team is looking to license its technology to companies. So they’re working closely with industry groups to accelerate adoption and are working hard to get leading regulatory and IP experts on board to make sure that their future customers can license their IP without flouting regulatory requirements.

Meanwhile in North Carolina, Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger are taking a different approach. Michelle - a former food scientist at General Mills - and Leila - an accomplished cell biologist - decided to found BIOMILQ after discovering that they shared a passion for using science to solve malnutrition. After successfully creating casein and lactose in February, the team has gone on to raise $3.5 million in seed funding, led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures. They’re now focussing on optimising their product, getting new experts on board and working closely with families, health experts and the breastfeeding community to prepare for market entry. One glance at their website shows how their parent-centred approach has enabled them to develop effective, consumer-friendly marketing messages that help parents understand how their products put an end to the typical formula trade-offs.

Teething troubles: Scaling, cost, safety and preservation


Cell-based milk may be able to replicate the nutritional content of the real deal in a way that formula can’t. But it can’t replace the immune benefits of the antibodies that are passed between mother and child during breastfeeding. Nor is it able to adapt its composition to reflect the baby’s changing needs. So all startups working in this space recognise that their product isn’t a straight replacement - more an alternative for those who need it.

As with many animal-free products that draw on novel technology, cell-based milk companies will need to invest in scaling production to keep costs low. Given the challenges of testing products on newborns, innovators will also need to start with animal and adult trials, meaning that regulatory approvals may take some time to come through. Finally, even when they’ve got the green light, there’s the question of how the milk will be preserved and sold, as experts currently think that pasteurising, freezing or dehydrating it might change some of its components.

But even though the market is still in its infancy, cultured milk pioneers remain optimistic. After all, with 250 babies born every minute and parents craving nutritious, sustainable and convenient solutions, demand for their product is likely to grow just as quickly as their tiny customers.

The 30-second pitch: Cultured breast milk


🔎 What

  • Startups are developing cultured breast milk that provides the nutrition of natural breast milk with the ease and availability of formula.


🤷‍♂️ Why

  • Alternative options for women who can’t or choose not to breastfeed are currently limited.
  • A growing number of parents are looking to avoid dairy or soya-based infant formula due to ethical, environmental or health concerns.


🧬 How

  • Cell-based human milk is made by culturing mammary cells in a bioreactor and typically uses 95% fewer resources than dairy milk.


👀 Who


👍 The good

  • Cell-based breast milk may help parents avoid making trade-offs between the health of their child and their environmental or ethical values.
  • This technology - and the market it creates - is likely to unlock wider opportunities for new product development in the broader cultured milk market.


👎 The bad

  • Cell-based milk can’t offer the same immunity benefits as breast milk, nor can it adapt to baby’s needs.
  • Innovators still need to develop their technology to be able to scale effectively and keep costs low.
  • Safety testing and regulatory approvals may take some time to come through.


💡 The bottom line

  • The cultured breast milk market is still in its infancy, but if this promising product category can overcome its teething troubles, it’s likely to disrupt the dairy alternatives markets more broadly in the years to come.


Read More