A Singapore Management University graduate in Information System Management and Marketing, Fengru cut her teeth in corporate sales roles at Google and Salesforce. However, in 2019, disenchanted with the lack of good milk options to make quality cheese in her kitchen, the cheese connoisseur made a life-changing move into the industry of biotechnology. She co-founded TurtleTree to make high-quality milk in the lab using stem cell technology. That vision was propelled by a desire to also leave a lasting impact on the planet. Today, her biotech start-up makes milk without using mammals, through a process that uses less land, water and energy, and carries a reduced risk of diseases, paving the way for a sustainable future.
Three years ago, when Lin Fengru was engaged in her favorite hobby – trying to make cheese in her kitchen – she hit a roadblock: She realized that the types of milk available in the market just weren’t suitable for making a quality product. “The milk sold here is heavily homogenized and pasteurized, but to make good cheese, it needs to be lightly pasteurized or unpasteurized. Otherwise, the calcium and protein bonds will be incapable of forming the tofu-like structure,” explains the cheese lover.
Determined to pursue her craft, the 33-year-old traveled to farms in Indonesia and Thailand to try her luck at getting the right kind of milk straight from the source, but the trips left her even more disappointed.
“The conditions of the farms weren’t ideal. There was no place for the animals to exercise and no place for them to graze – they ate hay. They didn’t have good nutrition and weren’t healthy. It was shocking to see,” she says.
Using plant-based milk was out of the question. As it does not share the full composition of mammalian milk, it cannot be used to make cheese, butter, cream, or yogurt.
This made her think about finding a way to create milk using stem cells: She liked that cellular agriculture creates up to 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, uses up to 96 percent less water, and requires up to 99 percent less land compared to its traditional counterparts. This made her think about finding a way to create cow’s milk without cows, and in 2019, she co-founded biotech company TurtleTree with Max Rye – who is now its chief strategist.
The company found a way to make milk through stem cell technology, so it is able to create milk from cows, humans (breast milk), and other animals, without the need for cows, humans and other animals.
While TurtleTree is able to produce animal milk, it is currently focusing its efforts on producing human breast milk. The reason is simple: The price point of animal milk is simply too competitive to sustain.
“Initially, we were very gung-ho and mission-driven – we wanted to use our technology to make cow’s milk and help reduce animal suffering. But then potential investors told us, ‘Cow’s milk at the supermarket is $2 a gallon. When do you think your version can reach that kind of price point?’,” she says. “That’s when we decided to narrow down our focus and zoom in on the functional benefits of human milk.”
As much as lab-grown human breast milk will alleviate the struggles of mothers unable to breastfeed, the company’s current main purpose is to also encourage adults to consume it due to its health benefits. The proteins from human breast milk help build immunity and promote gut health, while its complex sugars enhance cognitive function, explains Fengru.
Given that the manufacturing does not require livestock or farmland, it requires far less land and water – which translates to a lesser impact on the environment. It also opens up doors of opportunity for production in Singapore in the near future.
“In Singapore, we can’t have a bunch of cows, but we can have a bunch of bioreactors to produce milk.
According to herworld.com