Republished from JETRO: Original article here
Founded in 2019, TurtleTree Labs is a Singapore start-up equipped with unique technology to produce artificial milk using cell culture. Their technology has garnered interest from the Singapore government which is committed to its target of raising its food self-sufficiency.
This year, TurtleTree Labs emerged as the grand prize winner out of 400 applications from 60 countries at "The Liveability Challenge 20201", presented by Temasek Foundation as an open call for technology-related proposals to tackle urban challenges. They won the grand prize of S$1 million (approx. 77.4 million yen, S$1 = approx. 77.4 yen) in funding. We interviewed the company's Co-founders, CEO Ms. Fengru Lin and Chief Strategist Mr. Max Rye about the company's background in the development of cell-cultured milk and its plans for the future.
Question: With Turtletree Labs’ cell culture technology, does it mean that any kind of mammalian milk can be produced artificially?
Max Rye: Exactly. Our technology is like a platform. You can culture the cells of any mammal, including sheep, goats, camels, and cows. The possibilities are endless when it comes to the kind of product which can be developed.
Question: How do you culture milk?
Fengru Lin: Within 3 to 4 hours after the milk is discharged, live cells are extracted, cultivated and proliferated, then transferred to a medium prepared with our own patented technology. Using this lactose medium as a catalyst, the bioreactor (a device in which biochemical reactions using biocatalysts are carried out) simulating the role of human breasts or cow breasts, for instance, discharges milk in the end.
Question: Of the various kinds of mammalian milk, why did you choose to start with the development of infant milk?
Max: Our initial focus are bovine(cow) milk and (human) milk. The advantage of starting out with human breast milk is that it can command a higher price. As the technology required at the initial stage of development is always costly, we can specialise in high value-added products by first developing infant milk, and eliminate the need for price reduction to match the price of cow milk. If we can increase production and reduce prices in the long run, we may be able to expand our product range to include cow milk, sheep milk and other types of products.
Question: What is the price of your infant milk?
Max: S$35 per litre. However, prices are expected to go down as the production process becomes more efficient and productivity increases.
Question: Fengru, why did someone like you who was working in a US tech company Google set up a company in a completely different sector of food tech?
Fengru: Even though I worked for a tech company, my hobby was actually making cheese. To make good cheese, you need high calcium, high fat milk. I tried to search for good milk in Indonesia and Thailand, but finding high quality milk in Asia turned out to be very challenging. Then I met Max 2-3 years ago at Google. As we talked about future technologies, I learned about "Memphis Meats" which produces cell-cultured meat, as well as "BlueNalu" which specialises in cell-cultured seafood, and wondered if we could create milk using cell culture. At that time, there was no company working on cell-cultured milk, and so I invited some scientist friends to conduct research. Following that, the company was established last year with an investment of S$500,000 from the funds on hand and there are now 20 fulltime engineers and scientists. We have obtained several patents so far, and this year will be the year of our business expansion.
Question: Why did you think of setting up in Singapore?
Max: I am from California and you would probably think it might have been a better choice for us to be based in San Francisco because of the ease of raising capital there. However, we decided to set up our presence in Singapore in the initial stage as I think it makes better sense to be situated where we are needed, and yet there are no food shortage problems in California. Strategically, I think that being based in Singapore would help us grow faster. The research environment in Singapore is conducive and there is a very strong government support system here.
Question: But Singapore is not known for its strength in food tech in the first place.
Fengru: The food tech sector is indeed a very new sector in Singapore. However, Singapore is advanced in the field of biotechnology and our office is located in Biopolis, the biotech hub of Singapore in which many pharmaceutical companies have located their research bases. The introduction of these pharmaceutical companies to us by Enterprise Singapore (ESG: a government organization involved in industrial promotion) also played an instrumental role in accelerating our business expansion.
Question: What kind of support are you getting from the Singapore government?
Fengru: We are engaged in joint research projects with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) on multiple themes, and this has enabled us to accelerate our research and development (R&D) process by 5-10 years. During the period of restrictive measures (circuit breaker) imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections, ESG assisted us in continuing our research activities as an essential service. In addition for Singapore Food Authority (SFA), we provide them with regular reports on the progress of our business every month. The government's goal of achieving a food (nutrition-based) self-sufficiency rate of 30% by 2030 (30x302) is critical for Singapore. Growing up here as a Singaporean has helped me recognise the efforts of our government agencies, as they work together as one to source eggs and milk from all over the world every time disruptions to our food supply chain take place.
Question: What are your future plans in Singapore?
Fengru: We are planning to set up a demonstration plant in Singapore next year. The site has been decided on, and operations are scheduled to begin in the fourth quarter of next year.
Question: Is your business model that of a licensing model?
Fengru: The processing plants used by dairy companies are very costly and beyond the financial means of start-ups like us. We would like to work with companies like Nestlé, Danone and Unilever to enable them to source milk in alternative ways. The burden of asset ownership can be minimised through the licensing model.
Question: Are you already in discussions with potential partner companies? Are you in discussions with Japanese companies?
Fengru: Currently, we are in talks with several major baby food and dairy companies, but we are not in formal discussions with Japanese companies yet.
Question: What do you think of the Japanese market and which sectors are you looking at when identifying partner companies?
Max: Japan is a huge market. It is also a country where cutting-edge technology is born, and constantly strives to be at the forefront of various industrial sectors. There are many companies in Japan that can potentially become our partners, and we believe our technology can help Japanese companies develop more sustainable products and gain new sources of income. We are not only interested in dairy companies as potential partners, but are keen on partnerships with pharmaceutical companies as well.
Fengru: I'm also interested in companies that provide food ingredients (as potential partners). We can culture milk which consists of various components such as whey protein, fat, sugar, etc., and these can be potential ingredients in the production of food products such as noodles.