Food tech start-up based in Singapore leverages on cell-based methods to address impact of dairy industry on the environment.
Disrupting a Cow?
The concept is not new, it has been brought up by many in the scientific community as well as those who hope to change the unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices of the dairy industry.
In an article by the Fast Company, the writers share how production of alternative nutritional food sources produced through scientific advancements can disrupt animal-derived foods and products.1 No doubt the dairy industry has its share in producing greenhouse gas emissions as a result of animal agriculture and grazing.
A whooping 909 million tons of milk was produced by cows, buffalo, and other livestock worldwide, in 2017. The dairy industry in the United States holds responsible for two percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions contributed by the global dairy sector also saw an increase by 18 percent between 2005 and 2015.2
To mitigate the harmful environmental impact of the dairy industry, sustainability and the interplay of disruptive innovations are key components to the future of dairy. In Singapore a local start-up known as TurtleTreeLabs is looking to do just that.
TurtleTreeLabs – Innovators of the Future of Milk
“I like to make cheese,” remarked Fengru Lin, Chief Executive Officer of TurtleTreeLabs as she shares her inspiring story of what sparked her idea to source for scientific methods to produce milk.
In an interview with Feugru Lin, Chief Executive and Max Rye, Chief Strategist of TurtleTreeLabs – at 79 Ayer Rajah Crescent, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) A*ccelerate Co-innovation space – their enthusiasm for sustainability and environmentally-cleaner sources of milk were evident.
It first started out as a hobby of Fengru for cheese-making which then progressed on to discovering scientific methods using cell-based technology as an alternative to producing milk.
Working with its current Chief Scientist, Dr Rabail Toor, who previously worked on breast cancer research the team began working on ways to tackle the problem.
“We started thinking of some ideas and how scientific methods of being able to tackle this in a whole different way than how milk is currently sourced. So then, we started coming up with the idea of using mammary gland cells and putting them into an environment where they can lactate.” Said Max as he described the initial stimulus for the basis of TurtleTreeLabs early on.
The Mission – Clean Milk for the Future
From the initial idea, TurtleTreeLabs set out to achieve their goal to produce milk with the same flavour profile and nutritional benefits minus the disastrous environmental impact.
Their laser-sharp focus on producing milk that is safe for consumption by babies and at the same time address the environmental crisis caused by the dairy industry through conventional animal agricultural methods.
“Through our method of making milk, by our projections would lower 98 percent of carbon emissions, water consumption and land use across the board.” Said Fengru.
The goals of TurtleTreeLabs aligns with the “30-by-30” vision of the Singapore government to provide 30 percent of the country’s nutritional needs by 2030.
“It is great for the Singapore food story as well. This falls so perfectly inline with the 30-by-30 initiative. Singapore imports a vast number of dairy products, so if Singapore has the ability [to produce milk] without having to get a farm it adds to the goal of being self-reliant.” Explained Max Rye.
The Method – Cell-based Technology
Making use of cell-based food technology, TurtleTreeLabs has developed patent-protected technologies in the production of milk in the laboratory.
Elucidating on the process involved, Fengru shares that the sourced stem cells are first isolated then proliferated in the bioreactor. These cells are then placed back in the bioreactor under specific conditions of lactation media for it to begin lactation. Cells are then filtered out from the end product which is the milk.
“We mainly source stem cells from four sources of the animal. The first two are patented, while the other is the mammary gland itself and another would be in the milk.” Said Fengru.
Unlike growing meat from stem cells with a bioreactor where you would essentially be consuming the cells, this process of milk production will not leave any cells in the final product. “That’s where the exciting part is. We’re not consuming the cells, but they are doing the job of the mammary cells.” Said Max Rye.
Currently TurtleTreeLabs receive donations of human breast milk from mothers for the research and development of the milk product. The team is also subsequently identifying the optimal breast milk and isolate the cells to create an immortalized cell line.
Fengru also shared about the regulatory requirements she foresees in launching the product to market. “Because it would be the same bio-identity as human breast milk, so it would be considered a food product rather than a formula or a pharmaceutical product. U.S FDA and Singapore’s SFA really cares about the end product, less so of how it is made. As long as we can prove that it is bio-identical to human breast milk it would pass regulation.” She said.
What’s next for TurtleTreeLabs?
Fengru shared that TurtleTreeLabs is currently in the research and development phase and are looking to optimize the process and scale up production.
“By the end of the year, we are looking to build a five-litre bioreactor that is functional and able to produce the milk. Within the first to second quarter of next year we hope to build a 500-litre bioreactor pilot plant in Singapore and invite large dairy conglomerates to see what the future of dairy would look like. Thereby, beginning to engage with them on how they can adopt this technology.” Said Fengru.
Its efforts in leveraging Deep Tech and innovation to change the way milk is produced was recognized during the SGInnovate and Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC). Announced on 26th March 2020, TurtleTreeLabs was selected as one of the top three Deep Tech start-ups in the Singapore leg of the XTC regional competitions. The company will go on to compete with other finalist at XTC’s Global Finals to be held in June 2020.
This interview was conducted by Deborah Seah.
- Tony Seba and Catherine Tubb, (October, 30 2019) We’re very close to disrupting the cow, Fast Company. Retrieved from: https://www.fastcompany.com/90421659/were-very-close-to-disrupting-the-cow
- World Wildlife Magazine, (Winter 2019) Milk’s impact on the environment, WWF. Retrieved from: https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/winter-2019/articles/milk-s-impact-on-the-environment
About the interviewees
Chief Executive Officer, TurtleTreeLabs
Max Rye, Chief Strategist