Science

Babies Could Be Drinking Lab-Grown Breast Milk by 2021

A Singapore-based startup is focusing on breast milk for now but also plans to develop lab-grown alternatives for the dairy industry.
02 July 2020, 8:18am
breastfeeding, lab-grown, breast milk, turtletree labs
For illustrative purposes only. Photo: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

New mothers are often told that “breast is best,” when it comes to milk for their babies. But despite the clever alliteration, it’s actually much harder to practice than it seems. Some women have problems lactating, while others have to deal with sentiments against breastfeeding at work or in public places. Babies with absent or busy mothers also lack ready access to breast milk.

These are issues Singapore-based startup TurtleTree Labs can address, as it has developed the world’s first cell-based breast milk. The company is now working on scaling up of the cell-based milk production technology.

As of June 24, the company has raised $3.2 million in seed funding to pursue the project. Its investors include sustainability-driven social venture groups such as Hong Kong-based Green Monday Ventures and United States-based New Luna Ventures.

This innovation could disrupt the global infant formula market, which was worth $45 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $103 billion by 2026.

TurtleTree Labs co-founder Max Rye told AFN that they are collaborating with four to five leading infant nutrition companies. They hope to launch the lab-grown milk by 2021. While the startup is focusing on milk for babies for now, it also has its eye on “the dairy industry in general,” said Rye.

According to TurtleTree Labs’ website, the company’s vision is for “all children and families anywhere in the world [to] have access to safe, clean milk and milk products of full-composition, function, and flavor.”

TurtleTree Labs said that the lab-grown breast milk “can achieve similar composition to human breast milk unlike infant formula.” This would differentiate the product from many baby formulas that are dominating the infant nutrition market.

While the grave ethical and environmental impacts of factory farming have seen people turn to plant-based alternatives and lab-grown meat, plant-based milk still differs significantly from dairy products in terms of nutritional value.

Lab-grown milk could provide a nutritionally similar but ethical option. At TurtleTree Labs, “humanely selected dairy cow cells” are extracted and cultivated into milk through a process that mimics natural milk production. The final product is “95% less resource consumptive” than factory farming, its website reads.

Some are hopeful that TurtleTree Labs’ ambitious project will help to safeguard Singapore’s food security. Singapore is heavily reliant on foreign sources to meet its population’s nutritional needs, having imported over 90 percent of its food in 2019. The commercialisation of lab-grown milk is in line with the country’s “30 by 30” vision, which aims to produce 30 percent of Singapore’s food needs by 2030.

Co-founder Fengru Lin told KrAsia that TurtleTree Labs is also working with Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) to develop lab-grown milk.

Update 07/23/20: This article has been edited with updated terminology from TurtleTree Labs.