In June, The Spoon reported on North Carolina-based startup BIOMILQ’s success in recreating human milk outside of the breast. The company is working toward manufacturing cell-cultured milk at commercial scale, hoping to provide parents who cannot breastfeed regularly with a nutritionally equivalent option.
BIOMILQ announced today that they’ve closed their Series A financing round with $21 million. This week, The Spoon got on Zoom with company co-founder and CEO Michelle Egger to discuss the funding round and BIOMILQ’s next steps toward commercialization.
“In the grand scheme of fundraising rounds in cellular agriculture, $21 million is par for the course,” says Egger. “But we’re particularly proud because we’re an all-female leadership team. It’s less about celebrating the dollar value and more about celebrating the fact that we were able to raise it with specific partnership criteria that helped us find mission-aligned partners.”
During the round, BIOMILQ focused on identifying funds that employed female partners; that had company portfolios in which at least 10% of founders came from diverse or non-traditional backgrounds; and that had mandates on nutrition, health, or sustainability in their investment criteria.
Egger says that those criteria narrowed the field of potential investors, but ultimately helped the team to connect with partners “that are furthering new ideas and new innovation from areas where we otherwise wouldn’t see it.” Those partners include Novo Holdings, Gaingels, Spero, and Digitalis.
This round of funding will help BIOMILQ to bring its production processes to scale. Currently, the company produces small sample quantities of cell-cultured milk—just enough for compositional and optimization testing, according to Egger. They’re currently building a pilot plant in North Carolina, where they hope to begin producing milk in the quantities required for safety testing before launching the product.
In grappling with the challenge of building up scale, BIOMILQ is in the same boat as cell-cultured meat startups. But Egger says that the process for, and challenges of, producing cell-cultured milk are unique.
“Our product isn’t cells; our product is what the cells produce,” she says. “In cellular agriculture, they’re growing meat to replace the way cattle farmers have traditionally raised bovine cattle to slaughter. We’re more like milkmaids, raising cells to act more like dairy cows, where they’re able to produce milk—in this case, human milk.”
In contrast to cellular agriculture, BIOMILQ’s process is more similar to pharmaceutical production than fermentation production in terms of scale and price.
There are some advantages that come with playing the role of cellular milkmaid. For instance, BIOMILQ doesn’t need its cells to grow explosively, but to secrete milk—so the company’s process requires relatively small quantities of expensive growth factors.
BIOMILQ also stands out from the crowd of cell cultivation startups because the company uses human epithelial cells to produce its milk. The use of human cells comes with its own challenges, as the company has had to prove to the FDA’s Institutional Review Boards that donors consented fully to the use of their cells. “In the past, human research hasn’t always been upfront about how cells were being utilized,” says Egger. “So it’s top-of-mind for us, as the first food product created from human cells.”
The regulatory pathway for BIOMILQ remains unclear, although the company is actively working with regulators.
Egger says that the company “might be a bit quieter” over the next year or two, as the team works on building up scale and undergoing safety testing. Still, she’s excited about these next steps.
“We get to pioneer a new future of nutrition and push forward technologies that have never been applied in this way,” says Egger, “which is very exciting. And it’s also a huge challenge that we take very seriously, because at the end of the day, the product we’re making isn’t a novel hamburger or a novel chicken nugget—it’s nutrition that supports the life of human beings on our planet.”
Image credit: BIOMILQ