When I first heard about TurtleTree Labs, a new self-described “clean milk” company based in Singapore, I assumed that the startup was creating milk proteins from genetically modified microbes, similar to alternative dairy companies like Perfect Day or New Culture.
Boy, was I wrong. “That’s very much not what we’re doing,” TurtleTree’s CTO Max Rye explained to me over the phone. Instead, their scientists are using cellular agriculture to grow mammary gland cells in a lab which actually lactate milk.
And by milk, we mean any kind of milk — not just cow milk. In fact, according to TurtleTree’s CEO Fengru Lin their first product will likely be human milk.
Yep, human. She said that they’ll focus on human breastmilk initially for a few reasons. One, it could sell at a much higher cost, so they could reach price parity more quickly than with, say, cow’s milk. For context, their cultured milk — any type — currently costs about $138 per liter to produce.
However, TurtleTree won’t be selling its cell-based milk directly to consumers. Instead, the company plans to license out its milk-producing technology, for which it has a provisional patent, to large dairy companies as a SaaS model.
Rye told me that since the milk is cell-based, there’s a huge amount of versatility to their product. Their scientists can play with the settings to create milk that’s lactose-free and has different cholesterol and fat levels. So, for example, they could make a healthier milk for those following strict diets, or an ultra-creamy options for gourmet chefs.
The startup plans to have a media day in Q1 of next year to debut their first glass of milk, which will likely be human. It’ll be a while yet before they enter the market — two years, according to Lin. The startup has raised an undisclosed amount of funding and is in the midst of raising their seed round.
TurtleTree’s decision to operate out of Singapore is a very conscious one. Not only were two of the four co-founders already based there, but the local government is very supportive of food tech initiatives. The country has a goal to produce 30 percent of its own food by 2030 (they currently import over 90 percent). As a result, the Singaporean government gives more support to startups to get new products to market more quickly.
That could give TurtleTree an advantage against other dairy disruptors. As I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, TurtleTree isn’t the only company trying to make milk without the animal. Perfect Day or New Culture are both using microbes to create the protein building blocks of dairy — casein and whey — to create milk that’s genetically similar to the real thing. However, Rye said that TurtleTree has an advantage over these competitors because they can make milk “without having to break it down piece by piece.” Their technology is also species agnostic, meaning they can create milk of any animal without having to rebuild an entirely new process.
I understand why heading to market with cell-based human milk makes sense from a cost perspective, but I’m not sure how well it’ll be received — at least at first. People are pretty skeptical about eating lab-grown food to begin with. Developing a product that normally only comes from humans has a distinctly Soylent Green-y vibe that could be very off-putting to consumers. Especially as something to feed to their babies.
However, as cultured meat and other products hit the market and become more commonplace, maybe that perception will change.