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The global dairy industry is worth US$871 billion a year. Can cell-based milk make a dent in that? Photo: Shutterstock

How a Singapore-born lab’s cell-based milk alternative could shake up the US$871 billion global dairy industry

  • Cows are out for biotechnology start-up TurtleTree, whose cell-based milk is grown in giant bioreactors at its California-based facility
  • Alternative dairy products already exist, but CEO Fengru Lin says that plant-based milk produces less of important protein components than cows’ milk

Biotechnology start-up TurtleTree wants to change the way people consume milk.

Cows are out – at least as far as milking goes. The replacement: cell-based milk.

The company says it is able to create raw milk using cells from mammals. The cells are then grown in TurtleTree’s labs and milk is ultimately produced. In giant bioreactors, the cells stick to tiny straws, the fluid is then drawn through the straws, and milk comes out the other end.

TurtleTree is in the final phases of constructing a 24,000-square-foot research and development facility in West Sacramento, California.

Fengru Lin, CEO and co-founder of Singapore biotechnology start-up TurtleTree, with a display of proposed renderings for the company’s plant in West Sacramento, California. Photo: TNS

Armed with US$40 million from venture capital investors, TurtleTree is moving from a joint business incubation facility in the nearby city of Woodland, which it shares with several dozen food and agricultural start-ups, to its own research and development facility.

The facility is expected to open within the next several months, though no formal date has been set.

“The Sacramento area is a hub for us,” says TurtleTree co-founder and chief executive Fengru Lin. “There is no turning back. We are committed to this area.”

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TurtleTree also has a headquarters in Singapore, the city state that is Lin’s hometown, and a lab facility in Boston, where she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology majoring in biotechnology, before going to business school in France.

The Sacramento area connection has to do with The University of California Davis campus and its labs studying milk, which brought Lin to the region for partnership agreements.

Most start-ups fail, and TurtleTree will need to produce a food product consumers will buy. Alternative dairy products already exist, but Lin says that plant-based milk produces less of important protein components than cows’ milk.

She also says that plant-based milks come with their own set of environmental issues. Almond milk, for example, has been shown to require large amounts of water. Oat milk contributes to issues like monocropping, which affects soil health.

I sincerely believe we will make food that thrills, delights and tantalises again – and then the revolution can truly begin
Fengru Lin, CEO and co-founder, TurtleTree

TurtleTree’s products will also need the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration. Cell-based milk is currently not approved for purchase.

Success for TurtleTree would help Sacramento’s efforts to build a life science technology hub.

Groundbreaking began in February on Aggie Square, a more than US$1 billion complex on the University of California Davis Sacramento campus being built to attract life science companies. But most of the 1.2 million square feet of lab and office space is unrented.

There’s been limited research on the market for cell-based milk, with one study calling it a niche product. But a niche product with limited sales could still be a financial gold mine in the US$871 billion global dairy industry.

TurtleTree was born in 2019 in Singapore, coming from Lin’s desire to learn cheese making. Photo: TNS

Lin argues that cell-based milk means reductions in animal cruelty and alleviates health concerns over the consumption of milk, as well as environmental concerns.

She says dairy intake from a health viewpoint has been linked to both high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Others are shut out from buying conventional milk because of lactose intolerance.

Lin says sustainability issues also arise. The dairy industry is linked to high greenhouse gas emissions, the degradation of local water resources and the loss of biodiversity.

But even if everything goes right for TurtleTree, cell-based milk won’t be flying off the supermarket shelves without great taste.

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While some consumers in select areas of the west and east coast of the US might buy a product because it is healthy or doesn’t damage the environment, Lin says most will be swayed by taste.

“I sincerely believe we will make food that thrills, delights and tantalises again – and then the revolution can truly begin,” she says.

Lin says the goal is for people to actually choose alternative proteins not because of what they intellectually know (that it’s good for the planet, animals and their health), but because it’s what they intrinsically want.

TurtleTree has hired chef and sustainability advocate Dominique Crenn as its food innovation adviser, part of the plan to turn out food products that taste good.

Crenn is the only female chef in the United States to receive three Michelin stars, for her flagship restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. She was also the star of Netflix’s hit series Chef’s Table.

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TurtleTree was born in 2019 in Singapore. It came out of Lin’s desire to learn cheese making.

“I went up to Vermont for a couple of weeks to learn how to make cheese, and I wanted to make cheese in Singapore and Asia, but of course there are no cows,” she says.

“I had to try to access milk from Indonesia, from Thailand. And yet today there are problems around farming, around hormones and antibiotics coming to the cows, and that affects the milk quality, that affects how the cheese pans out. So I gave up that whole idea.”

Starting in 2020, TurtleTree raised the first of US$40 million in venture capital funding. Lin says the money should allow the company to continue its research and commercialisation of products.

Lin sees the production of cell-based milk being at least several years away, in part because TurtleTree needs to refine the process of extracting high-value dairy-based bioactives like lactoferrin in a cost-efficient way.

Lin says TurtleTree is exploring contracting with existing food companies to put its lab version of lactoferrin in their products or co-branding a joint product.

TurtleTree also has several competitors who are trying to produce cell-based milk, including an Israeli company, Wilk Technologies. The company has gone public and received US$2 million funding from Coca-Cola in Israel.

Lin hopes that food products expected to be introduced in the marketplace in 2023 will demonstrate to investors that a new funding round is in order.

“We are trying to set ourselves up for success,” she says.