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Co-Founder And CEO Of TurtleTree with the mission to change the face of sustainable nutrition
After a double degree in information systems management and marketing, Fengru Lin worked as an account manager at Collis Asia (now UL LLC), where she handled sales and business development for about three years. After leaving Collis Asia, she worked for the American software company, Salesforce, and subsequently had a one-year stint at Google before establishing TurtleTree. She frequently visited dairy farms around Asia to source quality cow milk to make her own cheese. What started as a passion for making cheese and due to the inability to find good milk in Asia, Fengru Lin boldly co-founded with Max Rye a biotech company, to create real milk through cell-based methods. TurtleTree aims to make high-quality milk in the lab using stem cell technology, so it can create milk from cows, humans (breast milk), and other animals, without the need for cows, humans, and other animals. As demand for dairy products increases with the rising global population, novel strategies for milk production are more important than ever. The goal was to transform one of the world’s staple foods using a production process that bucks traditional methods and promises to overcome dairy farming with sustainability methods. This will shape the future of not just how people get dairy milk but how humans will feed their infants. Technology can solve some of the world’s largest problems. Curiosity and a certain fearlessness have helped Fengru solidify the vision behind her company. She is a pioneer of change, she is crafting the future.
Can you please tell me more about you and your background?
I founded TurtleTree in 2019 with a bold vision: to create a brand-new generation of sustainable nutrition that’s better for the planet, animals, and people alike. Before founding TurtleTree with my co-founder Max, I had 8 years of corporate sales experience working with global conglomerates like Salesforce and Google.
How the idea to have cow’s milk without the cow and human milk without humans came to your mind? What motivated you to follow this idea?
It all started quite simply with my cheesemaking hobby. After learning to make cheese in Vermont, I wanted to replicate the cheesemaking process in Asia, which led me to traveling to many dairy farms in the region (e.g. Indonesia, Thailand, etc) to source high-quality milk for creating high-quality cheese. What I found however were cows being pumped with hormones, unsanitary living conditions for the livestock, and even the feeding of contaminated water to animals. That’s when I started thinking about a way to produce quality milk that was healthy and nutritious, all without causing harm to animals or the environment.
TurtleTree is a biotech company committed to revolutionizing the way the world eats. Utilizing its proprietary cell-based technology, they are looking to create a new generation of sustainable food—one that’s better for the planet, animals, and people everywhere. Backed by leading investors and a team of world-class talent, they will soon be launching sustainably produced dairy bioactive, starting with lactoferrin. TurtleTree can have a 98% reduction in carbon footprint and, as a result, will help to save the world by replacing dairy cows in the future. TurtleTree is the first biotech company in the world to create milk from all mammals. To maximize impact, the team will work with industry leaders to adopt sustainable and safe methods to create milk. TurtleTree has offices in both Singapore and San Francisco in the US.
How did TurtleTree come to life? What were the biggest challenges of the beginning? What are your milestones and goals so far?
It was serendipitous that I met my co-founder, Max Rye, just as I had this idea in my head. Max was speaking about cell-based meat at an event at Google where I was an account manager then. I floated the thought of using cell-based methods to create milk to Max, who was very enthusiastic about the idea. We connected with some scientists (who verified that it was actually very possible to create cell-based milk), and after experiencing some research breakthroughs, I eventually left my full-time job to pursue this bold new idea with Max and founded TurtleTree. With both of us being businesspeople and not scientists (Max was previously the CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company), we initially faced quite a bit of skepticism from early investors. “You guys are business people. What business do you have running a biotech company?”, and “I’ll only invest if you have a Nobel Laureate on the team” were some of the sentiments we faced early on. Yet, Max and I firmly believe that it is our non-scientific perspective that lends TurtleTree such a unique edge—despite being such a young company, we’ve accelerated rapidly because we’re always been focused on driving the company from a business perspective. Max and I also have very different backgrounds, which again lends a diversity of thought and value to what we’re bringing to the table. Thinking out of the box and even adopting unconventional solutions has certainly played a role in TurtleTree winning global competitions like The Liveability Challenge and The Entrepreneurship World Cup for our innovative disruption of the dairy industry. Other milestones we celebrated in 2021 include establishing our R&D center in Sacramento, California, and closing Tranche One of our Series A funding with US $30 million. We’re also very proud that we hired Aletta Schnitzler, who is basically a superstar in the industry, as our CSO! For 2022, we’re targeting to bring lactoferrin, a high-value dairy bioactive, to the market as our first commercial product sometime this year.
As a non-scientist, how did you inspire so many scientists to work for you, in such an international team at TurtleTree? What strengths were created in carrying out the projects?
Empowerment is one of TurtleTree’s core values. Our goal as a company has always been to put talents in the driver’s seat. That includes empowering scientists to carry out their own research and development, and to run projects as if they were their own business. And as a company, we support them with the resources they need to innovate and grow as a people leader. We believe that this approach has been key to us attracting some of the best and brightest minds in the industry.
How do you think Covid-19 and Climate change are impacting the food industry and specifically dairy consumption? Do you think people are aware that current systems of producing and distributing food are very fragile? What solution for a sustainable future?
During the height of COVID-19, one of the most striking images in the news was when farmers were dumping gallons of milk and smashing eggs all while food shortages were happening in supermarkets. The pandemic has honestly spotlighted the inefficiencies and inadequacies of our current food distribution and production systems, which have already been compromised because of the effects of climate change. Governments are certainly realizing this, and are investing in solutions to future-proof their food sources. The Singapore government, for example, has launched its “30 by 30” goal (for the country to produce 30 percent of its nutritional needs locally by 2030). The Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) research institute was also established in 2020 to facilitate research and development in alternative proteins. $144 million was also committed to investing in alternative proteins. But while VCs, scientists, and governments may be excited about such innovations, a truly sustainable food future can only begin when the everyday person embraces it as a part of their daily life. To that end, educating the average person or independent F&B owner to learn more about the likes of cell-based food, and showcasing relatable ways for them to incorporate it into their everyday diet is key to increasing uptake of this brand new way of eating and thinking about food. Food tech will only reach its goals if everyone plays a part. So, if you’re a fan of this industry, do educate as many people as you can!
By producing animal “clean milk”, your company can better plug into the manufacturing of products such as cheese, cream, butter, and yogurt that need to be recreated with fresh raw milk. What are the priorities on your agenda in this area?
TurtleTree’s current focus is creating the highly functional ingredients found in human and bovine milk such as lactoferrin. High-value dairy bioactives like lactoferrin are key to meeting the current market demand for functional nutrition, and the possibilities of incorporating bioactives into everyday food products are truly quite endless. We are continuing the development of both human and bovine milk proteins through precision fermentation, and are working very closely with US and Singapore agencies towards regulatory approval.
“For me, I want to promote sustainability, so this is the metric I measure myself by. But my end goal is to be happy. Sometimes, things are really tough and the path isn’t easy, but this whole thing I’m working towards makes me very happy.” – Fengru Lin
When do you think the prices can reach a point where people can see your first products of “green milk” on the shelves?
TurtleTree will target high-value functional milk ingredients first so that everyone can enjoy the nutritional benefits of milk in the near future.
Some of the proteins in human milk have been proven to help with immunity, gut health, and brain development. Could clean “humans breast milk” be a better and faster way to save and help babies from denutrition in poor nations?
We believe in creating accessible products that are beneficial for everyone. With our highly functional ingredients that can be added into everyday food and beverage products, we hope to be a sustainable solution to the food security issues that are happening on a global scale.
The theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022 (IWD 2022) is, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, what about women in a leadership position? In your experience, what do you think makes a great leader?
We would like to encourage and continue this trend of women leading innovation and technology development, as it opens up opportunities for those with the right skills and goals to thrive in the industry. We believe in inclusively hiring the best talents from all areas of expertise. Backed by our supportive team, the women of TurtleTree are breaking new ground in our journey towards a better generation of food. We’re extremely grateful to have female leadership that represents us with distinction and, in doing so, pave the way for more women to join the industry. With women’s leadership in the cellular agriculture industry, there will hopefully be more cell-based products and innovations that serve the needs of women, and more inclusively, the human population, animals, and planet Earth in general. For example, one of TurtleTree’s early initiatives is to produce cell-based milk ingredients and milk to meet infant and adult nutrition needs sustainably, filling the current gap in the nutrition product market. As founders of the company, what Max and myself focus on every day is to develop a team that we trust will make the best decision for the business in their respective roles. At TurtleTree, I have the courage to be vulnerable as a leader at times knowing I will be embraced by a team who care for me as a person, and who will guide me generously in their area of expertise.
What are your hopes and wishes for women? Is there a piece of advice you would give to the next generation of women leaders?
Women are still underrepresented in STEM, so having women leaders spearhead food tech businesses will certainly help shape an open, diverse food tech business culture that will in turn also encourage more women to join the industry. At the same time, when more talents are encouraged to enter the field with their own unique expertise, be it in science, business, or creative work, it will definitely help develop the industry. I would also add that it’s important that we educate the next generation to think about talent inclusively. Informing them about the choices they actually have will allow them to make the best decision for themselves to pursue what they are truly passionate about.
Photo courtesy of Fengru Lin and Turtle Tree
Special Thanks to Rita Huang