Two women-led startups seek to solve infant formula crisis with synthetic breastmilk

Although years away from FDA approval, Helaina and BioMilq are banking on parents’ willingness to feed their newborns a lab-developed product


The shortage of infant formula is an issue that Laura Katz and Michelle Egger considered when they separately decided to develop synthetic alternatives to breast milk.

Katz’s startup Helaina and Egger’s BioMilq have each raised more than $20 million from backers that include, in BioMilq’s case, Bill Gates. Although their products are likely years away from FDA approval, the respective 29-year-old founders are confident that their scientific innovations will provide caregivers with healthier alternatives that will be easier for modern families to find than breast milk. real. The question they need to answer: Will enough parents make the jump to synthetics?

For Katz, the idea for Helaina came at age 23, long before parenthood came to mind. She had left her Global Nutrition class at New York University’s Masters in Food Science program and boarded the N train, playing the role of Gimlet Media. Reply to all podcast to distract from the crowded subway car. It was when the host described a new mom who drove for hours and paid dodgy internet personas for breastmilk to breastfeed her baby that Katz realized no one had successfully marketed breastmilk. synthetic. Katz decided she would be the first. She created Helaina to use precision fermentation – the process of programming yeast to ferment into breastmilk protein – to manufacture and market scientifically made breastmilk.

“The shortage shows us how critical it is to drive innovation in this space, to provide wider and better access for parents who need to feed their children something other than breastmilk,” Katz says. “We humanize infant formula and bring it closer to breast milk in terms of the properties that breast milk brings to babies who drink it.”

Currently, caregivers have the option of feeding infants either naturally pumped breast milk or formula, which is cow’s milk scientifically modified to resemble human milk.

Katz raised $25 million in funding from backers like Spark Capital and Siam Capital. She and her team of 30 operate out of a New York lab where they experiment with precision fermentation and its uses for infants and the elderly. It is currently in the early stages of clinical trials. Katz declined to offer an estimate of when Helaina will be available to fill infant nutrition aisles, but she says her debut will stabilize prices, provide caregivers with a time-cost-free alternative to milk and break the oligopoly of the four. companies – Abbott, Nestlé, Perrigo and Reckitt Benckiser – which together represent 90% of the American market.

Despite what may be an initial reluctance to breastfeed their babies with milk made in a test tube, Stefani Bardin, who teaches food technology and design at New York University and Parsons School of Design, says that there will be takers. “I think technology can be really helpful in closing gaps in the food system,” says Bardin, who was one of Katz’s instructors at NYU but has had no contact with her since. “My only concern with these types of replacements is that companies [need] look at the body holistically. Bardin cites Soylent, a meal replacement drink that had to recall its product multiple times due to unintended consequences.

From a market perspective, infant nutrition companies are experiencing low growth, which explains the lack of innovation and consolidation in the space. “Synthetic milk could provide a solution,” says Shagun Singh, director of research at RBC Capital Markets. “I’m sure there could be a future for that.”

BioMilq is another company hoping to capitalize on this vision for the future. With backing of $25 million from investors like Gates, Novo Holdings and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Egger, CEO and co-founder of BioMilq, plans to launch synthetic human milk within the next three to five years. Rather than ferment yeast, as Helaina does, BioMilq takes breast milk and breast tissue, donated by women in exchange for Target gift cards, and grows human cells capable of secreting milk.

BioMilq is technically ready for consumers, says Egger, but it won’t be available until at least 2025 because, like Helaina, it’s in trials. “Child nutrition hasn’t really interested mainstream entrepreneurs and investors because over the past decade it’s been relegated to a women’s issue,” says Egger. “Nobody on the street can launch an infant nutrition product, to some extent with good reason. This has blocked innovation because it is not easy to bring a product to market. It requires a lot of capital and scientific expertise.

When BioMilq receives marketing approval, Egger will begin by selling it directly to consumers at a premium price to offset the technology’s high cost of production. She believes her product will help women achieve equality at work without compromising child nutrition. “Breast milk is the absolute best source of nutrition,” she says. “The reality is that exclusive breastfeeding for most modern families is circumstantially out of reach.”

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