DURHAM – In early 2020, the brand-new biotech start-up BIOMILQ made waves with a $3.5 million seed round covered by Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Its goal: produce cultured breast milk.
The potential of the company is both immediately obvious and deeply nuanced. Lab-grown breast milk has the potential to provide nutrition for the millions of infants a year who cannot be breastfed, traditionally a space dominated by formula. The BIOMILQ alternative became especially appealing last year after a formula shortage caused panic and hoarding. And some brands of formula use powdered cow’s milk, which has an environmental impact that many hope to mitigate.
Despite the marketability, it’s a tough road to navigate the science, politics, and growing pains on the way to market, as BIOMILQ CEO Leila Strickland can attest. I spoke with Strickland about the challenges the company is facing, now three years into existence. We started with the regulatory hurdles in developing a new form of nutrition for babies.
“Working towards a product that you want to feed to human infants is, of course, developing for a really, really importantly protected class of consumers,” Strickland told me. “We are, I think, sober about the expectation of timelines for working with the FDA and other regulatory authorities in order to do the science that needs to be done to demonstrate the value of these products. So it will be a while to work through that process.”
Despite the timeline, Strickland is enthusiastic about where the company is, and the opportunity to pave the way for the testing and approval of new types of food groups.
“There’s no policy in place yet for any category of consumer around some of these novel foods and products. And so we’re always watching carefully you know, what happens in alt protein and precision fermentation and food tech in general.”
Strickland co-founded BIOMILQ alongside Michelle Egger, an experienced food scientist and social entrepreneur. In March of this year, Egger left the company and Strickland stepped up from Chief Science Officer into the CEO role.
“She was a fantastic partner to launch this endeavor with, but we have diverged strategically in different ways over time,” Strickland explained. “We just wish her all the best going forward.”
With Strickland at the helm, I asked her if the vision and priorities for the company had shifted.
“From a strategic standpoint, I would say that we are doubling down on some of the really hard challenges scientifically that need to be addressed in order to bring the technology to its full potential,” Strickland confirmed. “I would say we’re prioritizing hard science and deep innovation over a fast track to market.”
That path to market is a long one and – Strickland says – also lonely.
“One of the things I’ve learned since founding BIOMILQ is just how isolating science in a startup can be,” Strickland shared. “We’re a very small organization and I don’t have access to a huge community of scientific peers with which I can share my ideas and get feedback and improvement.”
She does have a solution for this, however. She would like to see early-stage start-ups share their science more, for the benefit of all.
“I really think actually, it would be better for the whole industry if we could acknowledge that we’re in sort of a pre-competitive space and it’s more important to share information and data at this stage than it is to hoard it.”
And Strickland intends to share the wealth herself.
“One of the things that will shift with me as CEO is that you’ll see us at more conferences presenting in fields ranging from biomanufacturing and bioprocess development to human milk and milk science and cell biology.”
Positioning for the Long Haul
Among their other issues, the company will have to grapple with positioning its product in a difficult and contentious market. The infant nutrition space is dominated by the “breast vs. bottle” debate, a deeply personal and emotional negotiation for many.
BIOMILQ finds itself left out of both camps, with breastfeeding advocates discarding the solution as a “glorified infant formula” and formula fans saying the product is another way to “overstate” the benefits of breastmilk.
I asked Strickland how she felt about that battle and if she thought BIOMILQ had a place in it. Strickland was all for it.
“I think it’s really important for BIOMILQ to engage and I think this is some of the most exciting work we get to do,” she said. “It’s really interesting and exciting to be working on a product that actually kind of pushes both of those groups to maybe think a little bit harder about their positions and it feels like an opportunity to bring a slightly different perspective to a conversation that’s gotten really, really stale, frankly.”
The strength of the company’s science carried it through a $21 million series A fundraising in 2021, but Strickland confirmed that the company will be back for funding again, probably next year.
“Our mission in the long-term is to be able to create a product that stands alone as a sole source of infant nutrition and provides us many of the beneficial components of breast milk as possible.”
And while Strickland knows it’s going to be a challenge to get there, she – and her team – believe in the potential of BIOMILQ.
“It’s an inspired group of people who show up every day and I’m just floored that people are coming here every day to work on this hard, hard thing that we get to do,” said Strickland. “It’s quite something to be at the edge of what’s possible.”