Lin Fengru, CEO and co-founder of TurtleTree, is not one to be fazed by challenges when pursuing the things she loves, even if it means making a foray into territory that’s not just entirely new to her, but also largely uncharted. Her grit and determination has today made her the driving force behind one of the biggest disruptions in the billion-dollar dairy industry.
A Singapore Management University graduate in Information System Management and Marketing, Fengru cut her teeth in corporate sales roles at Google and Salesforce. However, in 2019, disenchanted with the lack of good milk options to make quality cheese in her kitchen, the cheese connoisseur made a life-changing move into the industry of biotechnology. She co-founded TurtleTree to make high-quality milk in the lab using stem cell technology. That vision was propelled by a desire to also leave a lasting impact on the planet. Today, her biotech start-up makes milk without using mammals, through a process that uses less land, water and energy, and carries reduced risk of diseases, paving the way for a sustainable future.
Three years ago, when Lin Fengru was engaged in her favourite hobby – trying to make cheese in her kitchen – she hit a roadblock: She realised that the types of milk available in the market just weren’t suitable for making a quality product. “The milk sold here is heavily homogenised and pasteurised, but to make good cheese, it needs to be lightly pasteurised or unpasteurised. Otherwise, the calcium and protein bonds will be incapable of forming the tofu-like structure,” explains the cheese lover.
Determined to pursue her craft, the 33-year-old travelled to farms in Indonesia and Thailand to try her luck at getting the right kind of milk straight from the source, but the trips left her even more disappointed.
“The conditions of the farms weren’t ideal. There was no place for the animals to exercise and no place for them to graze – they ate hay. They didn’t have good nutrition and weren’t healthy. It was shocking to see,” she says.
Using plant-based milk was out of the question. As it does not share the full composition of mammalian milk, it cannot be used to make cheese, butter, cream or yogurt.
This made her think about finding a way to create milk using stem cells: She liked that cellular agriculture creates up to 96 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, uses up to 96 per cent less water and requires up to 99 per cent less land compared to its traditional counterparts. This made her think about finding a way to create cow’s milk without cows, and in 2019, she co-founded biotech company TurtleTree with Max Rye – who is now its chief strategist.
The company found a way to make milk through stem cell technology, so it is able to create milk from cows, humans (breast milk) and other animals, without the need for cows, humans and other animals.
Although not the first of its kind, it is the first to be able to produce the milk in its full composition – like the real thing. It went on to raise US$3.2 million (about S$4.3 million) in seed funding in June last year, and also received $1 million from the Temasek Foundation.
Pioneer of change
Recreating milk from mammals isn’t exactly a novel idea, and Fengru is the first to concede that – but there’s no denying that she had both the drive and know-how to make it happen.
“We talked to a lot of scientists while doing our research. Many of them said that they had thought of doing it before, but just never got round to it. This made us realise that it’s possible, and gave us a boost in confidence,” says Fengru. The aim was to also create something of lasting impact – TurtleTree is named so because turtles and trees are symbols of longevity.
Fengru is also intrinsically aware that there were other companies trying to do what they set out to do, but her knowledge in cheesemaking gave them an edge. “I knew that what they were using wasn’t enough to reproduce the full composition of milk. We had to come up with a different solution,” she explains.
The company’s technology is patented, but in a nutshell, the process involves sourcing cells directly from freshly expressed milk, growing them in large quantities, and exposing them to a nutrient soup of vitamins, minerals and many different components. Its secret also lies in its machinery.
“Instead of recreating each and every component of milk, we built machines that can produce the milk,” she lets on.
Human milk for everyone
While TurtleTree is able to produce animal milk, it is currently focusing its efforts on producing human breast milk. The reason is simple: The price point of animal milk is simply too competitive to sustain.
“Initially, we were very gung-ho and mission-driven – we wanted to use our technology to make cow’s milk and help reduce animal suffering. But then potential investors told us, ‘Cow’s milk at the supermarket is $2 a gallon. When do you think your version can reach that kind of price point?’,” she says. “That’s when we decided to narrow down our focus and zoom in on the functional benefits of human milk.”
As much as lab-grown human breast milk will alleviate the struggles of mothers unable to breastfeed, the company’s current main purpose is to also encourage adults to consume it due to its health benefits. The proteins from human breast milk help build immunity and promote gut health, while its complex sugars enhance cognitive function, explains Fengru.
Given that the manufacturing does not require livestock or farmland, it requires far less land and water – which translates to lesser impact on the environment. It also opens up doors of opportunity for production in Singapore in the near future.
“In Singapore, we can’t have a bunch of cows, but we can have a bunch of bioreactors to produce milk. To me, it’s not a matter of ‘what if’, but ‘what if we don’t’.”
The business of biotechnology
At present, TurtleTree has offices in both Singapore and San Francisco in the US. Its maiden product, the TurtleTree One blend, is set to launch in the supermarkets of both countries by next year.
Given that the technology is disrupting the billion-dollar milk industry, the company has garnered sizeable funding as well. Apart from the prize money it got from Temasek Foundation for winning The Liveability Challenge, it was awarded a US$500,000 (about S$682,000) grand prize at the Entrepreneurship World Cup.
“These two prestigious competitions had all sorts of good ideas, so winning them made me realise that our mission is supported by many people worldwide,” says Fengru. The company has also received support from several agencies including the Singapore Food Agency, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and Enterprise Singapore. HRH Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, founder and CEO of KBW Ventures, has joined as an adviser as well.
However, her road to success has been anything but a walk in the park. For one, there were a lot of naysayers. “We were definitely made to feel a lot of doubt in the beginning, so we had to overcome those challenges and adapt,” she says.
“Max and I come from a business background, so when we first started, a lot of people would say, ‘What business do you have running a biotech company?’ Somebody also told us that he’d only invest if we have a Nobel Laureate on the team, which wasn’t very nice. I mean, how many Nobel Laureates are there?’,” she exclaims. That said, Fengru is not a complete stranger to the world of biotechnology either – she completed a Science and Business of Biotechnology programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Led by passion
The one thing that kept Fengru going when the going got tough? Sheer persistence and knowing when to take a gamble. “Max and I also never ever say ‘no’ to speaking to any potential investors big or small,” she says.
“And it’s important to know when to take risks. Sometimes, enough is enough, but other times, you’ve got to take the plunge, even if there’s just a 51 per cent chance of success.”
She also realised that her background in business was more of an advantage. “Scientists can be overly invested in their technology. If, say, a cell biologist is the CEO, it’s quite likely that he would be trying to solve problems around the technology, rather than solving problems around customer needs,” she says.
Her tenacity and leadership qualities, as well as her passion to create a positive impact, were the first things Max noticed about Fengru. They met at a Google conference three-and-a-half years ago, when Max was giving a speech about companies using stem cells to make meat and seafood. “She is a very fast learner,” says Max. “I’ve known Fengru for about three-and-a-half years. As a former CEO myself, I have seen her develop as a CEO – she is always looking to develop the talent around her and does this by example. She works with mentors and industry leaders to improve her own skills,” he adds.
This quality in her isn’t just palpable to those in her professional circles. Her younger sister, Jean, echoes those sentiments: “Fengru is very resilient. In the face of adversity, she has always said, and believed, that she will find a way. It helps that she is resourceful and creative when it comes to solving problems.”
Crafting the future
Fengru currently spends her time shuttling between Singapore and the US, on top of making trips to the United Arab Emirates, but makes it a point to stay in touch with family. After all, it was her mum who ignited the fiery ambition in her.
“My mum always told me, ‘It’s not whether you can, but whether you want to,’ and that I can do anything, as long as I put my heart to it. She doesn’t quite understand what I do now, but she tries to piece things together and chats about day-to-day things with me,” she smiles.
Having spent the first few years of her life in Hong Kong, Fengru is a fan of outdoor activities, and especially loves hiking, cycling and snowboarding. She spends time with Jean by going cycling together every Sunday whenever she’s back in Singapore.
But when she’s not taking a breather, all her time is poured into her game-changing start-up. As it is, there are several expansion plans in the pipeline.
“We’re looking to do joint ventures with certain dairy and manufacturing partners. This will allow us to build a broad portfolio of different product lines and business units, and to continue innovating at a level where we can bring in different technologies,” she says.
“For example, in 2013, the first cell-based patty burger cost $300,000. This was mainly because of the growth factors [proteins that stimulate cell growth], and from Day One, we knew we wanted to tackle this problem. Now that we have built a pretty strong portfolio of growth factors, we can let cell-based meat companies use our growth factors to grow their cells at a much lower cost.”
Always making connections
Looking to start your own business? Fengru puts networking on the top of the to-do list.
“Talk to as many people as possible. When I first started out, I spent a few hours every Saturday talking to people both inside and outside of the industry – it’s important to build a network.”
Fengru stresses the importance of making connections – as someone in the know would be able to offer a different perspective, as well as distil the right information and highlight the salient points. “We are very fortunate to study and work in the age of digital connection. That being said, it is extremely important to build connections with people across all disciplines on all social platforms. For TurtleTree, we connected with the right people worldwide with tools like LinkedIn, and our outreach effort allowed us to test out our hypothesis, which eventually opened door after door for us,” she says, adding that she is fortunate to be surrounded by a team comprised of people with various experience levels whom she constantly learns from.
She also reckons that you should know exactly what you are working for. “It’s so important to have a goal, big or small,” she insists. “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.”