Laura Katz says the journey to start her company Helaina, which makes a breastmilk alternative using precision fermentation, has been “many, many years in the making.”
“Before I started Helaina, I saw so much advancement in alternative dairy and alternative meat. But there was a big gap in the advancement of products for parents, and women in particular,” she tells AFN.
The infant formula market is projected to be worth $103 billion by 2026. However, the vast majority of products available today lack the complete nutrition profile of human breastmilk and often come at a price point that’s inaccessible for many families.
Founded in 2019, Helaina has developed an infant formula that can better mimic the proteins found in human milk while helping build immunity in babies, as natural breastmilk does.
A new source for infant formula
A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) stresses the importance of breastfeeding as “the best” source of nutrition for babies, with “incredible properties for growth, preventing infections, bonding, and brain development […] that cannot be replicated by artificial formula.”
Breastmilk also helps to build antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral capabilities in babies’ bodies.
But the WHO report acknowledges that many mothers are unable to breastfeed, or can only do so at certain times, and their only option is to use formula – a point echoed by Katz.
“Commercial formulas right now are mostly corn syrup and components that are not in [natural] breastmilk,” she says. “The product we’re making can really solve that problem [which] parents brought to me when I first started the company: ‘How do we bring immunity to our babies if we either can’t, or choose not to, breastfeed?'”
Helaina’s answer: precision fermentation.
The New York-based startup ‘programs’ yeasts to become what Katz calls “little cell factories.”
“We feed them a multivitamin and sugar, they ferment, and [they] produce proteins that are identical to the proteins found in human milk.”
Helaina is now taking its precision fermentation platform to external partners that can help it manufacture its breastmilk alternative at commercial scale. Katz says this is one of the biggest challenges the startup has faced so far, because there isn’t a huge amount of capacity for this kind of production in the US. Precision fermentation companies like Perfect Day and The Every Company have grabbed a lot of headlines, but the industry is still a nascent one overall.
“Where we’ve seen food applications using fermentation in a similar capacity would be for high-intensity sweeteners and very specialized ingredients, where you have large food companies that are vertically integrated and have their own facilities,” Katz says.
“For startups like us, that don’t own our own facility and can’t necessarily go to the large companies, the contract manufacturing landscape is quite limited.”
Helaina has spoken to manufacturers all over the world, according to Katz; without going into specifics, she says the startup is making progress on this front.
Despite the stumbling blocks, she’s adamant that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to using precision fermentation to develop a replacement for conventional infant formula.
“While it’s still early [for precision fermentation], there is an established way of doing things at scale and an established way of understanding the safety of these components. Those are key things that you need to commercialize.”
Because of this, Helaina may be able to get to market faster than other startups developing an infant formula or breastmilk alternative via cell cultivation technology – which, due to its novelty, faces significant regulatory hurdles among other challenges that make progress slower.
Precision fermentation will also allow the company to reach price parity with existing formula milk more quickly – and perhaps even undercut it, Katz says. “Right now, conventional formulas are still quite expensive; it’s considered a premium product. Precision fermentation allows us to create ingredients to put in our product that are still cost-competitive.”
Helaina doesn’t plan to stop at breastmilk. Katz says her company’s proteins have the ability to build immunity and health benefits beyond the time period for infants.
“What I get very excited about is beverages or food products targeted to elderly care,” she says. “As we get older, we see the immune system starts to decline. There’s thousands of things in human milk, so we’re really just getting started with what we can make that will have material benefit for consumers.”
For now, Helaina is focused on scaling capacity and getting its first product, the infant formula alternative, to market. It closed a $20 million Series A round in November 2021 and is using the funds to kick off manufacturing and commercialization.