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TurtleTree Labs co-founders Max Rye (L) and Fengru Lin (R). Photo credit: TurtleTree Labs

Singapore cell-based breastmilk startup TurtleTree Labs raises $3.2m seed funding

June 24, 2020

TurtleTree Labs has raised $3.2 million in seed funding from investors including Hong Kong alt-protein and sustainability specialists Green Monday Ventures, House of Saud-linked KBW Ventures, and Australia’s Artesian. US-based New Luna Ventures and UK-based CPT Capital, the VC arm of Coller Capital founder Jeremy Coller’s family office, also participated.

The Singaporean startup is culturing animal-free, ‘lab-grown’ milk from mammalian cells. Its focus at the moment is on human milk, though TurtleTree claims it can theoretically replicate the milk of any mammal. Even snow leopards.

Co-founder and chief strategist Max Rye tells AFN that the startup, which is initially pursuing a B2B model, is currently working with “four or five” of the world’s largest infant nutrition companies.

TurtleTree has zeroed in on baby and ‘growing-up’ milk because of the higher price point at which these products sell compared to animal milks consumed by adult humans.

“The earlier markets are going to be around infant nutrition. But as we bring prices down, the next verticals will be in the dairy industry in general,” Rye says.

At the time of TurtleTree’s pre-seed round at the end of last year, the startup’s cultured milk was priced at around $180 per liter. As of today, it has pushed that down to $30 per liter, getting ever closer to a commercially viable price range.

That rapid reduction in price is testament to the scientific and business talent that TurtleTree has brought on board since that pre-seed raise, which was led by New York-based Lever VC with participation from KBW Ventures and Silicon Valley’s K2 Global (financial details of that earlier round remain undisclosed.)

“In December we had five scientists. Now we have more than 20 working full time,” says Fengru Lin, co-founder and CEO.

Increased manpower and improving unit economics mean that segments beyond infant milk are now within reaching distance. In addition to collaborating with infant nutrition companies, TurtleTree has recently begun working with one of “the world’s largest cheesemakers” and the exclusive worldwide supplier of mozzarella to Papa John’s Pizza, Lin tells AFN.

The seed funding will go towards further co-development of products with these and other industry partners.

Carrying on during Covid

Amid the Covid-19 crisis, Singapore went into lockdown with many businesses forced to close their premises and employees told to work from home. While that may have sounded the death knell for many early-stage startups, TurtleTree was able to keep its laboratory open and continue working, albeit with restrictions.

“During that period Enterprise Singapore worked closely with us […] to keep our labs open during the entire period and keep working at full speed,” Rye says. “That was very valuable time for us. The reason is that food security had been amplified as an issue [by Covid-19 and] we were able to get ahead in many different ways – not just with our lab open, but also financial support and other support from government.”

TurtleTree’s tech could potentially play a role in helping Singapore realize its longer term goals of food self-sufficiency in certain areas. The government’s ’30 by 30′ initiative aims to have 30% of the city-state’s nutritional needs produced domestically by 2030, with a focus on fruits, vegetables, and proteins.

“Just imagine having our bioreactors in any part of Singapore, and being able to go to them and get raw milk without going thousands of miles to Australia or New Zealand – that’s why the Singapore government sees us as a very valuable company,” Rye claims.

GROW, the Asia-Pacific agrifoodtech accelerator backed by AgFunder, recently launched a bespoke program to help further Singapore’s ’30 by 30′ goal and address the food supply chain frailties laid bare by Covid-19. Find out more here.

It’s certainly a view shared by TurtleTree’s investors. In a statement, Green Monday founder David Yeung said his group sees “immense possibilities […] as well as enormous impact we can drive together.”

“Foodtech innovation in Asia is way overdue. If the rapidly deteriorating climate change situation isn’t enough to convince the world, the pandemic surely hammers home the urgency that we need to overhaul the food system for the sake of public health, food safety, and food security,” he added.

The same expectations are what encouraged KBW Ventures to re-up after its earlier pre-seed investment, according to its founder and CEO Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal al Saud.

“Now more than ever, people are waking up to the benefits of food technology and the massive positive implications of innovations in cellular agriculture,” he said in a statement.

Got a news tip? Email me at [email protected]

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