The Mother of All Food And Beverage Disruptors

Jan. 21, 2021
In this episode of the Food For Thought Podcast, we talk with Michelle Egger, CEO and Co-Founder of Biomilq, about what this industry disruptor is doing to change the way we think about infant nutrition.

What do you get when you pair up a food scientist with a passion for infant nutrition and a cellular biologist with passion novel applications of cell culture technology? You get Biomilq, one of the latest disruptors in the food and beverage space. Launched in 2020, Biomilq is aiming to change the way we think about infant nutrition. The small company out of North Carolina is on a mission to produce cultured breastmilk that offers supplemental nutrition to mother’s milk with the convenience of formula. 

For the next half hour, listen as CEO and Co-Founder Michelle Egger and I talk about how the BIOMILQ team is changing the way we think about infant nutrition. We talk about the science, the safety, and the strategies behind this revolutionary approach to cultured food. We also tackle the topics of funding, naysayers, and how to know you're on the right track with your product. 


Erin: I am excited to have Michelle Egger of Biomilq with me on the podcast today. Michelle, welcome to the podcast. It's a pleasure to have you. Thanks for joining me.

Michelle: Thank you so much for having me today, Erin.

Erin: I am excited for not only what you're doing, but also to allow the rest of our audience to learn more about what you're doing, if they don't know already. So let's jump in. Could you explain what your team's doing at Biomilq?

Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. So, for us, at Biomilq, we really are addressing the fundamental problems that we see affecting a huge proportion of humanity which is making incredible tradeoffs in trying to feed your children. We see today that for 84% of moms here in U.S. they have to move partially or exclusively to infant formula before the six months recommended exclusive breastfeeding period is up.

And, while for a lot of mothers that's a choice they've made on their own, we wholly support than that for. A lot of mom has been incredibly fraught decision with a lot of shame and stigma, because we do know that there are scientific implications on development, cognitive health, muscular growth, and the potential that children are able to reach when they're fit breast milk versus infant formula, bovine-based infant formula. So, for us, my partner Leila who is a Ph. D. for biologist and myself, a dairy scientist, really thought that there was such potential to start to use, you know, future of lactation science technology to really create a product of breast milk outside of the body, and help support both parents who are making incredible tradeoffs about how to adequately feed their children in a way that they can get a higher nutritional products and bovine-based infant formula today and don't have to make as many really tough choices about how to feed their kids whether at breast or at a bottle.

Erin:  Your background is food science and infant nutrition and your co-founder Leila has a Ph.D. in cell biology. How did you both meet, and what prompted you both to want this?

Michelle: Leila has been working on this far longer than I have. She started working on optimizing lactation science and milk process creation outside of the body starting in 2013. She had just finished her post doctorate at Stanford, had just moved North Carolina with her husband and new son, and had a heck of a time trying to breastfeed, and really felt like how is it that I can have had so much training and be so accomplished and capable in so many other parts of my life and still unable to just get enough adequate nutrition for my child. And it would kind of at the beginning, emerging point of cellular agriculture is the field we must associate with, which is really the idea of using cells to produce useful products for humanity for consumption, whether that be wheat or in our case milk. And she became just deeply fascinated and in love with this problem to solve where she was actively working on it with her own son and soon her daughter thereafter. And also with just the idea that human mammary epithelial cells is the cell type that we're utilizing are incredibly robust. They have 178 million years of evolution and it really made them optimized for producing the perfect nutritional balance to provide in life and thrive for infants.

When I met Leila in 2019, she was deep already into this work. She has worked on it in bovine cells first and had just transitioned them into human finally being able to afford human cells which are not inexpensive as you can imagine. And it was really kind of a match made in heaven, you know. A mutual friend have seen that my work through them on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and through my passion for combating food insecurity and malnutrition through global health, global development really had brought me to a place where I thought infant nutrition is the next for a market place to unlock human potential. And it felt to me like infant formula companies for far too long had really had been allowed to just profit off the backs of moms and babies.

As someone with no kids—I'm not a mother myself—being introduced to Leila and already already being obsessed with infant nutrition on my end and, of course her having already spent many years along this journey, it was kind of like finding your better half in some ways. She really had the technical ability and this beautiful ready to commercialize technology and needed someone else who believed in her and believed in the product, and could bring other skills around infant nutrition, food science, and business development, sustainable development. We just kind of hit the ground running.

We're about a year old as of week ago—when we officially would call ourselves, you know, truly Biomilq, not just few weird ladies working on this bizarre project. And it's been a wild ride. I mean, we're a year old which is a huge milestone in the life of a child, and a huge milestone in the life of startup. And that we really went from a few people trying to garner enough energy and excitement around this idea that it had potential to be fully vetted tested to now we're a full-time team of 10. All we do is work on the fundamental science and optimizing the product to be ready to launch, and get through regulatory testing. And where she and I used to have discussions in a vacuum about wouldn't it be amazing if we can get this product to mothers, you know, just this morning where I hop to before I joined you, Erin, was a team education session which we were doing some empathy training with the broader team about what the challenges mother's face are, talking through some of the interesting comments and threads that have come off of articles that have been written about us and reaching out to individuals to hear more about their stories, and that work is not something I think Leila and I could even have dreamed of happening a year ago last week.

Erin: Well, let me be one of the many, I hope, that says happy birthday to the Biomilq team. Tell me, who is the target market for Biomilq, and more specifically, who is using or could use Biomilq culture breast milk? And probably most importantly for the audience to understand, why would, kind of the target market, why would people be using this?

Michelle: Yeah. You know, we put mom's especially at the center of everything we do and what we talk about, because there is such beauty in breastfeeding for so many women and for a lot of moms, and fathers caregivers, I suppose more broadly, breastfeeding, infant nutrition, trying to figure out how feed your child is one of the really big important decisions you have to make shortly after you've received this tiny little baby in your arms that you're supposed to figure out how to care for and raise. And it comes with incredible weight, and parents really feel that, a lot of parents really feel that. So as we look kind of our core target market, you know, it feels little ridiculous to say, "Oh, it's mothers between this age and this age, with this income. Because it's really not. It really fundamentally goes to women and families that need this product that they today are being faced with really unacceptable choices. You know, they either have to breastfeed which for some women is very easy and for others is incredibly painful and very uncomfortable, or, even in some cases, this is just not biologically possible, or utilize infant formula which is made from powdered cow's milk and powdered vitamins and minerals, which, well, it can support life, definitely doesn't enable children to thrive in many different ways. And parents know that and they really internalize that shame and guilt that comes with making a choice that a lot of people think it's wrong or think it's bad. So when we talk about target market, you know, we really look at this as much as nutritional product as an empowerment project in many ways. Those mothers who are in dual career households or single moms where they're making, you know, trying to make you with what they have both in their careers and with their families, it's kind of unrealistic to expect exclusive breastfeeding for a lot of parents, and they end up turning to the next best tool they have which is formula.

So we really see ourselves layering in where parents are making those choices, you know, breastfeeding already for them. They've tried and hopefully have been supported in that effort, but still it's coming up short for where they need to be. And now they're looking for other alternates which is really where we get to stand up and say, "Hey, rather than buying some powdered milk at an extreme markup, well, just support the life of your child, we can give you something better," and we can enable you to really feel good about the choices that you're making and so supported in being able to feed your child something as close to what would come out of your body as possible. You know, we get a lot of press or a lot of discussion about custom breast milk that actually something we can do which is really exciting for a lot of people to think. That they could have a small cell sample taken male or female, and have breast milk produced exactly as their body would make it. But as much of that are is of excitement and is the first foray into market for us, where we get excited this idea of being available on shelf directly beside other infant nutrition product, and being able to be cost competitive in a way that when you're trying to make these really challenging decisions, you're not weighing how much does it cost? Can I afford it? Do I have to have it made in advance? And that kind of just make a choice what's best for you and best for your family, and have it be really a no brainer.

Erin: I'm sure you've received questions as to the safety of this kind of breast milk. Can you speak to the safety of the cultured aspect for babies?

Michelle: W're leveraging technology where we're really just giving a construct for these cells to grow outside of the body and produce milk just as they would inside the body. So the cell type that we're utilizing comes directly from the mammary glands, from the mammary surface, and it really outside of the body essentially from another tissue layer where it's able to produce that 2500-plus component macro, micronutrients of breast milk in perfect constellation, which is exactly what we do in the body. And so really being good shepherds of cells and pulling technology mainly from pharma-biologics production, means, there were actually growing the cells and producing milk in a manner that enables them to be sterile. So there's no worry of contamination, you know, microbial concerns. The product is sterile and very clean. And then on top of that, you're also really letting the cells do the heavy lifting. We're not doing an incredible amount of manipulation.

We're really more good shepherds than we are good farmers, I would say, and that we're really giving them an environment where they feel safe warm and comfortable to be able to produce milk, and then provide the cells with the nutrients as they would receive in the body, out of the body to be able to start lactation and produce the product. And I mean for us that, you know, we really are making breast milk. We use cultured breast milk as a moniker because we don't want any confusion that we're not exactly mother's milk, you know, are not coming from a human woman's body. However, the milk on a component level basis, it's comparable nutritionally to breast milk, and actually where from a safety concern affect, there's really not much. And, you know, we always get the question like "How it's grown in a lab or, you know, it made in a way that feels a natural." But honestly the cells are doing exactly what they're programed to do naturally. And really for us, the kind of technological ability of being able to leapfrog and that outside of the body is really what's different, but it has very little outcome or impact on the milk. The cells are what produce the milk in the body and out.

I'm reminded of our team members when they're talking to other folks that what we're doing sounds like pigs flying to a lot of people, but in the scientific field within which we work, it's really just pulling together a number of disparate fields and capabilities from across a bisect of pharma, food, and nutrition. And so it sounds crazy, but ideas that are world changing usually deal with how they're here. So it's fun to be on the other side of it. I think, we're all not as mind blown every day, but remind ourselves sometimes just how crazy it sounds and feels when realistically it is kind of the next evolutionary moment of science as we know it in a lot of ways.

Erin: Where are you in terms of the go to market strategy? Is this something that consumers can purchase now? Can they contact your team now about it? Where do things stand at the moment?

Michelle: We are still in R&D phases. We do not have any product that's available. We'll be entering regulatory testing in the next year. But until we get approval from the regulatory bodies that be, this isn't a product that's gonna be available to consumers, which is honestly really frustrating. We're quite close and feel quite comfortable with the product that we've made, but we have a lot of regulatory hurdles to prove safety and efficacy in place, as it should be. I mean, we're feeding the most precious beings on the planet. But definitely for us when we looked at, you know, go to market as a phase, we're probably about three years away from our product being available online or available on the shelf for a consumer to purchase.

That being said, we are incredibly active with communities of mothers, of stakeholder, of parents, of clinicians right now, in addition to the deep R&D work that we're doing. We're also doing a lot of consumer listening, I would say, really trying to co-create this product, hand-in-hand with other people who have strong belief and opinions about how it should be used to create it. And so we do have a Contact Us box on the website. We diligently follow up on that. If you have questions for us, you're welcome to pop in there. If you wanna set up a time to talk with our team member or talk about your feeding journey, or your thoughts, or your concerns, we would be happy to do so. And we encourage folks here really collaborate and engage actively. Because, well, this is not a quick fix. This is not something that shows up online, overnight. It's something that we believe really will have the potential to revolutionize how we seek humanity and everyone should really have a voice being able to make sure that they feel that's done responsibly, ethically, and appropriately for the future.

Erin: You mentioned stakeholders and I noticed on your website one of Biomilq's advisors Shazi Visram, she is one of Food Processing's Kick-Ass Women in Food. She's involved with what you're doing at Biomilq. What is her role?

Michelle: Shazi is a number one cheerleader for us. Shazi, you know, has had such passion for infant nutrition and for getting better options to parents from her time, you know, Happy Family brand development, from her time where she was at Danone. And then now what she's doing and helping that which I would encourage anybody who is listening, who has kiddos in the household should actually take a look at her website. They have some of the coolest products for families. And she continues to just amaze me in what she can multi task and manage as a mom, as a woman, as an entrepreneur.

She has been really an invaluable resource in thinking through how we co-create with moms, how we address the challenges and questions that families are going to have. And then also to be advocate for ourselves in the space you being choose female entrepreneur find her. You walk into many rounds and feel like maybe you don't deserve to be there or people are judging you or maybe you're not the right people or don't have the right experience. You know, Leila and I believe pretty early on that we really were the right thing to do this, but at many moments, needed someone to be like yeah you are. And this is where you go there. You go ask them for this. Or, like, don't let them tell you how it should be then you're the one you should be telling them how it should be done. And Shazi is absolutely that, you know, a Kick-Ass Woman in Food. And that she really is that cheerleader, is that voice we'll take them middle of the night, texting like, I don't know, what to do about this, and respond right away.

And, you know, we're really grateful and feel really lucky honestly that someone who has such experience and has made the mistake and will blatantly say I made the mistake, don't do it again. It's incredibly and valuable in its space that's really emotional, really politicized, and requires really deaf touch, and really communicating what you're trying to with parents and with everyone else who has opinion about breastfeeding. Which, ironically, I like that would point out, you know, we talk about mom getting such mommy shamed right or being guilted in a variety of choices that they make, not just feeding their kids, but all kinds of things that they choose for their children where she is here in the U.S. And starting a company as a woman is so different. Everything that you do, it's scrutinize, everything that you say, people doubt or ask you questions about that they absolutely ask your male colleagues. And so just having a female Kick-Ass founder of both the pact in today to really reinforce like know what you're doing, it's right, and you should believe in you. Not every entrepreneur needs it, but we definitely have, and we value her so much for that.

Erin: In June, Biomilq and announced that it raised $3.5 million in funding, can you talk to me about the financial backing and, you know, almost to your point, the walking into the room as two female entrepreneurs, how has Biomilq then received by your investors?

Michelle: Yeah. I think fundraising for us we were really lucky. And that idea of who we we're serving and how we we're serving was very clear. And we are the right people to do that. We are not men in dark suits trying to tell a whole room of people that we know how feel. And that, you know, we know how to support parents without sounding shallow. We really genuinely do, and really are excited to be able to support parents in their journeys and that comes through very clearly. Which when you're looking at investing in co-founder pairs especially, you know, it's about the experience that they have both technical and non.

And then whether they're believable and that what they're doing really is their mission, it's not just something on paper. And for us that comes through very clearly. And so I think we early on as two women were probably a little bit too cautious in some ways about not just being very explicit about what we wanted and who we were. I think early on we were very like "Oh, you know, the product has one of these potential impact that it could also be profitable, and it could be this." And then when we would get into more deep conversation with the right type of investor, it was clear that we didn't we didn't care about making money, which is not what investors want to hear. And the right type of investor knew that that was okay, because this is a profitable business idea on its own. It will have such potential to change a really challenging problem for a large proportion of our humankind. And, therefore, it will be a good business, but you don't have to make it about making money to have it be a good business. I think we early on kind of tiptoed around the fact that like we weren't doing that, because it was sexy and cool, and we want to move the Silicon Valley and make a bunch of money. We were doing this because moms deserve better, and we believe that we can get them better.

And I think the folks that that resonated with and that they believe enough that those are who became our investors. And we were really lucky in that we had a far oversubscribed round, and we really got to pick who we wanted to work side-by-side with us as the answer some of these really gnarly hard question. And I have no regrets about who we in those rounds. We actually have a board meeting this week so it's exciting to be able to show all the progress that we've made. And then they're gonna exciting announcement coming in the next couple of months that will be thrilled to share more broadly with the world. But back initial fundraising round, I think taught us a lot about what Biomilq meant to us, and it's we were in that work. And now we don't waste any time trying to tell anybody anything other than that we are pioneering a new generation of lactation science to better the lives of women and babies, and that's what we do.

Erin: How does it feel to be an industry disruptor?

Michelle: Gloriously terrifying. Can I use that simultaneously? Yeah. I mean, some days so I'm gonna give you example, actually the conversation, you know, we just had the three quick, like we've really been trying to decide how to navigate this world of fed is best versus breast is best. Which are these two really entrenched camps of people who believe, you know, infant formula, breast milk, soy powder, whatever you want once you've had your baby, you're doing the best you can as a mom, which is a totally wonderful sentiment.

We very strongly support and believe that parents should be allowed to make their choices probably one of you who bearing kid. But there's all of these other like preconceived notions around informed as best or people should really have like more understanding and more knowledge and then for nutrition before they make a choice, which was very condescending in my opinion. And then, you have the other side, which is practiced best, which has been reinforced by large medical agencies, by international NGOs including the WHO and other groups. That, well, the intention had been great around breast milk is the highest nutritional quantity for your child. It has created a lot of the shame and stigma that we do see in comparison and amongst moms in that. If breastfeed best and you can do breastfeed then what are you as a parent? And nobody wants to be told like, "Yeah, you're doing your best to raise your child, but it's not good enough. Try harder." And so like both camps for us feel really judgmental and have a lot of kind of picked in stigma that comes from both sides. And so we were talking about this week like we're kind of turning both of them on their head, and saying, like "Who are we to decide what is best?" Like, we are just another company trying to provide another option, and empower parents to make the right decisions for themselves, whatever that decision is, we'll support them in that whether it's us or something else or some other way of feeding their child.

And I think that level of being able to take a step back and be like "We're already disrupting the industry. We don't look like any of the products that exist in "infant nutrition." And we don't even consider ourselves as infant nutrition company. We are a lactation science company, but stop trying to fit ourselves in the box of this integrated system that was designed by white men in the 50s to enable women to go out and work in the workplace. Like, let's re-imagine and rethink about how do we wanna support our customers, and drop the tropes of the path that don't necessarily apply to the challenging and ever changing world that we live in. And I think moments like that, you do not get to have if you're not an industry disruptor. You don't get to say like "No, I don't like any of the sloganeering that happening. I'm gonna work on what it's meaningful to me without really being able to disrupt fundamentally the way we think about how we see babies and seek humanity."

Erin: I feel like what you're saying to with the stigmatizing, it definitely has hit differently in this past year. And I could go on for hours more on the supper conversation on how hint of an impact women in the past year with working and decisions they've had to make.

One of the things that my prediction for 2021 is we're gonna see a lot of great innovation. There's going to be an outpouring of product development innovation in the next year or year and half. Any advice you'd give our listeners who have an innovative idea, but aren't sure where to start?

Michelle: Yeah. I think, Leila and I fell into that camp 18 months ago probably in some ways, it feels really daunting. And the best thing I can say that people say, "Wow, that's crazy or you're crazy." Or, like, when our mutual friend introduced to let me she was like "I know this crazy woman trying to make milk out of the body. If anyone ever uses the phrase 'crazy' to describe you or your partner, you're doing something amazing.

It is entirely okay to feel a little scared to not know what you're doing to have moments of whether warranted or not imposter syndrome. And that is all a part of the process of really proving that something is amazing and has amazing potential, even if it started crazy. And so I don't have like a here's step one for how you get your innovative idea off the ground. You know, every situation is different. Everyone faces different challenges and different roadblocks and hurdles. But if you feel compelled in your bones that what you're doing is important for people or for the world, take where you're crazy with pride. Take it all in stride and know that the fact that it sounds crazy to other people probably means that it actually really meaningful and really important. And I think there were many moments Leila and I reflecting in the last year where one or the other of us felt totally discouraged, and didn't know what to do, and wasn't sure if we were doing it right or if we were on a good path or if it was going to be successful. We've also taken huge best on our personal lives to be able to do this, and both, I think, had our moments of like we've made a terrible, terrible mistake. And like what are we doing here, and finding someone else who instead of hearing crazy here is amazing is incredibly important.

And you have to have that other person whether that's a business partner, whether that your partner and might whether it's just a friend who gives you strong encouragement whether it's the investor like you have to other people around you. That when everyone else is saying crazy oh my gosh so weird, broke up. Who, I don't know, they're the person going like you've got this, and what you're doing is amazing, and it's going to be important. So just finding that person is really vital. And I think, when I look back on our time together, Leila and I obviously from a skill set and, you know, life and everything else point of view, like, we were really well-paired. But in normal day-to-day life, I would never have met Leila. I would never have worked with Leila. Our paths would probably never have crossed. And yet she's one of my closest friends and most trusted people in my life. Because we both are so invested in what we're doing and believe that it's so important for the world. But everything else kind of melts away.

Erin: For listeners who want to learn more about what you're doing or get in contact with you, how can they get reach you.

Michelle: Yeah. So first to go our website at biomilq.com or you can send us a note [email protected] that's goes directly to our team. And we can figure out how to respond to you. Or, we are active on social media. I am active on LinkedIn. You're always welcome to reach out, you know, I get a pretty steady amount of reach out, and some are kind of like, "Okay, yeah, sure, it's interesting or it's novel." And there's about one a week right at someone who is like "You are solving the problem of my life, and I don't know what I can help you with, but what can I help you?" And we get it. We're resolving something that's so important to so many people. That some of our favorite teammates have joined us in that manner. Some of our favorite interviews we had with parents or with stakeholders or with doctors have come from someone who just really believes in what we're doing. Or, had a lot of deep and probing questions about what we're doing. And we learned a lot from communicating with one another. So our online virtual doors are always open. Feel free to reach out and connect with us, and until then, we appreciate all the support that we've received. And even all the criticism I think it makes us better and stronger and able to make a product that will be eventually better for babies and for parents.

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