For helping scale a new solution to the age-old problem of keeping babies well-fed
Infant formula was heralded as a scientific breakthrough when it was first developed in the 1860s. And scientists, pediatricians and regulators have been evolving the category ever since. But Michelle Egger isn’t interested in iterating infant formula. She wants to deliver an entirely new option to the grocery aisle: cell-cultured breast milk.
Egger’s audacious vision was born of her wide-ranging background. She cut her teeth working as a food scientist at General Mills, spent a summer researching plant-based protein options for developing countries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and eventually earned a business degree focused on social impact and entrepreneurship. It was during her stint as a grad student that she met cell biologist Leila Strickland, who had started mapping out the idea for nurturing milk-producing cells as she struggled to produce enough breast milk to feed her infant son.
For Egger, it was a turning point, albeit an unexpected one: "I knew that I wanted to help another driven woman bring life-changing technology to the world and we could figure out the rest," she wrote.
The big idea? Create a supplemental feeding option that’s as nutritionally close to breast milk as possible, but with a smaller carbon footprint than traditional formulas, which are typically made from cow’s milk.
The duo founded Biomilq in late 2019, aiming to lessen "the trade-off between babies’ nutrition, mothers’ well-being and the future of our environment," Egger said in an interview with her alma mater, Duke University.
The concept was enough to snag US$3.5 million in funding, driven largely by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates. And less than one year after moving into its lab, Biomilq had produced the world’s first cell-cultured human milk outside of the breast—what the team called its "proof of complexity." This isn’t just another futuristic food: Unlike cultured meat—say, a lab-grown steak—where cells are harvested for consumption, the mammary cells are never harvested. Instead, they’re nurtured, with biosynthetic pathways firing, for ongoing milk secretion.
That prototype earned the biotech startup another US$21 million in financing in October 2021. But even with ample funding, turning the pilot project into a scalable, manufacturing-ready product will be no small feat. The bioreactor used during R&D stages, for instance, is able to hold only about as many mammary cells as a human mammary gland. And the team will need to design a product capable of withstanding far greater temperature fluctuations than what occurs in the lab, as well as provide for various storage scenarios.
Egger estimates it will be three to five years before Biomilq is ready to hit the market, but she remains undaunted: "We are an underpromise and overdeliver organization."