Note: THE TORCH is an interview series from Entrepreneurs for Impact. We profile CEOs mitigating climate change. Our goal is to highlight their work and inspire others. As we deal with multiple crisis, from COVID and racial injustice to climate change and economic recession, we need some of this positive light in what seem like dark times. Onward and upward.
Why did you co-found BIOMILQ? It goes back to who I’ve always been. I’ve had two passions: (1) Feeding people. (2) Finding skills sets unique to me that allow me to help others. I came from deep food tech and learned that this could be used to change the world. I was at General Mills working on dairy fermentation (e.g., large-scale fermentation design, optimizing flavoring for strawberry yogurt). But I also got to devote myself to pro bono work for 10% of my time. This allowed me to work with dairies in Ethiopia – especially an all-female lead dairy cooperative, where the founder used the life insurance proceeds from her husband’s death on the farm to become a self-taught dairy expert and help other women create and growth businesses in these sectors. I was able to see food challenges from a non-American perspective, and that helped me understand how we could feed the world in a different way. After being moved to tears by hearing how I had helped these Ethiopian women farmers, I thought, “I should be doing this kind of work with 100% of my time, not just 10%.” In addition, my work at the Gates Foundation helped me see that entrepreneurs could move fast than NGOs, government, and big businesses to help solve the world’s food challenges. And these goals were so personal and motivating for me: It’s one thing to talk about food supply chains in an esoteric way, but it’s another to talk about malnutrition and people starving. Plus, I saw that I needed to be thinking about not just how to help a million people, but how can we help billion? So, I went back to school and got my MBA in social entrepreneurship from Duke University. Before I graduated, I met my cofounder, Leila Strickland, a PhD in cell biology with 10 years of experience in fundamental cellular processes. We were a match made in heaven. Like many of us, so much of my life has been about luck and passion. This is just one more example.
Who does your company serve? Women and parents everywhere. The potential for societal change – both in malnutrition and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) reduction from livestock. The initial target market is college-educated moms with their first child, who are balancing full time career with motherhood. But our real goal to make our mothers milk grown outside the human body as affordable as possible as soon as possible.
What problems do you solve for your customers? Sustainability products should and will not be sold on sustainability alone if we want them to reach scale. The product’s benefits have to be cheaper, easier, higher performing, etc. So, we’re doing things that are better for the planet, but it’s not the reason our product will be chosen by our customers. Today there is lots of stigma around breastfeeding vs. feeding infant formula, and it affects mothers for years. I am excited to help reduce this mental load for mothers. They can feed breastmilk, affordably, and have a career, too. With no guilt.
How does your work contribute to mitigating climate change? We don’t have the exact metrics, but we estimate that 3-17% of the global liquid dairy market goes to infant products. So, if we reduce this amount via our product, then we make big changes in land, water, and GHG impacts from livestock, which the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates to be about 9.5% of total global anthropogenic GHG emissions. I hope that we’ll see a future with a more plant-based diet, but for feeding babies, plant solutions are not sufficient. Human breastmilk is best. Dairy milk is second best. You can’t just ask (or force) an infant to choose a substitute good like soy cheese.
What makes your company different than its competitors? We have other competitors in the biotech space. But we’re different because of our mission and motivation. We also realize that many stakeholders need to be involved to make this kind of product work, from lactation consultants to OBGYN doctors to parents. We’re guided by this: “What would I feed to my own children?” This can’t just be about tech. We might move a little slower through coalition building and stakeholder analysis, but in the long term, this is how we reach scale.
How are you rethinking your business strategy to get through the COVID crisis? How do you play both offense and defense? COVID has not had much impact on us, aside from some slow downs in lab work and testing. Our planning period after our recent capital raise coincided with this global pandemic. But COVID has shown the fragility of our food supply chains and the need for new ways to feed billions of people. The problem we’re solving is not going away because of a “Biblical-scale” pandemic. Instead, it just reinforces the need for our solutions.
What are 2-3 things that your industry needs most to succeed, but is currently missing? For 100+ years, we’ve made reagents and other lab materials without the consideration for scale. But as the food tech and agtech sectors grow, we are hopefully riding a wave where this will change. We’re lucky because our cells require very little to grow because we’re not growing to harvest but just to extract milk. Another challenge is consumer acceptance (“You’re producing mothers’ milk from cultured mammary gland cells? What?”). With plant-based meat growing, this is helping our story be more palatable. But sometimes our focus sounds like “pigs flying” or magic, as my grandmother talks about what I’m up to. We have a long way to go regarding education about the health, safety, and benefits of products like ours. The last problem is that this industry could easily become elitist, selling only to the wealthy coastal professionals. We can’t let that happen if we want to have the large scale change that we’re after. We can’t just be profitable; we have to be affordable. We can’t just be good enough. Tech founders of companies like ours should round out their vision and expertise with teams that understand manufacturing, sustainability, and anthropology. It’s easy for us to be in an echo chamber around sustainable products: “We’ll figure out how to get it to the masses after we get our tech right.” But maybe that’s too late.
How are you finding growth capital this year? This year we are less-focused on finding capital and building partnerships and coalitions to push the entire infant formula sector forward. Mission-alignment for capital has been, and will continue to be, first and foremost for us.
When it comes to addressing climate change, how do you remain optimistic? Participating in competitions like the GSIC-Fowler, out of UCSD, reminds me that there are thousands of impact changemakers applying their talents to business models that will make our world a better place and protect our planet. Just being surrounded by other inspiring entrepreneurs tackling wicked problems gives me hope that we can figure this out!
What kinds of apps, databases, or software help you and your team excel? We have built this company mainly remote so we use it all! I am a terrible IT leader (like seriously, don’t even trust me with twitter), but we are integrating project management tools and moving away from lots of hand-written post its and zoom calls to be more efficient as we grow.
What kinds of personal habits, mindset, exercise, meditation, or scheduling help boost your productivity and increase your resilience to “fight the good fight”? I have to feel like what I am doing impacts individual people positively, and with a lot of the work being so early, and therefore amorphous, I have been turning to mentoring others and finding opportunities for new leaders at BIOMILQ to learn. I have always loved to teach and develop others, so finding ways to unplug on ‘business leader’ and instead turn on ‘teacher’ really soothes my soul and gives me the positive boost I need to keep going!
What are 1-2 quotations that keep you focused and motivated? First more of a mantra: Learn to let go.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt has always made me feel empowered.
What are 1-2 books that you’d encourage other climate change entrepreneurs to read? Right now, I am reading mainly about infant nutrition and my favorite is Skimmed!
What are you excited about now? Getting my team onboarded and moving forward so we can build side by side!
Who is inspiring you now? Who can other climate change entrepreneurs learn from? I really am inspired by Bill and Melinda Gates. It’s got to be hard having a world of people simultaneously expect you to solve all of the problems we endure while being suspicious of your motivations. I have intersected with the amazing work of the Gates family a few times and continue to believe that it truly takes vision and thick skin to support world change.
What question did we forget to ask, but that deserves an answer? What’s my favorite snack you ask? Fresh summer raspberries!!
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