Young Woman Achiever Lin Fengru: Perfect Process
Her World Singapore|October 2021
Driven by her love for cheese, the CEO and co-founder of Biotech company Turtletree Labs aims to leave a lasting legacy.
Adora Wong

CEO AND CO-FOUNDER, TURTLETREE LABS

Lin Fengru is not one to be fazed by challenges when pursuing the things she loves, even if it means making a foray into territory that’s not just entirely new to her, but also largely uncharted. Her grit and determination has today made her the driving force behind one of the biggest disruptions in the billion-dollar dairy industry.

A Singapore Management University graduate in Information System Management and Marketing, Fengru cut her teeth incorporate sales roles at Google and Salesforce. However, in 2019, disenchanted with the lack of good milk options to make quality cheese in her kitchen, the cheese connoisseur made a life-changing move into the industry of biotechnology. She co-founded Turtle-tree Labs to make high-quality milk in the labusing stem cell technology. That vision was propelled by a desire to also leave a lasting impact on the planet. Today, her biotech start-up makes milk without using mammals, through a process that uses less land, water and energy, and carries reduced risk of diseases, paving the way for a sustainable future.

Three years ago, when Lin Fengru was engaged in her favourite hobby – trying to make cheese in her kitchen – she hit a roadblock: She realised that the types of milk available in the market just weren’t suitable for making a quality product. “The milk sold here is heavily homogenised and pasteurised, but to make good cheese, it needs to be lightly pasteurised or unpasteurised. Otherwise, the calcium and protein bonds will be incapable of forming the tofu-like structure,” explains the cheese lover.

Determined to pursue her craft, the 33-year-old travelled to farms in Indonesia and Thailand to try her luck at getting the right kind of milk straight from the source, but the trips left her even more disappointed.

“The conditions of the farms weren’t ideal. There was no place for the animals to exercise and no place for them to graze – they ate hay. They didn’t have good nutrition and weren’t healthy. It was shocking to see,” she says.

Using plant-based milk was out of the question. As it does not share the full composition of mammalian milk, it cannot be used to make cheese, butter, cream or yogurt.

This made her think about finding a way to create milk using stem cells: She liked that cellular agriculture creates up to 96 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, uses up to 96 per cent less water and requires up to 99 per cent less land compared to its traditional counterparts. This made her think about finding a way to create cow’s milk without cows, and in 2019, she co-founded biotech company Turtletree Labs with Max Rye – who is now its chief strategist.

The company found a way to make milk through stem cell technology, so it is able to create milk from cows, humans (breast milk) and other animals, without the need for cows, humans and other animals.

Although not the first of its kind, it is the first to be able to produce the milk in its full composition – like the real thing. It went on to raise US$3.2 million (about S$4.3 million) in seed funding in June last year, and also received $1 million from the Temasek Foundation.

PIONEER OF CHANGE

Recreating milk from mammals isn’t exactly a novel idea, and Fengru is the first to concede that – but there’s no denying that she had both the drive and know-how to make it happen.

“We talked to a lot of scientists while doing our research. Many of them said that they had thought of doing it before, but just never got round to it. This made us realise that it’s possible, and gave us a boost in confidence,” says Fengru. The aim was to also create something of lasting impact – Turtletree Labs is named so because turtles and trees are symbols of longevity.

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