future of protein production with plates with healthy food and protein

TurtleTree’s transformative innovations in sustainable dairy production

July 2, 2023

In getting to know all +65 speakers taking part in The Future of Protein Production LIVE!, we are exposing the future trends and solutions that will take alternative proteins from pilot to plate. Here we catch up with Shou Wong, Chief Innovation Officer of TurtleTree, who discusses his accidental foray into food-tech, the hurdles faced by alternative proteins, the genesis of TurtleTree’s groundbreaking product, and his unwavering optimism for a sustainable and ethical future

In the ever-evolving landscape of food technology, visionaries are spearheading groundbreaking innovations that challenge traditional notions of food production. Shou Wong, a trailblazer in the field of alternative proteins and Chief Innovation Officer at TurtleTree, has embarked on a transformative journey to revolutionize the way we nourish ourselves.

Wong will be giving a presentation at The Future of Protein Production LIVE! on Thursday 12 October entitled, ‘Using precision fermentation and synthetic biology to produce animal milk bioactive proteins’.

Shou Wong, Chief Innovation Officer, TurtleTree

Wong’s journey into the realm of food-tech was far from planned though. “When I was about to do an internal transfer from Global Business Development in the Life Science Business Unit at MilliporeSigma to Merck KGaA’s Silicon Valley Innovation Hub, my future boss asked me what I thought about laboratory-grown meat, now known as 'cultivated meat'. I recall my first reaction was, ‘Excuse me, but I’m not quite sure what laboratory-grown meat is?’” Wong recounts. “My immediate reaction was that it was such a stupid idea because it couldn’t possibly work!”

However, that skepticism turned into curiosity as he delved into extensive research on ‘cellular agriculture’, ‘clean meat’, and related topics. Drawing from his background in stem cell biology, he began to perceive the immense potential of these technologies in solving pressing global challenges such as overpopulation, resource scarcity, and unsustainable animal agriculture practices. This eureka moment subsequently sparked a passion and unwavering commitment to food-tech.

With regard to alternative proteins, there is not one single hurdle. Instead, there are multiple hurdles such as yield, scale, cost, and waste, to name a few

Navigating hurdles on the path to success

Although alternative proteins hold great promise, significant hurdles remain on the road to widespread adoption. “With regard to alternative proteins, there is not one single biggest hurdle,” Wong believes. “Instead, there are multiple hurdles such as yield, scale, cost, and waste, to name a few.”

From yield and scale to cost and waste, a multifaceted approach is required to ensure economic viability and consumer acceptance. Although existing technologies are making headway, Wong is adamant that further innovation and solutions are necessary to overcome these obstacles and propel alternative proteins into the mainstream.

Understanding the genesis of TurtleTree

The journey of TurtleTree began when Co-founders, Fengru Lin (CEO) and Max Rye (Chief Strategist), observed the harsh realities and problems faced within the dairy industry.

It takes an estimated 628 liters of water to produce just one liter of cow's milk. Water consumption in dairy farming extends beyond the direct needs of cows and also includes irrigation for feed crops and cleaning processes, further amplifying the overall water footprint.

Not only that, globally, it is estimated that livestock grazing and animal feed production makes up 35% of the total habitable land across the globe and 77% of all agricultural land. In contrast, meat and dairy only supplies 18% of the global calorie supply and 37% of the total protein supply. The need for grazing areas and the cultivation of feed crops such as corn and soybeans contribute to deforestation and land degradation, particularly in regions such as the Amazon rainforest.

Dairy cows are also a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane emissions from enteric fermentation and manure management in dairy production account for approximately 2.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Astonishingly, on average, one dairy cow can produce between 300-600 liters of methane a day.

The entire dairy supply chain, including feed production, processing, and transportation, also contributes to carbon emissions.

In the face of such stats, Lin and Rye recognized the need for a paradigm shift and set out to come up with an alternative. However, the duo soon realized that reproducing milk entirely using cell-based technology would face short-term challenges in achieving price parity and a viable gross margin.

That realization prompted them to explore high-value components within milk that extended beyond mere nutritional value.

Lactoferrin, for instance, is a multifunctional protein found in milk and other body fluids, and it has gained significant attention in the field of nutrition and health due to its diverse biological activities and potential benefits.

One of the key reasons for the importance of lactoferrin lies in its benefits for immunity.

Lactoferrin possesses immunomodulatory properties, meaning it can modulate and regulate immune responses. It stimulates the activity of immune cells, such as macrophages and lymphocytes, promoting the production of cytokines and enhancing the body’s defense mechanisms. This immunomodulatory function is particularly valuable in boosting the immune system, especially in vulnerable populations such as infants, the elderly, or individuals with compromised immune systems.

In addition to its immunomodulatory, lactoferrin has demonstrated other health benefits, including antioxidant activity, iron absorption regulation, and promotion of healthy gut function.

Through precision fermentation, TurtleTree has successfully developed a sustainable and scalable method to produce lactoferrin without the need for traditional dairy farming.

The company’s precision fermentation process begins by identifying and isolating the genes responsible for lactoferrin production in cows. Most importantly, this step does not require any inputs from the cow! Instead, computer databases already contain this information. These genes are then inserted into a host microorganism, typically yeast or bacteria, which serves as a biological factory for lactoferrin production.

The host microorganism is cultured in large-scale fermentation tanks, where it is supplied with a nutrient-rich medium tailored to support lactoferrin synthesis. Under carefully controlled conditions, the microorganism utilizes the inserted genes to produce lactoferrin through intricate biochemical processes.

Once the fermentation process is complete, the lactoferrin is extracted from the fermentation medium. Wong reveals that TurtleTree employs purification techniques to isolate and refine the lactoferrin, ensuring a high-quality product with optimal purity and functionality.

This precision fermentation approach offers numerous advantages for lactoferrin production compared to traditional methods. It provides a sustainable alternative to sourcing lactoferrin from animal-derived milk, alleviating concerns related to animal welfare and environmental impact. Additionally, precision fermentation allows for the production of lactoferrin in a controlled and scalable manner, ensuring a reliable and consistent supply of this valuable protein.

Moreover, TurtleTree’s precision fermentation process provides the flexibility to tailor lactoferrin production to meet specific market demands. By optimizing the fermentation conditions and genetic manipulation, Wong and his colleagues can produce lactoferrin variants with desired characteristics, such as increased bioavailability or specific functional properties.

Overall, TurtleTree’s lactoferrin not only addresses significant flaws in the current food system but also tackles ethical concerns, rapidly increasing protein demand, and difficulties in obtaining adequate nutrition in many regions worldwide.

Milestones and technological advancements

TurtleTree’s journey has been marked by significant milestones and technological advancements that have cemented its position as an industry leader, and Wong has played a pivotal role in guiding the company’s R&D initiatives and external innovation activities. With Wong's support, TurtleTree has achieved remarkable feats, including securing strategic partnerships and raising substantial funding to drive innovation forward.

A notable milestone was TurtleTree’s successful completion of the world’s first cell-based lactoferrin pilot production run. This achievement not only showcased the feasibility and scalability of the technology but also laid the foundation for further advancements in the alternative proteins industry.

Moreover, TurtleTree’s commitment to excellence is evident through its strong focus on research and development. The company’s world-class R&D and manufacturing teams, spearheaded by Wong, continuously explores novel techniques, optimization strategies, and quality control processes to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of lactoferrin production. This dedication to pushing boundaries and driving innovation has positioned TurtleTree at the forefront of the alternative protein revolution.

I have been around the block several times, so I have seen economic upturns and downturns a couple of times

Challenges and optimism

The alternative proteins industry has experienced its fair share of challenges in recent years, including lower investment activity and negative press. However, Wong remains optimistic and sees these challenges as temporary hurdles rather than insurmountable roadblocks. He acknowledges that investment activities fluctuate based on market dynamics and economic conditions but believes that the industry still holds significant potential for growth. “I have been around the block several times, so I have seen economic upturns and downturns a couple of times,” continues Wong. “Investment activities are no exception as they can go up and down depending on the economy in general or how investors see and understand the market they are betting on in the future.”

Wong has engaged in conversations with numerous venture capitalists and perceives their cautious approach as an opportunity for startups with solid technologies and products to secure investments. “I’m very optimistic about the investment environment during this tough economic period,” he says.

Addressing criticisms and winning over skeptics

Controversial articles questioning the viability of plant-based foods and cultivated meat have emerged, casting doubt on the future of alternative proteins. However, Wong takes such criticisms with a grain of salt, recognizing the historical pattern of skepticism towards game-changing technologies. He prefers not to waste time and energy engaging in futile debates. “I don’t lose sleep over [controversial articles]. Instead of trying to argue with or convince the naysayers, I am more in favor of letting the technology or the products do the talking.”

Industry breakthroughs and the future

And there are more than a few reasons to be cheerful. Wong highlights the significance of the USDA’s approval of Eat Just’s GOOD Meat and UPSIDE Foods’ cultivated chicken products as game-changers. “I would definitely say the USDA and FDA are my alt protein heroes for 2023,” he says of the recent developments.

Bioengineering opens up doors to the possibility of engineering food-applicable cell lines with better properties such as nutrition enhancement as a product or better adaptation to novel bioreactor conditions. This is very, very exciting in my opinion  

He feels these green lights will open the floodgates for more ‘cellular agriculture’ startups (and he emphasizes the terminology, ‘cellular agriculture’) to gain regulatory approval and launch innovative products. Furthermore, the tacit endorsement of bioengineered cell lines for cultivated meat production offers exciting possibilities for engineering cell lines with enhanced properties and adaptation to novel bioreactor conditions. “Bioengineering opens up doors to the possibility of engineering food-applicable cell lines with better properties such as nutrition enhancement as a product or better adaptation to novel bioreactor conditions,” Wong says. “This is very, very exciting in my opinion.”    

TurtleTree’s first product, precision fermentation-produced bovine lactoferrin, has garnered significant attention and interest from dairy and milk companies worldwide. However, one of the biggest challenges the company faces is meeting the growing demand. TurtleTree has taken proactive measures by securing commitments from contract development and manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) to ensure sufficient production capacity for the next three years.

Wong recognizes that transitioning from lab-scale production to industrial-scale manufacturing poses its own set of challenges. However, with TurtleTree’s unwavering commitment to research, development, and collaboration with industry partners, he believes they are well-positioned to overcome these hurdles.

We are not trying to replace traditional agriculture, but rather supplement and complement it with new technologies

Wong’s visionary journey and the groundbreaking innovations of TurtleTree exemplify the transformative potential of food-tech in shaping a sustainable and ethical food system. Through its commitment to producing lactoferrin sustainably and their dedication to technological advancements, TurtleTree is spearheading a revolution in the dairy industry. As Wong aptly states, “We are not trying to replace traditional agriculture, but rather supplement and complement it with new technologies.

“I’m very, very proud of having made a big contribution to building key partnerships and an innovation pipeline at TurtleTree in less than a year since joining the company in August 2021,” says Wong, when asked to identify his biggest achievements. “May I even shamelessly say that TurtleTree’s launch of recombinant bovine lactoferrin will be probably the fastest in the industry to date – less than two years from conception to pilot-scale production. I wouldn’t dare say – nor would I know – what my greatest achievement is for this sector. But if I am remembered for anything, I would like it to be helping TurtleTree to move the needle a little bit in human nutrition.”

• Shou Wong is one of more than 65 speakers appearing at The Future of Protein Production LIVE!, taking place at RAI Amsterdam on 11/12 October. Click here to secure your delegate's pass and join more than 400 senior-level industry professionals to hear a fantastic agenda featuring 30 standalone presentations, take part in six engaging panel discussions, watch an exciting Startup Pitch Symposium and network with +30 exhibiting companies and other attendees

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

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