About 15 years ago, Leila Strickland was the mother of a newborn struggling to breastfeed her week-old son, and quickly realized how difficult breastfeeding can be. Today, Strickland and her biotech company, Biomilq, are working to make the benefits of breast milk more accessible to mothers and their babies—by engineering it in a lab.
Breast milk has long been considered the highest standard of infant nutrition, linked to a host of benefits for both babies and nursing parents. Still, it remains difficult or impracticable for many to breastfeed: at six months of age, less than a quarter of American babies breastfeed as recommended.
When she gave birth to her son, Strickland was completing postdoctoral research in cell biology at Stanford University, and decided to focus on mammary cells, where little work had been done. By 2020, she had made a first-of-its-kind breakthrough: lab-grown mammary cells capable of producing some of the nutrients found in human milk. Along with food scientist Michelle Egger, she co-founded Durham, NC-based Biomilq to develop and scale the discovery.
Strickland’s advance was made possible with the help of hundreds of volunteers who donated samples of their breast milk. She also got $3.5 million in seed money from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm founded by Bill Gates to finance innovations focused on climate change. It was a natural fit, as infant formula made from cow’s milk is hardly sustainable: it uses an enormous amount of water and produces up to 5,700 metric tons of CO2 each year to feed just one baby.
Investment interest in Biomilq increased in 2022 when infant formula brands were recalled due to safety concerns, causing global shortages. For her part, Strickland cautions that fully lab coat milk won’t be able to replace infant formula anytime soon. She and Biomilq recently moved away from her original goal of creating milk individually tailored to one person’s brush cells. “It’s unrealistic, because milk is incredibly complex,” she says; it’s complex enough that there isn’t even an agreed-upon definition for it. “We are now focusing on developing certain key nutrients found in breast milk.”
Biomilq plans to partner with manufacturers that can include its nutrients in their formula products, and Strickland says she expects to make a big announcement in early 2024. She is hopeful, she adds, that Biomilq will have its first commercial product in three to five years.
This story is part of Quartz’s Innovators List 2023a series that highlights the people who are deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good around the world. Get the full list here.