Fengru Lin—CEO and co-founder of Singapore and US based—TurtleTree Labs, the world’s first biotech company to create the technology to produce milk sustainably using cells, talks to us about her company’s recent triumph in the Entrepreneurship World Cup, how the competition has impacted her company, and their plans for the future in helping tackle some food and environmental challenges facing the world.
EWC team: Hi, Fengru. Many congratulations on your amazing result winning the 2020 Entrepreneurship World Cup! Can you tell us about yourself, about TurtleTree and your role in the company?
Lin: I’m the CEO and co-founder of TurtleTree Labs. We are a biotech company based here in Singapore and we are the first company in the world to explore producing milk using cells from all mammals.
EWC team: Is there a personal story around the amazing idea behind TurtleTree?
Lin: I used to work for tech companies like Salesforce and Google but many years ago, as a hobby, I started to learn how to make cheese.
That was when I started to get to know milk a lot better. I went around the region – I was in Indonesia, I was in Thailand. I soon realized (that) there were lots of problems with challenges like contract farming and hormones and antibiotics that are being pumped into the cows, with the result that the milk quality really suffers.
So I give up my cheese-making hobby. Back then I was still working at Google and that was when I met my co-founder, Max Rye. Back then he was CEO of a different tech company, and he was sharing about different technologies like Memphis Meats and BlueNalu, who are using cells to make meat and seafood.
The technology really intrigued me, so after the talk I went up to him and asked him if there are similar methods to make milk. Back then obviously there was nobody else doing it, so we started to do a lot of research around the area.
We talked to some scientist friends and last year we managed to make some big moves. We filed our patents and this year we are really scaling the company. We now have 22 full time scientists and engineers across six different teams.
EWC team: That’s brilliant. It sounds like you’re really thriving. Everyone, including the judges, were completely blown away by your presentation at EWC. What were your expectations when you signed up to the Entrepreneurship World Cup?
Lin: We were actually introduced to the competition by one of our employees, one of our cell biologists, who said “There is this global competition. We have to go for it.”
The business team looked into it and we were really attracted by the mission of the competition to pursue the never-ending quest for innovation, which is what TurtleTree is all about.
We really wanted to introduce our novel approach to cell-based milk production on the global stage and increase awareness around the work that we are doing and the kind of disruption that we can help to create in the dairy industry.
EWC team: What was the Entrepreneurship World Cup platform and competition like for you? Did you use the EWC Accelerate Program and some of the ‘perks’ that were on offer on the website?
Lin: We did use the Accelerate program – we connected with some of the mentors that we were assigned through the platform, so it was pretty cool.
As for the ‘perks’, unfortunately we have already started paying for some of the software that would be offered there as first trial users, so we didn’t get to use them. But I can imagine the other startups found them to be really useful since we’re using some of the tools as well. It was a good platform.
EWC team: The EWC ran various virtual national finals. Did you pitch in one of those?
Lin: Yes. It was actually really nerve-wracking. We had a lot of good startups in Singapore and there was a ‘pitch off’, with ten national finalists reduced to one. We managed to emerge the chosen one from Singapore to enter the Global Finals. It was a really good opportunity for both of us to be there.
EWC team: What was it like to get through and pitch in the last 100? There was a bootcamp put on by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), wasn’t there?
Lin: We went head-to-head in the Global Finals. For the one-on-one live knock-out, it really kept us on the edge of our seats, it was really exciting. Every startup was just spectacular.
There were four judges and in many rounds we had our judges split their votes between them very evenly. So we had to look to the audience to break the tie in votes.
EWC team: There were thousands around the world watching the virtual global finals at the MISK Global Forum. Given the global pandemic, the whole thing went online. What was that like for you as a participant?
Lin: First and foremost, I wish I had been there in person to meet all the wonderful startups, to meet the judges, to interact with people. But as virtual competitions go, this is as good as it gets. It’s one of the best actually. The final platform was so well done. I do come from tech, so I know how difficult it is to create a good platform. That was just spectacular.
EWC team: What was it about the platform that worked well?
Lin: One of the things that the platform allowed us to do was to have the audience follow us on our journey, by including a timeline of where we were at on the website. I thought that was really cool. And the global stage arena was really easy to navigate around and interact with other contestants.
EWC team: As a new company, how are you coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lin: The pandemic for us really highlighted the need for food security, especially in say the Middle East. And in Singapore the government is ‘all hands on deck’ to make sure that food security can be maintained in the country.
We have this ‘30 by 30’ goal within Singapore to be able to create 30% of our nutritional needs by the year 2030 within the country. Right now the number stands at less than 10%, so the government is giving their full support to food-tech companies like ours.
As a result, during the COVID period, TurtleTree could continue our operations at the lab, because the Enterprise Singapore was really supportive of us and made sure that we had all these safety precautions in place that allowed us to continue our R&D work. Through these measures we could continue as planned.
EWC team: It’s good to hear that there is a supportive and efficient system in Singapore to help entrepreneurs. What impact do you think that taking part in the Entrepreneurship World Cup and being in the network has had or will have for TurtleTree?
Lin: Even just a few days after the competition, we’ve had many investors, industry partners and media partners reach out to us. The global recognition has allowed us to shine the light on the importance of food security and the importance of thinking about different ways to tackle food security challenges.
As long as we recognize that as the next billion people come onto the planet, we cannot keep harming the environment to keep up food production. As we all know that up to 37% of global methane emissions comes from cattle farming. So we need to be able to partner up with industry to find different ways of sourcing the same products that everyone loves – the cheese, butter, yogurt, the meats – without continuing to harm the environment.
I would love to use this platform to dive into this and share with the world that this is an important issue. Sir David Attenborough and his Netflix series about the planet and sustainability showed that it’s really crucial that we all do something today so that we still have a planet for our children to live in.
EWC team: Have you been in contact with David Attenborough about your company?
Lin: No I haven’t. That would be the dream!
EWC team: Your company does speak to the messages that he’s been talking about.
Lin: It’s so important. There’s another Netflix documentary – Kiss the Ground – about soil health and regenerative farming. It reinforces what David Attenborough said. It’s so important for us to think about different ways to continue feeding the next few billion that is coming onto the planet.
EWC team: What was the main takeaway for TurtleTree from being involved in the Entrepreneurship World Cup?
Lin: I have connected with some of the judges, and I’m going to have conversations over the next few weeks. We made good friends, especially with the top 10 companies, while waiting in virtual waiting rooms during the competition.
It was really fascinating to discover all the stuff that the fellow startups are working on. There was one company which helps with patients who are recovering from bed sores, another which is using microorganisms to help to breakdown waste. Lots of novel packaging solution companies as well. So it is just fascinating learning from all the different founders, hearing about their journey and learning from them.
EWC team: Will the different founders be able to help one another in the future, with advice on accessing different markets, for example?
Lin: Absolutely. I know the previous year of startups in EWC organized a WhatsApp chat and the founders have kept in contact even now. This is something that will probably be set up with our own cohort as well.
EWC team: Do you have any advice for next year’s entrants in the Entrepreneurship World Cup or for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
Lin: It’s still a long journey for us and we will continue to work hard, but if I could offer advice, it would be this. One of the best pieces of advice I received during my time in Google was the ‘10x impact.’ As the time that we have is quite finite, every activity that we do needs to be easily replicable by our team, our partners and our customers. This 10x thinking influences how we set up the processes within the company, how we build our technology and how we go to market.
EWC team: What role do you think that entrepreneurship has in helping people, particularly young people, to adapt to all challenges (and more closely the ones that have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic)?
Lin: Unfortunately, during this pandemic, quite a number of my friends were laid off. But entrepreneurship allowed them to think outside the box and continue working for something.
As we’ve all seen, there have been a lot of home bakers, a lot of passion projects, that have suddenly become a lot more serious. This allows people, young people, to manage their finances, have alternative sources of income and is a great way for everyone to start to learn and think about how they can own their own business.
Entrepreneurship has and will continue to be an avenue through which anyone can pursue their passion, and realize a vision of the world they want to see. In these times, entrepreneurship is really a bright spark that instils excitement and hope in all of us.
EWC team: That’s a wonderful, positive message! You’re obviously busy running your company, but given the global issues at stake and the fascinating technology you’ve developed, do you manage to talk to school and university students in Singapore?
Lin: I’m doing that quite a bit. Even yesterday we had a discussion with a bunch of National University of Singapore students. Today we had one with NTU, another university here. So we do continuously engage students and young people.
Really, we’re just passing it on. In the early stages, we had a lot of help from advisors and, from people in industry. So when people reach out, I do try to advise them. I set aside a few hours every Saturday to talk to young people.
EWC team: That’s impressive. Have you been able to employ young people as you’ve grown? A big part of entrepreneurship is about jobs, isn’t it?
Lins: Absolutely. We’ve been quite fortunate to attract young people, young scientists.
For young people it’s not about money these days. It’s about the vision, it’s about the impact that they can make. Good scientists can go anywhere. A lot of scientists want to think about the impact that you’re making on this world. So our storytelling, how we present ourselves, has been quite attractive to a lot of young and older scientists. We really try to bring in the best finds of the industry despite their age and it’s about finding the right fit.
EWC team: Finally, do you try to stimulate an entrepreneurial mindset in your people. Is that important in the people that you hire – creativity, adaptability and problem-solving ability?
Lin: I’m from Google, so I’m all about systems! So, we have cloud software called Benchling. We love it. It’s like a CRM for scientists, where the scientists can upload the outcome of their experiments and align the project management.
For the rest of the team, which includes regulatory, business teams, the patent lawyers, we will be using project management software like. Every individual would set your goals and their milestones for the coming months. So really they own their own timeline and their own milestones. The management just needs to make sure that everything is aligned with major timelines, but other than that everyone is driven to complete their own tasks.
EWC team: What is your vision at TurtleTree Labs for the future?
Lin: We’re focused on being a very impact-driven company. Our goal is to allow cell-based milk technology to be used globally, providing the best nutrition to infants and adults in the most sustainable way. So one day we envision every dairy product, or most dairy products, to have a Turtle Tree logo at the bottom of the carton, symbolizing how the milk was made, a circular economy and a sustainable way of sourcing ingredients.
EWC team: We wish you all the very best for TurtleTree’s next chapter. We’re sure it will be a good and prosperous one not just for you, but for the wider world.