AsianScientist (Oct. 29, 2021) – Whether living to eat or eating to live, our relationship with food faces the dual crisis of consuming in excess on one end, while grappling with food shortages and hunger on the other. According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is on the rise, with nearly two billion adults classified as overweight or obese and over 460 million considered underweight.
Today, food options have ballooned through ingenious recipes and production methods, filling up pantries and springing up in endless social media posts. However, sometimes the tastiest products can have serious health and environmental consequences.
In the protein industry, for example, it takes up to 25 kilograms of animal feed to produce a kilo of beef, while producing one liter of milk requires six liters of water. For Mr. Yip HonMun, the current food system is broken, inefficient and in need of a drastic fix.
To support healthier and more sustainable ways of producing protein, Yip started out as an investor in the alternative protein sector in 2018 but soon decided to jump into the action himself. Just earlier this year, he took up the mantle of Executive Vice President at TurtleTree Labs, a Singapore-US biotech company pioneering cell-based milk.
“My personal mission aligns with what TurtleTree is doing,” Yip shared. “We want to make the highly nutritious components found in human milk available for everyone who needs it.”
Through emerging biotechnologies, TurtleTree is transforming milk production and deriving the functional ingredients that are key to its nutritional value.
Yip explained that they carefully prepare culture media, creating the right environment to induce mammalian cells to grow, proliferate and produce milk. By cultivating cells in the lab, the team can produce the same quality of milk with only 10 percent of the water and land resources used in traditional cattle raising methods.
However, Yip himself acknowledged that it may take a long time before mammalian cell systems can be scaled up to the point where the technology can compete with the traditional industry. It’s a tough reality faced by the entire alt-protein segment, needing a large injection of facilities and funds to deliver affordable and appealing products.
According to Yip, a major bottleneck lies in the continued use of bovine or cattle sources. Whether alternative or traditional segments, many food companies rely on bovine-sourced components such as growth factors needed to create cell media, proteins like lactoferrin for yogurt and other dairy goods and alpha-lactalbumin for infant formulas.
With this hurdle in mind, Yip and the TurtleTree team realized another important way to fulfill their mission—by catalyzing more efficient production of these functional ingredients. Through precision fermentation, they use cell factories called bioreactors to produce pure concentrations of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), lactoferrin and alpha-lactalbumin.
Besides lowering costs, Yip highlighted that precision fermentation of these biomolecules has the potential to deliver vital health benefits. For instance, milk proteins help build up one’s immune defenses, while HMOs are sugars consumed by friendly microbes in the infant gut to maintain digestive health.
“We’re not fixating on one particular ingredient or product. Instead, we have a platform that has a lot of potential to produce the components that the industry needs,” Yip said.
Though the technology was already quite mature, it needed adapting from its original applications in pharmaceutics to meet food safety standards, he added. With the creation of these alternative sources, TurtleTree now collaborates with other players in the ecosystem to sustainably deliver nutritional benefits to more consumers.
For Yip, his journey from investor to active leader at the helm of TurtleTree was fueled not just by a belief in the team’s scientific and technical capabilities, but by a belief in the larger cause. These efforts all tie back to his mission to make protein sources more accessible, ultimately helping prevent disease and address malnutrition.
“We’re very mission-driven and purpose-driven,” Yip concluded. “I can’t find a better investment that can give me a substantial return while addressing the issues that my children and their generation are concerned about.”
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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