Some 15 or so years ago, Leila Strickland was mother to a newborn struggling to breastfeed her weeks-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 infants—by engineering it in a lab.
Breast milk has long been considered the highest standard for infant nutrition, linked to a myriad of benefits for both babies and nursing parents. Yet it remains difficult or unfeasible for many to breastfeed: at six months old, less than a quarter of US infants are breastfeeding as recommended.
When she gave birth to her son, Strickland was completing postdoc research in cell biology at Stanford University, and decided to focus on mammary cells, where little work had been done. By 2020, she hit a first-of-its-kind breakthrough: lab-grown mammary cells that were able to produce some of the nutrients found in human milk. Together with food scientist Michelle Egger she co-founded Durham, N.C.-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 landed $3.5 million in seed money from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm founded by Bill Gates to fund innovations focused on climate change. It was a natural fit, given that infant formula made from cow 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 ratcheted up in 2022 when infant formula brands were recalled over safety concerns, sparking worldwide shortages. For her part, Strickland cautions that fully lab-grown milk will not be able to replace baby formula anytime soon. She and Biomilq have recently moved away from her original goal of creating milk individually tailored to one person’s breast cells. “That’s unrealistic because milk is incredibly complex,” she says; it’s complex enough that there isn’t even an agreed-on definition for it. “We’re now focused 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 major announcement early in 2024. She’s 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 2023, a series that spotlights the people deploying bold technologies and reimagining the way we do business for good across the globe. Find the full list here.