Producing cow’s milk – or something close to it – without animals has to be worth the effort, Côté argues, although she acknowledges that startups in the sector have yet to prove that the technology can be adapted to compete with a such a trivialized staple food.
While some players in this nascent field (such as NC-based BIOMILQ), focus on breastmilk in order to access high-value infant formula markets for moms who cannot breastfeed but want to give their babies something more like breastmilk than formula. for standard infants, based in Montreal Opalia (formerly Bettermilk) squarely targets the milk we all have in our fridges, says Côté, who has partnered with co-founder and CTO Lucas House to begin exploring cell culture milk in late 2020.
“The reason we focus on cow’s milk rather than human milk [milk] it’s because… that’s where the value in terms of impact lies. The reason we got into this business is for the whole sustainability and animal welfare aspect. This is what drives us to move forward and be aggressive in reducing our production costs early to target these low-margin products that are part of a larger market. »
Cell culture milk and meat are somewhat different propositions
So how does it work?
In a nutshell, Opalia takes cells from bovine mammary epithelial cells, feeds them nutrients to make them proliferate, and then tricks them into differentiating and starting to produce milk, explained Côté, who says that Opalia has “Strong IP around our breast cell line.”
Unlike meat grown from cells – where the cells themselves are the end product, and manufacturers will have to figure out how to grow and feed billions of cells profitably – Opalia cells are mini-factories that produce milk.
Likewise, it doesn’t have to worry about tissues, scaffolds, or handling multiple different cell types like meat players do, while the regulatory route may also be simpler than for cultured meat. on cells, speculated Côté, who was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after announcing the elimination of fetal bovine serum (FBS) from the Opalia manufacturing process.
The absence of FBS is important for both ethical reasons – given that it defeats the purpose of producing milk outside of an animal if you need animal-derived components for the produce – and for economic reasons, said Côté, who noted that the FBS is “expensive and subject to high levels of batch-to-batch variation which decreases its reliability.
Cell Culture Media
For milk production in cell culture, there are two phases, she explained. The first is a growth phase whose purpose is to proliferate animal cells, “so it’s kind of feeder phase where you have amino acids, vitamins, sugars and salts, and we also have our animal-free FBS substitute that we need to add to stimulate growth. And then once the cells have reached the desired number, we remove the FBS alternative and add the components that induce lactation. [phase two].
“And these components [which Opalia is not disclosing] are a key part of our IP because they allow us to increase lactation and also reduce costs, which is always the key factor to keep in mind for scalability.
“It’s not bio-identical to cow’s milk…”
But how close is Opalia’s “milk” to reality, and how does it compare to, say, Betterland Foods’ New “Cow-Free” Milkwhich contains whey protein produced by microbial fermentation, and is marketed as “virtually indistinguishable” cow’s milk from a functional point of view?
Opalia’s milk is “not bio-identical to cow’s milk,” said Côté, who has raised about $1 million in pre-seed funding from backers including Big Idea Ventures, Sustainable Food Ventures, and CULT Food Science, and is now seeking funding for a seed round.
But it comes much closer to it than plant-based milk or next-gen products like Betterland milk, which is closer to cow’s milk than, say, almond milk, but still only contains only one dairy component (beta-lactoglobulin), Côté said. “At Opalia, we can manufacture all the functional components of traditional dairy products: the four casein proteins, whey proteins, milk fat and milk sugar.
“When making whole milk, there is an interaction between these components that gives them their functional quality. This interaction is something very difficult to replicate when producing individual components in an organism that is not a mammary gland cell.
She added: “The market we’re targeting is really on the food side, so for us it’s less about being able to produce immunoglobulins or other components of immunity, because you don’t need those components to make good cheese , so it’s really more about proteins, fats and sugars.
“It still feels a bit like magic…”
As for the business model, it is only in its infancy for Opalia, which is still very much in the R&D phase, specifies Côté, but the objective is to “partner with companies that use milk in their products to target a wide range of applications from food to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Looking back, Côté is under no illusions about the challenge facing companies in cell-cultured milk and meat – with some commentators saying the technology, for meat at least, is facing “insoluble technical challenges at the food scale” – but says we need to keep an open mind to other ways of doing things.
“It’s not like when you’re four years old, you suddenly decide that one day you want to grow milk from breast cells. But here we are, and every day it’s still kind of crazy that we’re doing it, but I’m really excited for what’s to come and for the end products to be a reality. It still feels a bit like magic.”
She added: “We have a roadmap to reduce costs and are already working with regulatory agencies to accelerate our path to market. Studies have shown that customers are willing to try these products and our job will be to convince them of the buy making it super tasty and functional. .”