Max talked to us about the origins of TurtleTree, their production of the world’s first sustainable lactoferrin made with precision fermentation, and the mission that drives the whole company.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Trackmind: Hi Max! Thanks for being here. To start off, I have a fun question: If you had a superpower, what would it be and why?
Max: Max Rye It’s a very tough question, but I can tell you that for me, I wish that I had a superpower to get people to see the realities behind what’s happening with climate change. I wish that was something that I could somehow do.
Trackmind: That’s a good superpower to have, because we need it very badly. The unfortunate thing about climate change is that unless you’re affected by it, you don’t care about it.
Max: Exactly. To be honest with you, our company was really born out of [the climate crisis]. I come from the traditional tech space. I was a CEO of a tech company in California for more than 15 years. Over time, I saw a lot of issues around climate change and sustainability. At first, I just wanted somebody else to go deal with it. Eventually though, I realized I had to get involved myself if I wanted to see that change. The vision of TurtleTree is focused on “how do we feed the planet in a sustainable way and how do we tackle climate change in that process?”
Trackmind: Wow, that’s so interesting to hear how you got started. Can you tell me a little bit more about the story of TurtleTree?
Max: Sure, absolutely. If you look at dairy, dairy is the biggest food sector in the world. It’s bigger than chicken and beef combined and it continues to grow quite fast.
This is an area where my co-founder [Fengru Lin], being in Singapore, realized that they have to import almost everything. She had a hobby of making cheese at that time and getting raw milk was just unheard of in Singapore. People were flying milk from Europe and New Zealand to Singapore.
After I exited my previous company, I was giving talks on sustainability and Singapore was one of the places I made a stop. That’s where I met her. And I said, “This is crazy what’s happening. You guys are flying milk from across the world!?”
I thought “There’s got to be a way to use technology to solve some of this problem.” And that’s how the company was really born. And then, over time, we’ve worked to understand what part of milk we believe we should focus on and where we think we’re going to make the biggest impact.
Trackmind: That’s amazing. And can you tell me a little bit about your product? I read that you guys are focusing on lactoferrin. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Max: Yeah, sure. Lactoferrin has a lot of benefits. It’s a highly valuable bioactive protein. It’s found in high concentrations in human milk. However in bovine milk, there are very small amounts of Lactoferrin, around 0.1 grams per liter.
This protein has been shown to have benefits for immune modulation, gut health and iron regulation. There’s a lot of different benefits around it. Right now, the majority of it is used in infant formula and some of it’s used in adult nutrition applications. However, there’s just not enough of it on the market. So what we’re trying to do is make this protein more accessible and available, not just for sustainability reasons, but for all the different applications that it’s in demand for.
A balanced gut has been suggested to positively impact our digestive function and overall immune system. So you can see why we’re focused on not just sustainable and cruelty-free practices, but also how to make a protein that has a real human health impact. I think that’s how we’re going to build a strong company in these early days.
Trackmind: That’s great. So what was the biggest roadblock or issue you faced when you started this company?
Max: Well, in the early days, there were a lot of investors who were biotech investors. Many of them are used to seeing a PhD scientist who has been working on a project like this throughout his entire life as the CEO of the company.
It was difficult for them to instead see these business people who want to build a company around sustainability with a biotech focus at the core of it all. It was difficult to convince them.
We had this one investor who said, “Listen, do you have a Nobel laureate on your research team? If not, we’re not really sure if we can invest.” It was just crazy.
But we knew where our strengths were and we were able to bring together a world-class team to be able to close the gaps.
To be honest with you, these days when we look at it, our investors are more attracted now because of the business sense that we have. We’re taking biotech and turning it into a real solid business, rather than only focusing on the science itself.
Trackmind: Yeah that’s interesting to hear how you approached this company from a business perspective first, rather than a science perspective. What was the biggest success that you’ve had with TurtleTree so far or something that you felt really proud of?
Max: I think we’ve been very fortunate. Our biggest success early on was winning the Entrepreneurship World Cup out of 70-something thousand companies globally. It was a half a million dollar prize that we won.
Max: Right before that, we also won the Temasek Liveability Challenge, which is a huge event that’s held in Singapore with global companies. We won a million dollars through that challenge so that was really great.
So I think for us, success-wise, series A was amazing. We had Asia’s largest funding round for the food sector base. It was really great.
Another big success is that we were able to bring on some world-class talent, Aletta Schnitzler being one of them. Aletta is a world-class scientist who previously worked at Merck KGaA. She is our new chief scientist, and started several months ago. She really trusts and believes in our vision, which has been really rewarding for us.
Trackmind: That’s amazing. We’re seeing a huge intersection between biotech and the food and beverage industry right now. As someone who’s actively working in the industry, what do you think is the future of this intersection? Do you think people are going to easily accept it? Or how difficult do you think it’s going to be to convince people that this is good for them and for the planet?
Max: Well, I definitely think that there’s going to be a lot of education required in this whole area. I think some of the potential challenges are going to be trying to get people to get past the science and laboratory type of work. But what many people don’t realize is even the food that they consume today, a lot of it does pass through a lab for testing or other types of reasons.
I personally don’t believe that we’re going to have as big of a challenge as we think because we are at that point where climate change is really wrecking existing food systems. People are going to have to research and look into these other alternative methods of nutrition. I think that’s going to really make a big impact on this whole space.
Trackmind: How do you think this new technology will affect farmers and cattle breeders?
Max: Well, I think that for the sake of food security, we just don’t have much of a choice. I feel really awful about what’s happening to some of the farmers that are getting hit with droughts and floods. Unfortunately, the reality is that they are going to have to start looking at other options. They’re going to have to start thinking about other ways of making an income because of the devastating impact climate change is having on their industry.
On the other hand, you have the processors, the people who take the food and then distribute it and so forth. I think those folks, the distributors and the food processors, are jumping in the game. Many of them are actually investors in this whole alternative protein space.
We have to recognize the scale of what it takes to feed the planet. It’s tremendous. All of our technologies put together that we’re using, I just don’t believe we’re going to have enough time to scale that in the next 10, 20 years to feed the planet. It’s going to take much longer than that because even one manufacturing facility can take five to 10 years to build and get scaled up. So we’re still going to need farmers. We still need those folks as we make this transition. And I hope that they can be a big part of this as we look to the future.
Trackmind: Yeah, hopefully farmers will be able to be included in this transition to new biotech solutions. Where do you see TurtleTree going in the future?
Max: Our mission has really been how do we nourish people and the planet. How do we get TurtleTree products onto every supermarket shelf in the world? And how can we make quality nutrition accessible to everyone?
Trackmind: Where are you currently in the process? I know you started the company in 2019 – Is your product available yet? Do you have any plans for scaling?
Max: We just announced our first main product a few weeks ago, which is LF+, the lactoferrin protein I mentioned earlier. We expect to see this product on the shelves within the next eight to 12 months. In the meantime, what we are already doing is working on a co-development process with all of our B2B partners – all the dairy partners, sports nutrition product companies and so forth.
We are working on designing a product specifically for them and their offerings. This journey is a process, it’s not an overnight thing. You develop a product and you launch it together. That’s something that we believe we’re on track for and we’re looking to do over the next eight to 12 months.
Trackmind: That’s amazing. Based on your experience, what advice do you have for other founders who are trying to get their companies off the ground?
Max: Be very, very curious. Keep learning. Talk to everyone in the space that you can to educate yourself. Don’t quit your day job right away. Take some time to learn about the industry that you’re interested in, and see if that’s something that you really want to jump into.
Understand what it takes to scale whatever technology that you’re interested in and whether or not that’s something that you can do yourself or what type of resources and people you’re going to need to be able to do that. I also think that just talking to investors also helps. Investors who invest into specific areas know a lot about that space so that’s another great way to educate yourself.