Bio Milk may sound like agricultural fiction, but with a decade of research and the company soon going public, its lab-produced replicas could become one of Israeli science’s latest cash cows

Yoram Gabison Published on 03.11.2020

If you take any 1-liter carton of milk off the shelf, you’ll be holding the equivalent of 900 liters of water – that’s the amount of water it takes to produce a liter of milk, in addition to the 1.25 kilograms of cattle fodder and seeds. Milk cows don’t just consume a significant portion of planet earth’s dwindling resources, but contribute significantly to global warming. Cow milk is responsible for 2.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, which has 84 times the impact on the greenhouse effect as does carbon dioxide.

Bio Milk is trying to change all this.

The company is planning to go public by merging with a publicly-trade shell company named Fantasy Network. Even the latter name seems apt for Bio Milk as it seeks to push an entire industry, one developed through thousands of years of genetic selection, into a new level of food-tech technology. Its goals seem like something out of agricultural fiction.

Bio Milk is trying to do for milk what companies like Beyond Meat are doing for meat: developing laboratory-cultured meat in order to persuade consumers to buy meat substitutes, thereby dramatically reducing the industry’s carbon footprint while also better enabling humanity to feed the planet’s population and its growing dairy consumption.

“The aspiration is to kick production efficiency up a step. We have the biological base and we need to carry out the processes we’ve developed in a laboratory on an industrial scale, and make the process more efficient,” states Dr. Nurit Argov-Argaman, one of Bio Milk’s founders and a lecturer in the Hebrew University’s faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Bio Milk isn’t the only company – or the first one – to try to reduce cow milk consumption. But Argov-Argaman notes that other dairy substitutes such as soy milk, almond milk or rice milk lack the nutritious components of cow milk: protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.

Bio Milk was founded in 2018 based on 10 years of research that Argov-Argaman and Hebrew University colleague Prof. Maggie Levy conducted into the milk production process. The company has patents on laboratory production processes that mimic the milk of multiple farm animals, and is capable of producing milk in laboratory settings.

As part of its technology, the company isolates the milk-producing cells within a cow’s udders. The cells are transferred into a bioreactor, where they are exposed to a cocktail of materials – one of the company’s patents – that enables them to produce milk, and not to reproduce themselves.

“Milk stems from nutrition, and changes over the course of the day, and over the course of a single milking session,” says Argov-Argaman. “When you buy milk at the grocery store, you’re receiving a mixture of the milk from many cows. For instance, milk produced at night contains higher concentrations of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep cycles.”

Bio Milk is also working on replicating human milk under laboratory conditions. Breast milk contains some 2,500 components and is the most suitable food for human babies, says Argov-Argaman. Formula differs significantly from it, and raises the child’s risk for metabolic conditions throughout their life, such as developing Type 2 diabetes or being overweight, she says.

The growing awareness of the value of breast milk, and the great disparity in supply versus demand, means that breast milk is sold on sites such as eBay for $112 per liter, even when the buyer doesn’t have any knowledge of where the milk is coming from or the health of the mother pumping it, aside from individual declarations.

Bio Milk is developing a laboratory-produced breast milk replica, under the name Eve’s Milk, by isolating human milk production cells in a bioreactor. Levy’s research into oligosaccharide production technology will be the base for producing another milk component, oligosaccharides (HMOs), a complex sugar that supports immune system development.

The company’s laboratory-produced oligosaccharides are intended as an addition to its “breast” milk, and later may become a product for people who underwent intestinal surgery and had their microbiomes disrupted. Breast milk is the only source of oligosaccharides, aside from plants. However, oligosaccharides from plants have a different chemical structure, and don’t have the same impact on the immune system as those in breast milk.

Bio Milk CEO Tomer Eisen says that the company’s business potential isn’t limited only to milk production, but includes the use of Argov-Argaman and Levy’s technology to replicate milk components on demand, such as proteins, lipids and whey powder.

The company is competing with multinational plant-based formula manufacturers such as Tnuva, Nestle and General Mills; with companies that manufacture milk components such as the Australia-based A2, which produces a beta-casein enhanced milk; and with two other companies that are trying to produce laboratory-cultured milk.

Bio Milk’s two direct competitors are the North Carolina-based Biomilq, which also is developing a laboratory production process aimed at replicating breast milk, and has backing from figures including Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Michael Bloomberg. The other company is the Singapore-based TurtleTree Labs, which is developing a technology that produces laboratory-cultured milk by isolating stem sells occurring in milk.

Bio Milk intends to present its first cup of laboratory-produced milk in the third quarter of 2021, and to release its protocols to the Helsinki Committee to launch an experiment into laboratory-produced milk. By the fourth quarter of 2021 it plans to be producing breast milk with its three main components – protein, sugar and fat – in a laboratory.

The company intends to fund the process with 12 million shekels it raised from private investors this year, and by going public through the merger with Fantasy Network, by allocating some 65%-75% of the latter company’s shares to Bio Milk’s owners.