Max Rye: Co-Founder and Chief Strategist of TurtleTree Fermented “Milk” – Ep. 116

Max Rye: Co-Founder and Chief Strategist of TurtleTree Fermented “Milk”

Max Rye is the co-founder and chief strategist of TurtleTree, the world’s first sustainable lactoferrin made with precision fermentation.

Don’t know what any of that means? Great! Because I didn’t either! Essentially they’re able to not just emulate real milk but actually produce the identical proteins—the ones that give cow and human milk its nutritional value.

We’ll learn how Max decided to embrace the kind of change he wanted to see by founding this futuristic company that has the potential to change so many industries around the world.

They just closed 30 million in Series A funding, so it’s game on time.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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How Is Cell-Based Milk Different To Other Milk Alternatives?

*1:54 – “We started off not having any alternatives. I mean, I think soy was one of the early alternatives that were out there. And then we went to something with oat milk and other types of milks that resembled the texture of milk and maybe even the taste of it in some ways. But one thing that we were still lacking and have been lacking is the nutritional value. I mean, there’s a reason why people grow up drinking milk, right? Mothers tell their kids, they drink a glass of milk. There is actually some science behind that. There’s a nutritional value in what you’re drinking. And it turns out there are specific proteins we’ve never heard of actually. We’ve heard of whey and casein, but nobody’s really heard of things like lactoferrin. Actually, those are the real proteins in milk that give it that extra benefit, that health benefit. And that’s really where we saw the opportunity to use technology to be able to produce some of these most valuable things that are in milk and being able to make those available and maybe even put those into these existing milks that are out there to fortify them.”

3:56 – “One of our strongest collaborations is the UC Davis up in Northern California, and they have one of the deepest teams, actually five different teams. They have different insights into dairy and into milk ingredients and proteins and oligosaccharides, different components of milk. And I think that’s really the best way to move forward, going through science, being able to prove out what’s good and what isn’t. Because a lot of stuff is just anecdotal, right? ‘Hey, listen, my cousin told me,’ ‘my aunt told me I shouldn’t be drinking this or that.’ When we looked at milk, we looked at, hey, listen, do we really need to be drinking more whey protein or casein? Or is there other parts of milk that we actually believe scientifically is better for you? And what we spend over the last few years is identifying that within milk and then actually laser focusing in on those specific proteins. Lactoferrin is one of them. It’s actually shown to be extremely beneficial for human health, for gut health, brain health, for iron uptake throughout the body. And this protein is something that we are looking at bringing into not just plant-based milks, but other types of cell-based products as well.”

6:44 – (Ross) “There’s a particularly pernicious campaign, a meme, a Facebook campaign, I think it’s originating in the UK right now. It’s a backlash where they’re posting a meme where there’s a left and a right. And on the left side it says all of the ingredients in a Beyond Burger and it’s pea protein isolate and some kind of oil and all these things. And then the other side it says beef, guess which one’s better? And they’re sort of framing it as a false comparison, that beef is just one ingredient and it’s one all natural, awesome thing. And all of these other things must therefore be worse. It’s not natural, obviously. We know that that is not true. Beef is itself one thing, but it’s a composite of many, many, many other things. Takes some 1800 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef. It takes antibiotics and hormones, in some cases, land, and all kinds of other things while emitting methane and greenhouse gases. And that says nothing for the process of how you obtain this, which, according to your website, says 99% of all of these things come from factory farms, which is not this grass-fed, idyllic scenario, a sylvan environment where a cow is in harmony with nature just living off of grass.”

10:46 – “The process that we have, it’s one of the oldest processes with fermentation. If you know, fermentation, we know how a lot of some of these kombucha products are made with fermentation as well, but it’s very similar to that when it comes to the fermentation process. However, there’s a few extra processes downstream that filter out the proteins that we’re focused on getting out. But I think there are a handful of citric acid and a number of other products that we currently use today already go through the same method. A lot of our detergents, active ingredients, all of them actually use precision fermentation to be able to produce. And this is something that we’re also leveraging and we’re just applying a lot of this just for high value milk proteins.”

12:11 – [Explaining the process] “We have this yeast organism, this microbial, and we actually engineer that yeast to ingest sugar, which is a very simple material. And then inside of that yeast there’s a process that happens that converts that sugar and turns it into the identical protein of target. And that process that happens inside of the yeast is what’s really crucial here. And then at the end of the day, after about three or four days, it spits out the protein. And that protein then is a 100% identical protein that’s inside of cow milk. And then we have this purification process that happens after that where we just get rid of the yeast and get rid of any of the other sugars. And all we’re left with is that protein that we’re looking for downstream.”

14:30 – “One of the biggest applications today of lactoferrin is actually infant formula. And that’s also one of our commercial paths as well. But infant formula, they’ve seen the benefit of lactoferrin. It’s an abundant thing in mother’s milk. They’ve seen how much of an impact it makes on human health. And so they’ve started integrating that over the last several years, but still in a very small amount because there’s just not enough of it on the market.”

15:47 – “We want to be able to bring this lactoferrin product into the infant nutrition industry as well and be able to supply this, especially into areas that don’t have access to it. Places all over Africa, Asia. We think that making this more abundant on the market, it will really help with infant nutrition.”

On Some Of The Issues Turtle Tree Hopes To Alleviate

*19:52 – [On some of the issues Turtle Tree hopes to alleviate] “I think food security is a big one, actually. I’m in Singapore and Singapore is really, really focused on food security. This whole pandemic was a highlight, I think, during the pandemic all kinds of shelves are being wiped clean and people were panicking. It’s an island nation. I think this is a scary situation. And I think the government really thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got to be able to have some food resilience here. We’ve got to be able to find a way to make sure that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in the future or we can be better prepared for it.’ And that’s Singapore. But you have Indonesia, you have Japan, you have China, you have India, all these big countries are all going to be having this crunch. And what is that crunch? 30% of all of our arable land, and that means land which stuff can grow on, is going to disappear in the next ten years because of climate change. That’s a lot of land and that’s a lot of food taken off the table. So we think that these types of solutions are not just a nice to have. They’re going to be almost mandatory in the future if we’re going to be able to feed these people.”

20:55 – “Just last week, half of India basically is flooding at the moment. 100% of the crops in Pakistan, all lost. We’re talking about, this is a huge scale, tens of billions of dollars are lost. But more than that, it’s access to food now disappears, right? And I think that’s where what we’re talking about with climate change, food security, all those things make that this type of technology is going to become mandatory. It’s not just us, it’s a handful of other companies doing cool stuff around it. But we think that this is really the future of sustainable, healthier, better food.”

What’s Using Up All Of The Water?

*21:52 – (Ross) “There’s a weird relationship between the rest of the United States and California, which you must be aware of in the sense they say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have live there.’ All the people living near the Great Lakes say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have lived in California. You should have lived near fresh water, you idiot.’ Meanwhile, most of the water that’s used in California goes to make food for the rest of the states. So just because you’re living in a Great Lakes State, you could be eating vegetables that are all these things that are coming from California. And you’re blaming us for using water as though it’s my personal responsibility sitting here in my tiny little house for there not being enough water. But obviously agriculture is a huge, huge part of that. And meat and cows are a huge, huge part of that. Again, 1800 gallons of water to create 1 pound of beef, 718 gallons of water to create 1 pound of pork. And this is from an article I was reading on foodtank.com, whereas of course, soybeans, the water footprint is 206 gallons and corn is 108 gallons.”

26:42 – “Ten plus years ago I started complaining and whining that people are not doing enough to help with this climate change issues. People need to get off their ass, people need to get rid of greenhouse gases. They need to build solutions. Well, at some point, I thought, okay, listen, I can’t just complain. I got to get involved myself…I spent some time really, really learning as much as I can about the sustainability space and the food security space as well. Just because all this stuff is super linked. And I gave them talks on this subject and actually Google headquarters in Singapore, I was able to come here and give a talk on sustainability and food technology. And that’s actually where I met my co-founder, my CEO. She was actually working for Google and she was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool. This is a really, really cool thing that you can use technology to make food. Well I have this huge challenge, I want to make milk because I had this hobby of making cheese and I can’t find any good milk around here.’ And that just got us really excited.”

30:12 – “I wake up every day excited. I love what I do. My team is one of the world’s best, and to be able to have the opportunity to work with these folks and learn from them has been amazing. That journey has been super cool. When it comes to me making an impact and change, I can see it based off of the work that’s happening in the lab and how close we are to commercialization. But one of the things that I can say is I do understand the sheer scale of this problem now more than I did before. I knew that before something had to be done. And there’s a huge challenge there. But the more I dug in, the more I see the supply chain and the more I see the scale of what it takes to feed humanity, I realize this is going to be a bigger task and bigger challenge and something that our company can’t do alone. It’s going to be a combination of amazing companies are going to have to come together. The government, people themselves are all going to have to be aligned to be able to make this change. Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult to do.”

31:25 – “Today there’s a handful of companies, including Turtle Tree, that have the technology, right? We have this really cool technology and we can show this technology can scale even up to a 1,000-litre scale or a 10,000-litre scale. But what needs to happen is more infrastructure on the manufacturing side needs to happen because these processes need to happen at 50,000 liters, multiple massive tanks. But those types of systems take time to build. I mean, if you look at the manufacturing facilities today, sometimes it took it four or five years to build a large manufacturing facility. And we need a lot of these facilities throughout the world, not just a few. So I think that’s why it’s going to take some time.”

34:42 – “I kind of liken this to the mRNA vaccine, right? You know, these guys actually huddled away for about 20 years and nobody really gave them any, like, ‘I don’t really know what’s going to happen – we have enough other stuff going on.’ And then all of a sudden, a huge catastrophe happens where we have this huge pandemic and then these guys now are some of the most valuable in the world. And this is the technology we need to be able to save humanity in many ways. And I do believe there’s going to be that point in the future where we’re going to have some massive drought, massive issues around the planet. And technologies like this are going to be become one of the main ways that we continue feeding our people.”

35:40 – (Ross) “We always talked as kids, and I’m sure it was like this for you as well, you say, ‘What if I could invent a cure for cancer or a cure for AIDS? What a hero I’d be.’ And here I thought: they did that. And instead of being celebrated as heroes around the world, they’re crucified. They’re vilified as some kind of horrible monsters. I thought, how cruel is that? Somebody does something so amazing over a 20-year period, and instead of celebrating it, we accuse them of incredible harm. That just really broke my heart. People’s unwillingness to accept that. And I think it speaks to a broader distrust of science, the scientific method, the scientific process, a broader distrust of anything scientists say, which again, I feel is very unfair but it does appear to be the world that we live in. So probably people will accept the solution, but maybe begrudgingly accept it or with great kicking and screaming in ten years when they have no other choice.”

Do You Feel Excited When You Go To Work?

*37:44 – “I was very comfortable in my past career. It was really, really comfortable. You know, growing up, my mom used to say, ‘Listen, you can be a millionaire even as a garbage man, if you’re a good business man, no matter what you do, you’re going to make a lot of money.’ But purpose and finding meaning in what you do is actually a different story, right? You can make money doing anything. But do you feel alive? Do you feel excited when you go to work? And I just got to the point where I wanted that. I enjoyed my previous job. But it got to the point where I felt like I wanted to do something in the sustainability industry, something around this space. And that’s really where my thoughts started going towards over time. But I do believe that I’m just so much more excited these days about what I’m doing.”

38:47 – “It was very difficult in the early days to convince investors that you’re not a scientist and you want to lead a scientist-type company, most people in the space are usually going to be PhDs and so forth, and that will be the founder or so forth. So for me, in the early days, it was a challenge trying to say, ‘Listen, I’m a good businessman, I can learn, I can figure this out. I got the passion for this. Give me a chance.’ And to be honest with you, very fortunate that we had the opportunity where some investors said, ‘Listen, you guys got what it takes. And you guys can build a world class team and you’re starting to do that and we’re going to believe in you.’ But it was a challenge early on, Ross. It was no walk in the park. And this is also an inspirational thing that I’d love to be able to talk to folks about, is you can do it if you put in their time, put in the energy and the resources, you can reinvent yourself and you can actually focus on something that you’re really passionate about.”

43:33 – (Ross) “For me personally, one of the greatest things, it’s been so reaffirming to sit across from intelligent people who have their priorities in the right place. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the past who made a lot of money, but they did it in ways that I felt were unethical or kind of shady or yes, they gamed the system in some way, but it wasn’t something that you could really feel good about. And I was just listening to a show, my wife listens to Oprah sometimes, and she has books by Eckhart Tolle, and I was listening to some interview between Oprah and Eckhart Tolle. And talking about spirituality and whatever his book is. And there was a moment where Oprah was talking about appreciating the trees and nature and all of this. And then she felt, for her audience, that she had to clarify by saying, ‘Oh, I’m not talking about any kind of hippy-dippy nonsense, granola eating,’ and the fact that she felt that she had to put that parenthetical in there, to me, I thought, why? Why do you feel the need to diminish nature or these ideas by associating them with hippies or radicals or losers or idiots? And so this branding, this perception that it is for idiots or dreamers or pie in the sky people, that has to change. And people have to realize, yes, there’s real money there. Yes, there’s real smart people there. And these aren’t people who just couldn’t get a job or couldn’t hack it somewhere else. No, they can hack it anywhere. They just chose to do this because they believed in something.”

47:47 – “The Singapore Prime Minister’s office invited Turtle Tree to actually represent Turtle Tree at the COP 27 in Egypt this year in November. We’ll be showcasing some of our early products there. I think this is really an exciting time because we’re seeing a lot of great products, sustainable products that are starting to hit the market. In the next five years we really want to be one of the global major players in this bioactive dairy proteins or healthier proteins that we can actually produce using our platform and really make a dent there. And as you mentioned earlier, the supply chains, we also want to be able to work with the supply chains to be able to integrate our technologies and our solutions into the existing supply chains as well.”

49:14 – “Be inspired to do something. Everyone has a place in this table.”

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