BIOMILQ’s goal is to mimic human breast milk in a lab setting by culturing mammary epithelial cells. This approach will be a healthier alternative to formula, and its carbon footprint is significantly less than that of formula.
According to BIOMILQ’s website, “more than 4 out of 5 moms have to stop breastfeeding before the recommended six months. That means the vast majority of [women] are turning to dairy-based formula. And that means many [women] face serious trade-offs, as infant formula lacks the critical nutrients of breastmilk and carries a heavy environmental burden. There has to be a better way. We’re making that better way possible.”
BIOMILQ’s cofounder and CEO Michelle Egger spoke with me about leadership, the future of BIOMILQ, and provided advice for other aspiring female entrepreneurs.
Julia Wuench: Congratulations on getting Your Seed Round! How did it feel when you first found out?
Michelle Egger: I felt like someone was punking me. Just before closing, my cofounder and I were having some challenges with a few aspects of the business. It felt like everything was dead in the water. We had gotten to the point where we said to each other, “we're going to have to apply for real jobs.”
Then, in what felt like the 10th hour, we found truly mission-aligned investors who were there for the long haul. They understood that we were not in this business just because it's a profitable model, but because it has the potential to change the world.
It felt like an anti-climactic Friday night when I found out. I felt like I should have prepared a bottle of champagne. I think it took a good week before I could even say aloud “We’ve done it.” But, watching money come into a bank account makes it feel real.
Wuench: It sure does. How did you and your cofounder find each other and decide to start a business?
Egger: Leila and I were introduced by a mutual friend. We both were obsessed with nutrition and using science for solving malnutrition. I spent our first month trying to convince her that she could find a “real” CEO (not me). I told her that I could help her find somebody who was more experienced than me. Early on, we took a trip to San Francisco together to meet advisors, find mentors and speak with other folks who have had similar journeys.
We were accidentally fundraising and we didn't know it.
From that point on, it was very clear that there was such a strong need for our product. That trip was like pouring rocket fuel on us. At that point, we were ready to go. I became CEO. It was a match made in heaven.
Wuench: To what factors do you attribute your success to date?
Egger: Leila and I, for better or worse, are eternal optimists. We just always feel like there has got to be a way. It’s easy to be an optimist when you're so devoted to doing what's best, not just what's going to be easiest, or make the most money, or be the sexiest thing to talk about.
It's easy to be an optimist if you believe at your core, like we do, that what we're doing can revolutionize the way we feed every single human being on this planet.
Secondly, I like to please people and make them happy… but I also don't think rules apply to me. So I feel like entrepreneurs and criminals probably have a lot in common.
Also, business school at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business was a catalyst, though I don’t believe that every entrepreneur necessarily needs to go to business school. I had a supportive community around me of people who believed in the power of business for good, especially through the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE).
Wuench: CASE was my breath of fresh air when I was at Fuqua! And your comment about criminals and entrepreneurs is definitely true.
Egger: I see the world as a series of suggestions.
Wuench: I love that. What advice do you have for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Egger: I think it’s important to think less about being a “female” entrepreneur, and think more about what strengths you have. I think all too often the message is that women have been disadvantaged and have to overcome that. And for some female entrepreneurs that's 100% true, especially our black and brown female entrepreneurs. They face incredible hurdles that I will never face in my life, because of the privilege that I have. But for a lot of us, I think our gender makes us naturally more resilient. As women, we've been told “no” a lot of times in our lives, and we are pretty good at figuring out how to get around that.
Also, you don't have to play by the rules of existing business.
Business is changing. There are plenty of us female allies who have been trained “traditionally” who do not care what top 20 business school you came out. And so, stop focusing on the credentials that you need and instead focus on what you need to get done to launch your business.
Wuench: What can the world expect next from BIOMILQ?
Egger: We're spending a lot of time in the lab to further optimize our product. Also, much of my time is spent talking to parents, caregivers, lactation consultants and doctors. We can't create this product in a vacuum. If we truly want to see change, it isn't something we can do alone. We’re collaborating with our end consumers to ensure that the product meets their needs. Infant feeding is such a personal experience. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. We're co-creating the solution with multiple stakeholders. All of these stakeholders are going to have a huge impact on our end goal of creating better infant nutrition.
Wuench: Have there been any shocking or weird moments along this journey?
Egger: Absolutely. First I’ll use an anecdote from another female entrepreneur in the biotech space, because her experiences mirror women in the tech space, myself included. This amazing entrepreneur went to speak at a conference where there weren’t many women. She was seven months pregnant at the time. And not a single person offered her a chair for 10 hours. She told me she felt like it wasn't her place to ask someone to get up and give her a chair. But in that moment, she was shocked and unsure about what to do to.
I had a similar moment. Leila and I were speaking to a potential investor and he asked us, “Well, why can't families just hire a wet nurse? Why does this product need to exist?” I'm usually quick on my feet but I was rendered speechless. The question was off-base on so many levels. It showed his ignorance about socioeconomic status and the idea that every woman can just “hire” someone. It showed his lack of knowledge about the problematic origins of wet nursing. And it also showed that he didn’t understand the simple fact that wet nursing is not a competitive or scaleable product!
I think back to your earlier question of being a female entrepreneur and the idea of resiliency. When you find investors or allies — male or female — who really get it, the rest is easy. Talking about the business model is the easy part. It was difficult to try to show people why something mattered when they lacked any personal experience in our industry.
Wuench: What makes you mad?
Egger: We were talking to a femme tech investment group, and there was one man on their team. We had talked to him in person and then we had a phone call follow-up. He took the call while he was checking out at the Trader Joe's. (I could tell based on the conversation happening in the background that it was Trader Joe’s. Sidenote: if you don't have dark chocolate peanut butter cups in your cart, we're not friends.)
It wasn’t the lack of respect for me as a person that got to me. He could think what he wanted about me. It was the lack of respect for the idea that really got to me. This idea is undeniably filled with potential. And, we decided not to proceed with them as investors.
Wuench: Yes! Good!
Here’s what I think about being an entrepreneur: A lot of what you’re doing is being an advocate for the people who are experiencing a problem — your customers. So, it’s never personal for me. Dislike me all you want. But when you’re representing women at large who are having trouble feeding their children and families, women who don't have access to acceptable infant nutrition, women who are not experiencing appropriate levels of health care or advice? You can't dismiss them. You can tell me no but you can't tell them no.
If you have a really good idea as a woman, that idea deserves to be heard. The voices of the people you're representing deserve to be heard.
Read the article here.