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Wilk produces animal-free dairy lipids using cell cultures

Article-Wilk produces animal-free dairy lipids using cell cultures

© iStock/Sam Edwards child drinking milk, dairy, iStock Sam Edwards, iStock-170510614- RS.jpg
Startup Wilk uses cell culturing to produce alternative milk lipids based on breast milk components and cow’s milk lipids, essentially making breast milk in a laboratory and cow's milk without cows, it says.

Wilk uses cell culture methods to produce milk. This technology is similar to how the alternative meat industry is developing meat substitutes.

Cell-based alternatives could help dairy companies and infant formula producers to deliver nutritional products without some of the economic, environmental, and ethical costs sometimes associated with milk production, it says.

Wilk CTO Dr Zohar Barbash notes that while other companies in this innovation space are experimenting with precision fermentation, or focusing on specific proteins, Wilk is unique in that the company is focused on milk lipids. These are hard to extract from cells but are needed in order to advance the field of infant formulae and alternative dairy products. They cannot be produced in any other way.

“We start with small amounts of alternative mother milk components, and with small amounts of cow’s milk lipids,” she explains. As far as we know, there isn’t another company that is producing milk ingredients from human cells.”

Delivering new alternative milk solutions

Wilk’s innovation is very much focused on providing new solutions for alternative dairy companies, as well as for infant formula producers. Ingredients, sourced from cell cultures, will enable dairy companies to use high-quality animal-sourced lipids like in animal fat, but without the environmental, economic, and ethical costs of using animals.

“Second, for infant formula companies, this is the first time that an ingredient similar to human milk will be extracted from human cells,” says Barbash. “We think this will be a huge step forward for the infant formula industry. So, we are producing breast milk from the lab, and cow’s milk without cows.”

For this innovation, Wilk was recognised as a finalist in last year’s Fi Europe Startup Innovation Challenge, for the Most Innovative Food or Beverage Ingredient. Barbash says that the experience provided an excellent opportunity to meet with other interesting startups and bring their own innovation to a wider audience.

“Since one of the things we are doing is manufacturing from human cell lines, and there is no other company that is doing that, we really need to open up the public to this option,” she says. “Our innovation needs to be accepted by the community.”

Bringing lab breakthroughs to market

Two complementary unmet needs were the catalysts for the launch of Wilk. The first was the lack of human-based infant formula.

“As we all know, mother milk is the best nutrition,” notes Barbash. “But what if it is impossible to breastfeed? We felt that women should have a choice between two good options. This led us to think about using mammary cells to help women make a better choice for their baby.”

The second challenge that Wilk sought to address was the problems associated with the dairy industry and its use of cows. “We felt certain that this needed to be changed,” continues Barbash. “Cow’s milk cannot be produced without a huge amount of carbon emissions. There is also the issue of disease. This is something that can be difficult to anticipate, and which can affect the availability of cow’s milk on the market.”

This led to the launch of the company. The first step was to find efficient ways of bringing breakthroughs in the lab into the commercial space. “We received technology developed within academia and were sure that it would take just a few months to upscale,” says Barbash. “Well, it took a bit longer! We encountered a number of challenges. For example, cells often do not do exactly what you tell them to, and not when and where you planned.”

Path to market acceptance

Nonetheless, perseverance has ensured that Wilk is on the path to market acceptance. “There is a lot of interest,” says Barbash. “The main question we get asked is when will we be ready for commercialisation, and how much will our product cost. We are also looking for industry partners to further develop new products, and to help us with commercialisation.”

Barbash and her team hope that their innovation will contribute towards less unnecessary use of animals in food production, and greater acceptance of alternative methods and sources for producing products that accurately mimic the real thing. Next steps include securing necessary regulatory approvals and bringing their products to market as soon as possible.