Happy Birthday BIOMILQ: a reflection by Leila Strickland, our CSO & co-founder
It turns out that our mission is about far more than increasing infant feeding options.
Why am I doing this?
This is a question I’ve been asked over and over for the last year, as I have poured every ounce of my passion and energy into willing BIOMILQ into existence. I’ve been asked this question by skeptical investors, by curious journalists, and by supportive family and friends. As we approach BIOMILQ’s first birthday, I want to share my answer to this question more broadly, and reflect on the ways in which my answer has changed in the year since all of this began.
A year ago, I told anyone who would talk to me about BIOMILQ that I was doing this for mothers, families and babies. I told investors all day every day, for the first few months of 2020. Informed by my personal experience with breastfeeding failure and by a relentless hunch about the biology of milk biosynthesis, I believed that if someone would just give me a chance to do this thing, it might actually work. Over the past seven years, I had taken this idea from a hunch to a self-funded proof-of-concept experiment in which it was confirmed that a molecularly complex product composed of human milk components could be obtained from culturing the mammary epithelial cell in a high-density system. I felt a tremendous urgency to share this result with anyone who might be able to help me move this work forward.
Everything caught on fire when Michelle joined me as CEO.
She had watched for months as I had floundered through several misfires that had left me burned and reeling. She offered advice when asked, support when needed, and always reaffirmed a steady belief that this could be done, that I was the right person to do it, that yes, it was supposed to be this hard, and no, we shouldn’t quit. As our partnership developed, she became essential to our success as she contributed her training in business and entrepreneurship to help create the framework for BIOMILQ and cultivate connections with contacts from the business world who were interested in technologies with social impact. Just as critically, she brought passion for a shared purpose and the intangible elements of focus, accountability, patience, empathy, creativity, courage, and a relentless optimism that THIS WILL HAPPEN, even when I couldn’t see the path.
And Michelle was right. Here we are, a year on, and what a year it has been.
We spent months developing the vision for the company and pitching it to venture capitalists, many of whom were slick young “biobros” who wanted to invest in the next hot thing. Most of them were wealthy white men from Silicon Valley who had scarcely ever considered the purpose of breasts beyond the ornamental, some of whom clearly only attended the meeting for the boob jokes, and were surely disappointed. Some suggested a substitute good for our product was simply hiring a wet nurse. Many were uncomfortable being pitched by a middle-aged mom describing in gritty detail the efforts she had undertaken to extract milk from her own breasts in her first days of parenthood, and the downright depressing effects of her inability to do so. There’s a gross disconnect between the challenges of early-motherhood and those men with power who have no understanding of the struggles women face.
Some of these investors passed us by in favor of other startups in food tech, such as a company run by a dude with frosted tips and a tight t-shirt, who wanted to make chocolate-covered chickpeas and sell them as a “guilt-free” snack to women who feel ambivalent about their bodies. Some thought we were a great opportunity but were repulsed by our product concept and could not imagine feeding it to anyone in their all-plant-based family. Some wanted to support us, but their funding model would require that I uproot or leave my family and relocate from my small farm in North Carolina to New York or San Francisco for a few months of networking and mentoring with more founders half my age — no thanks. One even took our pitch on his cell phone while standing in line at a Trader Joe’s and said it all sounded great, but he just didn’t understand “our strategy.
Fortunately, for as many uncomfortable conversations we had, we found allies in unexpected places. Male investors who shared deeply personal struggles that they and their family had faced as new parents. Dad’s calling in from home, managing the kids with their partner in the pandemic, with sesame street playing in the background. Female VC partners who had struggled to be women of power while also being hooked up to breast-pumps. Cellular agriculture enthusiasts who recognized BIOMILQ as a potentially novel opportunity in a field that is exploding. These are the ones who sat tight long enough to ask this mom some questions about her idea and the scientific training that it rested on. An even smaller group was intrigued enough to schedule follow-up calls with experts who would grill me to make sure I knew what I was talking about. These calls reminded me of my dissertation defense, and this is when I started to enjoy myself.
We found champions more often than ‘biobros’.
When the deals closed, we had a 2020-style virtual toast on Zoom and got right back to work. We opened the lab, filled it with the smartest people we could find, called in favors and relied on the generosity of our families and friends to help us however they could, and set out on the task of figuring out how to make human milk outside of human breasts.
Most mornings, I am up before dawn, eager for the day, and when I finally crawl into bed many many hours later, my mind races into the night. It’s not a very balanced life. It’s not a life that most of my friends or family can relate to or would choose. It’s not the best way to parent through a global pandemic, when my now elementary-aged children need my attention more than they have since those desperate first months of their lives. I’ve had to make some difficult decisions, and my life has changed as a result of the choices I’ve made.
So, why am I doing this?
OOne year later, I’m still mainly here for moms, families and babies. I still believe that the nutrition of human milk is the ideal food for human babies, and I’m still fed up with the shame that women are subjected to when they aren’t able or choose not to breastfeed. I still ache for women who spend hours each day attached to a pump, and I’m still pissed about how the time spent producing milk subtly affects their career trajectories in comparison to their counterparts, whose bodies do not sustain the life of the next generation.
I’m still livid about the politics and policies around infant feeding that have turned breastfeeding into a moral imperative and amplified the privilege of those who are able and in a position to do so. I’m still the first to stand up for infant formula as a life-saving product that has done more than any other to advance gender parity in infant feeding through decades that have seen women enter the workforce en masse. I’m still in awe of moms who continue to feed their babies round the clock by whatever means necessary on almost no sleep, while facing a constant cacophony of uninvited opinion on whatever method they are using.
I’m here for moms who breastfeed, I’m here for moms who pump, and I’m here for moms who feed infant formula.
I’m also here to challenge everyone — parents, physicians, government officials, and nosy bystanders — to think harder about their positions on infant feeding. I’m here to deepen this conversation and add nuance by posing the question of what it would mean if we could make human milk outside the body. I’m here to learn from other people’s answers. I’m here to question and de-mystify the “breast is best” mantra that caused me so much anguish when I couldn’t feed at the breast. I’m here to invite moms who have already endured so much shame for feeding formula to consider what they would choose if they truly had a choice. I’m here to offer a new option for adoptive parents, parents in the LGBTQ community, women who have lost their breasts to cancer, or women who have HIV, or who have chosen not to breastfeed for any number of reasons that are none of my business.
I’m here to challenge men to grapple with an important issue that affects half of the population. I’m here to challenge employers to better support new parents. I’m here to challenge policy makers and hospital boards to incorporate the physical and mental well-being of mothers when developing recommendations around infant feeding practices. I’m here to challenge the scientific community to think harder about women’s health. I’m here to challenge the general population to learn a little something about the beautiful biology of these spectacular cells and the miraculous molecules that they make. I’m here to challenge the business community to recognize the opportunity that exists to make a real, positive impact in the world when they invest in smart, ambitious women.
And finally, as always, I’m here for my children, Levi and Violet, who I’m raising on a little bit of everything.