Who knew that a love for manchego and mozzarella would inspire Lin Fengru to set up a company to create milk from stem cells? TurtleTree Labs, which she set up with Max Rye, an American IT specialist, in 2019, recently raised US$3.2 million ($4.4 million) in seed funding to accelerate its cell-based milk development. Backed by investors from all over the globe, including Saudi Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal’s KBW Ventures, the company is on track to sign its first licencing deals by mid-2021.
You have such an international team at TurtleTree Labs. Have you been able to leverage on those differences?
I love how our wonderful mix of cultures and nationalities throws up so many frames of reference. It enables us to learn from one another. In the early days, when we were brainstorming ideas to produce human milk for babies, our Muslim teammates brought up the point of milk kinship among babies who share milk from the same woman, like a wet nurse. Such insights inspired us to engage in deeper conversations with our investors from the Middle East, who share similar beliefs and are also looking for methods to source better nutrition for babies. Plus, it is always fun to discover more about a foreign culture or practice at our team lunches.
How has being Singaporean made you more open to embracing diversity?
I am very fortunate to have grown up alongside kids from various races. Such experiences enabled me to consider issues from different perspectives. As the leader of a company, I make sure we have a good mix of genders and backgrounds. Empathy is essential to fostering an inclusive working environment at TurtleTree Labs. We take time to understand and celebrate one another’s idiosyncrasies. In the push towards diversity and inclusivity, I believe we can do more than just hire from minority communities.
The industry should pull applicants from a diverse pool and train hiring managers to ensure the recruitment criteria and process is inclusive. It is crucial to leverage diverse perspectives for the benefit of the business as a whole and bring awareness to unconscious bias. By encouraging employees to speak out against any bias, they will be empowered to take individual accountability. It may not be simple but it can be done if everyone steps out of their comfort zone to embrace new ideas andperspectives.
In the STEM industry where fewer than 30 percent of employees are women, what have you learnt from placing women in key positions?
Women can provide a different perspective to discussions and enhance collaboration as we tend to open up the floor to more opinions. We hire based on expertise; it’s also surprised us that we have achieved a perfectly balanced ratio of male to female in our management team.
So, what’s next?
TurtleTree Labs is setting up a foundation for our work with endangered species like snow leopards and elephants. Snow leopards in captivity tend to attack their young, so mother and baby must be separated. The Smithsonian Institute reached out to ask if we could make snow leopard milk for the babies’ nutritional needs. Such initiatives inspire the best scientists to reach out to join us.