Juggling a start-up and executive MBA study
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
In 2018, Fengru Lin spent a couple of weeks in Vermont enjoying her hobby of cheesemaking. Little did she know how the trip to the north-eastern US would reshape her career: within two years, she had quit her job at Google and become the co-founder and chief executive of TurtleTree, a biotech company that aims to produce sustainable food.
Lin originally wanted to make cheese in Asia. But, in her hunt for fresh milk, she found that farming practices undermined her efforts. Her mozzarella would not stretch like it would in Vermont, says Lin, and she could see the milk lacked calcium. “That is what exposed me to food systems,” she says, “how amazing they are — being able to support the billions of people on the planet — but also some of the weaknesses that we are seeing.”
Later that year, entrepreneur Max Rye gave a talk about transformative technologies at Google’s office in Singapore, where Lin worked. This sparked an initial conversation about the possibility of producing milk in the lab. “We started bouncing this idea off scientists, dairy companies and representatives of different food companies,” says Lin. “For us, it was the door that kept opening. No one said, ‘You are crazy’, no one said, ‘It is impossible’.”
That idea developed into a focus on lactoferrin, a protein in milk they say has benefits for the immune system, gut health, digestion and regulation of iron. Lactoferrin is found in tiny quantities in milk and is resource-intensive to extract, so 80 per cent is used in high-value products such as baby formula. TurtleTree plans to produce it using precision fermentation techniques and make it more widely available.
By mid-2019, Lin says, TurtleTree had been set up and the scientists, now working for the company, had made their first “breakthroughs” and filed their first patents. She left Google and Rye relocated from California to Singapore.
Getting a business off the ground would be enough for most founders but, in 2020, both Lin and Rye embarked on an executive MBA run jointly by Essec in France and Mannheim University in Germany.
“We wanted to be on the same path,” explains Lin, adding that the pair did not think of the programme as going to school, but rather as a supplement to what they were doing at work. They would have a coffee and discuss the lessons learnt and how they could be applied to the business.
Both Lin and Rye used TurtleTree in class projects, allowing them to make the most of their coursemates’ collective wisdom. “We found a way in real time to involve our peers in our class to help work on our project, help solve some of our gaps and issues within our company,” says Rye. “And it was just a wonderful environment because [classmates] also got a chance to dig into a start-up.”
One lesson that both founders took away was a focus on creating value from their technology. Lin recalls a professor saying: “An invention is only an invention if there is a business behind it.” This was “striking”, she says, because it reinforced the notion that people and the planet would only benefit from the company’s ideas if they derived value from them. Lin says she draws on this when talking to the TurtleTree team. “It is great we have an idea on paper. It is great we can run it in the lab. How do we scale it? How do we make it accessible to people? That is what creates impact.”
Even Rye — who spent 15 years as chief executive of an IT company — found this to be a valuable lesson. “I thought [turning an invention into innovation] was quite obvious already,” he says. “But it really was not — there is a lot more to it and that had the biggest impact for me.”
There were other tangible lessons. As part of the final project, Lin recalls, a professor struggled to understand the technology. “It was a good angle, from a layman’s point of view, to think through what the end consumer is thinking,” says Lin, noting that, in response, TurtleTree changed its messaging to avoid scientific and technical terms.
The business has so far raised about $40mn and has about 45 employees in Boston, California and Singapore, according to Lin, with regulatory approval in the US expected by the middle of next year and also sought in Singapore.
Lactoferrin is the first project, though others are in the pipeline. “This product is produced using precision fermentation,” Lin says. “This is a technology where we are able to get microbes like yeast or fungi to ingest sugar and pump out animal proteins — like how an animal would — just without [it] having to go through the cow.”
Fengru Lin CV
2014-15 Sales representative (Asean), Salesforce
2015-16 Business development (Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines), Salesforce
2016-18 Account executive (Salesforce Marketing Cloud), Salesforce
2018-19 Territory account manager (Google Cloud Platform), Google
2019 to present Chief executive and co-founder, TurtleTree
This process is more efficient in terms of the use of water, energy and land compared with extraction from milk, she says. TurtleTree wants to partner with big food and beverage companies, bringing the health benefits of more affordable and sustainable lactoferrin to products such as plant-based milks, kombucha and yoghurt.
Undertaking an EMBA while building a business was tough and the pair credit their leadership team with helping them through it. “You have to build a strong team from day one,” says Rye. “I think hire number four was our HR business partner.” This paid dividends as the team was “able to carry the load” while the duo completed the EMBA.
Indeed, Lin advises entrepreneurs considering an EMBA to “go for it”, while Rye says creating a good team is the key to balancing the demands of the course and running a business. “If you can find the right people around you, you can delegate,” he says. “And if you do not have the right people around you, maybe you are not doing something right.”