Helaina, a company producing a first-of-its-kind infant milk, announced $20 million in Series A financing to usher in its next phase of growth that includes beginning the manufacturing and commercialization process for its first product.
Food scientist Laura Katz, who also teaches food science at New York University, founded the company in 2019, and touts it as “the first company making functional human proteins for food.”
To do this, Helaina is tapping into a precision fermentation process that programs yeast cells and teaches them to become manufacturing hubs to develop almost identical proteins found in human milk.
“When we started Helaina, there was a lot of technology going into a lot of industries, but feeding babies had not advanced too much,” Katz told TechCrunch. “For me, when I thought about where in the population to advance nutrition and health, infants and parents were the first thing that came to me.”
As the infant formula market, poised to be a $103 billion market by 2026, grows, there continues to be shame and stigma around how to feed children in their early years, and Helaina aims to provide parents with a choice of foods that are priced to be accessible to all, but also support as they examine their choices, she said.
Helaina created its first protein and now wants to create all of breast milk’s components, though one at a time. Not only will its product provide calories, but also it will help to build immunity against fungal, bacterial and viral diseases.
The company’s latest round was co-led by Spark Capital and Siam Capital, and includes Plum Alley and Primary Venture Partners. It gives the company $24.6 million in total funding, which includes a $4.6 million combined round of pre-seed and seed investments from 2019 and 2020, respectively, Katz said.
It was a planned round, but what Katz noted was unexpected was the “overwhelming interest” in the company from investors.
“What we found in raising money is such a personal connection to what we are doing,” she added. “So much is happening in food tech, but seeing the ability to use this tech for a product so close to people’s heart has been overwhelming. Lots of people are interested in what we are doing.”
The Series A will enable the company to scale with manufacturing partners to prepare for commercialization. The goal is to grow capability, round out the executive team and finalize go-to-market plans.
The company is working to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its product and then has plans to use its proteins in a host of consumer products that will be clinically proven, essentially creating a new category within the consumer sector that broadens the definition of nutrition to include immunity, Katz said.
Helaina is not alone in working to create a formula that is more nutritious and best resembles human milk. Earlier this year, Bobbie raised $15 million in Series A funding for its formula modeled after European brands. ByHeart is also developing a formula, while Biomilq says it has produced the “world’s first cell-cultured human milk outside of the breast.”
Katz says the approach her company is taking to create the proteins and focus on making a product that is better in terms of health outcomes is what differentiates Helaina from its competitors.
“Helaina is the first company to bring human proteins to food,” she added. “No one else has done this before. As we expand technology to parents to feed growing children, we are creating this new category that is like consumer immunology.”
Meanwhile, the company is one of the first investments that Sita Chantramonklasri made from her new fund, Siam Capital, which she said invests in businesses that are at the intersection of sustainability and consumer need.
Chantramonklasri spends a lot of her time in the food tech space and heard about Helaina long before she was connected with Katz by Kevin Thau, who led the seed round for Spark Capital, she said.
At the time, she was doing a deep dive into the breast milk space and was looking at some of the novel technology in the space from some of Helaina’s competitors. She spent a lot of time with Katz to understand her background and what Helaina was doing in the space. After spending time in the laboratory and seeing the company’s yeast engineering experience, Chantramonklasri said she felt that Helaina was providing a science-forward product.
“Laura is a fantastic founder and wise beyond her years [she’s 29 years old!] and wants to see the mission of Helaina through,” she added. “The market will get more competitive and timing is the play as is customer loyalty. Helaina is in a position to be an advocate for mothers and families. From a technology standpoint, it is too early to tell what will happen. We see innovation in other cell culture technologies like the Biomilq, but Helaina will be a leader in the space from a progress standpoint.”