Laura Katz of Helaina
Laura is the Founder and CEO of Helaina. Founded in 2019, Helaina is the first company to produce human milk proteins that are identical to those in breast milk, creating a new category of infant formula. Disrupting the infant formula category which has been stagnant for decades, Helaina has raised more than $25 million. Laura became NYU’s youngest ever adjunct professor in Food Science & Technology in 2017 and was featured in Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2022.
Learn more about Helaina at www.myhelaina.com
Alex Shirazi (01:35):
Thanks for joining us on the Future Food Show. On this episode, we’re excited to have Laura Katz. Laura is a food scientist and the Founder and CEO of Helaina. Founded in 2019. Helaina produces human milk proteins that are identical to those in breast milk, creating a new category of infant formula. Helen Elena has raised more than 25 million. Laura became NYU’s youngest ever adjunct professor in food science and technology in 2017 and was featured in Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2022. I had a great chat with Laura and I’m excited to have her on the show. Let’s jump right in. Thanks for joining us on the Future Food Show. We’re excited to have Laura Katz of Helaina on the call today. Laura, welcome to the
Laura Katz (02:22):
Show. Thank you so much for having me, Alex.
Alex Shirazi (02:25):
There’s an upcoming future food tech event in New York that I’m excited to chat about, but before we go into that, tell us a little bit about your background.
Laura Katz (02:34):
I am a food scientist by training. So I’ve spent the beginning of my career developing food products, all kinds of products that are C P G, so really packaged goods that live on shelves and I’ve spent my time thinking about their formulation, the commercialization process, how to scale, how to do all of the technical stuff that makes foods, but before that, and I say before that because my, I would say my career really started when I was young. I was really obsessed with food from probably the age of 10 or 11 and I started catering out of my parents’ kitchen when I was a teenager and I’ve always been obsessed with feeding people, making new foods, making unique eating experiences. So a long history of working in food.
Alex Shirazi (03:34):
That’s cool. And I see here that you actually worked at SIMULATE in the early days, is that right?
Laura Katz (03:42):
Yes. I was probably the first employee there along with, you know, one or two other people helped to develop the actual formulations. So all the things that go into making that product, scaling it, finding the manufacturing facility, going there and touring and figuring out how to procure ingredients as, you know, a team of four people and getting it there and just doing all of the, you know, early days startup work which was a lot of fun.
Alex Shirazi (04:10):
Wow, that’s cool. And so you have a background in food science and you started Helaina. So tell us about what Helaina is.
Laura Katz (04:19):
We are a biotech company recreating the proteins found in breast milk that are focused on building immunity in babies, but not just in babies. We can use the proteins that we make in infant formula to bring a next generation of a humanized infant formula to market, as well as using these proteins that help to build the immune system into all different kinds of consumer products where people need better nutrition. And the backbone of what we’re building this off of is a precision fermentation platform. So we teach yeast how to make these proteins and they become self factories for us to manufacture proteins that are identical to what’s found in breast milk.
Alex Shirazi (05:11):
So I’d love to dig a little bit deeper into the science, but before we go there, what I’ve been hearing on the news is that there’s a huge shortage of infant formula. Can you tell us about that?
Laura Katz (05:22):
We’re seeing at the moment a lot of the issues that have been facing this entire industry come, you know, to light and also synergistically all work towards or work together to create a shortage. So we have two, three large manufacturers who are responsible for a majority of the US domestic supply of infant formula with one of those facilities shut down due to a product recall. A large portion of the country’s supply is not available right now because the manufacturer can’t be making it. And of course that causes shortages. At the same time we have supply chain issues, so actually procuring the right material and enough quantity of the inputs that go into infant formula is delaying production for not just the facility that has, you know, is not right now currently in use, but to a lot of different infant formula manufacturers. So that makes it much more challenging to actually meet demand or exceed what you are currently making to make up for this gap in the market.
Laura Katz (06:43):
And there is a big calling card to companies like Helaina and others in this space who are working tirelessly to bring new products and better products to market. Of course it takes a long time. There are a lot of checks and balances in bringing formula to market critically important safety studies that need to be done. But it’s really all of the, all of the issues that have been really illuminated to us working in the background on this. But now all of these flaws are very apparent to the public and it’s all coming to surface at once. So that’s what we’re currently seeing with the infant formula crisis at the moment.
Alex Shirazi (07:26):
And so hopefully in the future Helaina will be able to fill those gaps, is that right?
Laura Katz (07:32):
Exactly. We look to not just fill the gaps but exceed the expectation of what infant formula even is Right now we rely on conventional agricultural sources for most of the inputs that go into infant formula. This can be limiting and also many of these components like corn syrup and maltodextrin are not found in breast milk. They’re ingredients that we can use to fill out these products, but they’re not providing any nutritive or therapeutic benefit to baby in the same way breast milk does. So to create the components of breast milk that help to build critical systems in baby like the immune system is a way to advance the category and allow the industry to start relying on more sustainable and reliable methods to produce the inputs for infant formula to avoid any type of supply chain issue or shortage moving forward.
Alex Shirazi (08:36):
Exciting. And so you mentioned that your team uses a precision fermentation approach to creating the end product or the, I guess this like super infant formula, so so to say <laugh>. And so would you say that’s a similar method to companies like Perfect Day or every company Clara Foods, every company?
Laura Katz (08:56):
Exactly. So those companies are making, you know, more animal derived ingredients using precision fermentation. And the difference between them in in us is we’re recreating human proteins. And I’d say where we depart from the current companies on the market is a lot of the application for precision fermentation made proteins at the moment is to make ingredients that help to build a sensory profile or the taste and the flavor and the texture that you’re familiar finding in animal products. And that is great. I think it’s a really interesting way to use this technology, but that is not our focus at Helaina. The sensory profile is secondary to the actual efficacy that we’re building into the proteins. So we almost think about it as like medicinal foods or functional proteins. We are optimizing for creating proteins that help to build immunity. So we put the efficacy ahead of anything else as we think about development and that’s where the application of precision fermentation is actually quite novel in making high value, highly nutrient dense ingredients as opposed to ingredients for their sensory profile
Alex Shirazi (10:22):
In addition to the protein. What are some of the other components in breast milk or maybe the infant formula?
Laura Katz (10:31):
There are so much. Breast milk is complex and consumers, I think, you know, those not in the food industry often care about seeing a clean label with short ingredients. And if you didn’t include a lot of ingredients in an infant formula, you’d be missing so many of the components that we’re trying to recreate for breast milk. And we’re doing our best to target all of what is found in breast milk that can be found through ingredients like food ingredients and bringing in our proteins as this next level of humanizing in formula. And our goal as a business over time is to recreate all of breast milk’s most valuable components. The other ingredients that we are including in our formula are things like vitamins and minerals. So some of the essentials that have to be there to ensure baby is getting every single nutrient they need dha, which is derived from algae, and this helps to develop cognitive health. We include human milk oligosaccharides, which are sugars that essentially function as fiber and help to build the gut of the infant. So these are just a few things that we are really excited about, but our goal is to make as comprehensive as a formula and include all of the best available science in one consumer product to make it as close to breast milk as possible.
Alex Shirazi (12:09):
Great. And and there won’t be any other, or there won’t be any animal based products in the end product is, is that right? Such as, you know, any, anything that currently exists from an ingredient standpoint.
Laura Katz (12:22):
So there will, because there’s some in components where there’s no way around it. I’ll give an example, lactose. Lactose is a main source of sugar in both cow’s milk and breast milk. And unfortunately the only way to procure lactose globally is to take it from cow’s milk. And the other alternatives for the sugar source in infant formula is corn syrup. And that was not an ingredient that we were willing to include in our product. And there’s actually a lot of good data data to show that lactose is the best form of sugar and the most natural form of sugar for babies. So that is something that we’re including maybe there is a future one day where we can make lactose using fermentation. I think that would be very cool, but it would take a long time and hopefully if it’s not Helaina that works towards that, maybe somebody listening can think about how to make lactose through fermentation because it would be solving so many different issues of having to rely on bovine deriv lactose.
Alex Shirazi (13:36):
Cool. Yeah, and at the end of the day it’s what’s the, the best product for the, the infant or the baby. Exactly. Before I forget, I wanted to ask the name Helaina, what does it mean? How did you kind of come up with it? Where did that come about?
Laura Katz (13:50):
Helaina is my middle name actually, but we are honoring my great-grandmother who immigrated from eastern Europe to Canada where I’m actually natively from at the turn of the century. And she lived her life for her family and her children and wrote a letter actually to my uncle about how she was so excited to be able to come to Canada and to build a life where she could see her children shine. And so to be able to honor somebody who cared so much about the livelihood of children and their development and could have never imagined in the same token that we’ve been able to advance women’s health and infant nutrition and women’s rights to where they are today was a really critical thing for us to think about in honoring her with the name of the company. And another thing about my great-grandmother, Helaina, is that she was widowed later in life and she was tasked with taking over the family business and my great-grandfather had hardware store and she took over the hardware store and at that time women didn’t really work very much, but she took to it and she ran that business as ac it actually still exists today.
Laura Katz (15:20):
It’s not owned by the family, but it’s owned by another family. And so the entrepreneurial spirit I think was something that we wanted to honor her as well. So that’s where the name Helaina comes from.
Alex Shirazi (15:31):
I love it. What a, what a beautiful story. And actually, you know, before the call I Google defined Helaina and one of the definitions that came up was ray of light, sunshine hope. And so it’s that’s very beautiful.
Laura Katz (15:42):
Yeah. Thank you.
Alex Shirazi (15:43):
So we are talking about creating human proteins for consumption. What does the regulatory landscape look like?
Laura Katz (15:53):
There is for infant formula a pretty standard process to commercialize a product and a lot of it is centered around a clinical study. So to ensure that the product meets all safety requirements and meets baby’s growth requirements. As an infant formula manufacturer, you have to feed your formula to infants for a set period of time and measure different things as outlined by the FDA to ensure that the product is providing adequate growth and development for babies. This is really the cornerstone of the regulatory process and there’s a few other things that you have to prepare, but this is key. So this is something actually Helaina’s currently planning. It takes time to be able to get to a clinical study and we have a lot of internal safety studies that we do before actually getting there, but that is the biggest part of the process that companies have to account for if they wanna get into this category. And there is no other food that requires clinical studies. So it is quite a big hurdle in a cost and a time that you need to be able to bake into your business as you’re thinking about bringing a new product to the category.
Alex Shirazi (17:15):
So the upcoming panel at Future Food Tech, I believe is entitled something is Brewing Improving Fermentation Capacity and Reducing Downstream Processing Costs. Can you tell us a little bit about what we might be able to expect at, at this panel discussion?
Laura Katz (17:32):
Well, Mark Warner, who is moderating the panel is quite brilliant in this category and he’s actually helped us a lot at Helaina, so I can’t wait to be able to speak on the panel. Really where we’ll focus and where my perspective and Helaina’s perspective comes from is some of the challenges that we find in scaling fermentation process, especially as an early stage company, knowing that there’s a lot of things that we don’t know about the process until we get to scale and how we can navigate some of these unknowns but also still hit internal milestones in critical scale milestones to prove that what we’re doing is, is viable outside of a lab and that you can take a science project and turn it into a business by way of scaling. There just has to be points, points of comfort where you’re uncomfortable knowing that it is okay that you don’t have all the answers as you scale.
Laura Katz (18:37):
I think the other piece that we’ll likely focus on on the panel is the challenges that we’re facing currently with D S P and how you scale a D S P process without being able to test every part of it in your own lab or in a pilot scale because every single facility has a different D s P suite and so you need to be able to consider that and consider the cost and the CapEx of building out your own customized d s P suite every place that you go potentially for your scale up process and what that can mean for your business. So these are just some of the things that we’re gonna be touching on, but I think it’s gonna be a really exciting panel and I’m really proud to be able to be part of it because it’s a part of the industry that sometimes is not the most glamorous part of talking about it, you know, manufacturing and the commercial process is it’s the reality of what we have to do to be able to build a business but doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. So it’s gonna be really informative and I hope that there are a lot of people in the audience that get to learn a lot from that panel.
Alex Shirazi (19:46):
Great. And that panel will be next week at Future Food Tech in New York, the 2022 edition, and I believe it’ll be on the 21st, but the conference itself goes on the 21st and 22nd. We’ll have some additional information about the conference and how you might be able to join virtually or in person in the show notes. Well that’s super exciting and I’m definitely looking forward to the panel. I wanted to kind of ask you about challenges as an entrepreneur, but more specifically maybe first ask you as a female entrepreneur, what is some advice you might be able to give to other female entrepreneurs that are either going out there, have started their companies or maybe thinking about starting a company for those listening
Laura Katz (20:31):
Have no shame. That is probably my biggest piece of advice. When you start a business, you have to cold email so many people and build connections and get in front of as many folks as possible and you can’t feel shame or uncomfortable with just putting yourself out there because the more that you do it, the more probability of success you’ll have. When I started Helaina, I, I didn’t even know what a VC was, <laugh>, I didn’t know what precision fermentation was and I had no network, no connections, and I went through Crunchbase and I filtered for angel investors and angel investors that do early stage. I think that was like really my only two criteria and I just went through that list and I pretty sure I emailed the top 150 people and tried to get on the phone with as many people as possible.
Laura Katz (21:38):
A lot of the conversations were probably, you know, I wasn’t reaching the right people, but I didn’t feel any shame about it. I knew that I wanted to build this business I have had had and have so much conviction around what we’re trying to do at Helaina. And it’s the best way of learning is just putting yourself out there and not having any shame around doing that. So being shameless is probably the best piece of advice that I could give. And I would say the other piece of that is don’t get discouraged. Every single successful entrepreneur that you see, you know, online on social media talking at events has gone through years and years and years of rejection that is so normal in the process. And don’t let it get to you. Let every no or every, you know, somebody’s saying this is a silly idea, you’re never gonna make it fuel you to continue going and know that every single person around you has gone through that as well. And it’s very normal. And as long as you continue to tell yourself that and don’t get bogged down by it, then you’ll have a lot of success.
Alex Shirazi (22:45):
I love it. And so for those listening, can you maybe share how big the Helaina team is now and the last publicly announced raise?
Laura Katz (22:54):
Yes. I was just before this interview trying to figure out how many of us there are because we, we just sent out an offer to a candidate who’s accepting that we’re very excited about and we just hired a wonderful C T O and some great people on the team. And so I was trying to count, we’re in the mid thirties right now, team size. Our last fundraise was last fall in the fall of 2021 where we raised over 20 million in our series A funding.
Alex Shirazi (23:29):
Amazing. Super inspiring. Before we close out, I wanted to kind of ask about the future of Helaina. When might we be able to see Helaina products available for sale? And I know that there’s a lot of great work that needs to be done, a lot of safety that needs to be checked, double checked, certified, et cetera. But when is kind of like the timeline on the horizon?
Laura Katz (23:52):
Oh, I’m hoping soon, but it’s so tricky to say right now as the regulations are changing every day with the current shortage, we are likely facing delays in our go-to-market and that’s because purely our manufacturing partner has to be, it’s a government mandate that they use their facility to make products that are saleable and not for testing. So you’re asking this at an interesting time because things are continuously changing. So I’m optimistic I say soon, but it will really depend on how these mandates shape out and as a business and people who really care, the whole Helaina team very much cares about being able to make sure babies can get fed. Right now we’re very in support of us getting delayed of getting to market if it means that other manufacturers can be using a hundred percent of their production line to create products to feed babies as opposed to for testing.
Alex Shirazi (25:00):
You can learn more about Helaina@myHelaina.com and find Laura on LinkedIn. Laura, do you have any last insights announcements or any just tidbits before we close off today?
Laura Katz (25:12):
Looking forward to seeing everybody at Future Food Tech. It’s going to be a great event. There are some brilliant people attending and I’m hoping that I can meet some of the people listening here.
Alex Shirazi (25:25):
Exciting. We look forward to seeing you there, Laura. Thank you so much.
Laura Katz (25:28):
Alex Shirazi (25:29):
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode.
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