Breast milk is said to have the perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat for a baby’s development. Natural breast milk also boosts a baby’s immune system by providing much-needed antibodies to ward off infection and prevent harmful bacterial growth. It’s also easier to digest as compared to formula. However, formula feeding is significantly more convenient and flexible for mothers. Helaina is on a mission to combine the benefits of convenience of the two. The company, founded by a food scientist, has developed a process to recreate the functional components of human milk using precision microbial fermentation. Helaina is scaling manufacturing and distribution of its first-of-kind infant formula that provides the immune benefits of natural breast milk in a convenient form with plans to expand to other consumer products. The proprietary formula provides proteins that are 99% identical to breast milk.
AlleyWatch caught up with Helaina Founder Laura Katz to learn more about the state of the formula market, the benefits of human proteins in infant nutrition, the company’s strategic plans, latest round of funding, and much, much more…
Who were your investors and how much did you raise?
We’re excited to have raised $20 million in Series A financing, co-led by Siam Capital and Spark Capital, as well as additional participation from Primary Venture Partners, Cosmic VC, Plum Alley, Tom Williams, Hannah Bronfman, Gabrielle Union, and Barrel Ventures, among other strategic partners. The new infusion of funds will bring total capital raised to $24.6 million.
Tell us about the product or service that Helaina offers.
Helaina has created immunity-building human milk proteins using precision fermentation. The vision is to use our novel proteins in all food products, starting with a first-of-its-kind infant formula designed to confer the same immunity benefits as mothers’ milk.
What inspired the start of Helaina?
I founded Helaina in 2019 after discovering an early interest in food science, specifically recognizing the need for innovation in infant nutrition, an industry that has remained largely unchanged for decades. After learning about my own mother’s struggles with breastfeeding, I spoke with hundreds of other parents who shared similar experiences as new mothers including the inability to breastfeed, lack of breastfeeding resources at work, exhaustion, etc.
Helaina differentiates itself by using human proteins. While other companies claim to provide protein blends that offer the best nutrition for babies, none of these products contain humanized proteins and the ability to provide the same immune benefits that both Helaina and breast milk can. Helaina has created the humanized infant formula with proven immune benefits for newborns.
Another aspect that makes Helaina different is its reliance on microbial fermentation to replicate proteins. While other companies are experimenting with stem cells, leveraging microbial fermentation is a far more economically viable product with the cost-effectiveness to produce at scale.
What market does Helaina target and how big is it?
Helaina is targeting the global infant formula market, which was valued at $50.46 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $109.10 billion by 2027. By six months of age, 75% of babies receive at least some formula. The opportunity to continue to provide the same immune benefits as breastmilk to all infants regardless of their parent’s ability to or choice to breastfeed is one that can provide long-lasting health benefits as they grow. We’re excited to give all parents this new option in infant nutrition.
What’s your business model?
Producing a safe and wholesome product is Helaina’s highest priority and current primary focus, but the ultimate goal is to make this accessible to as many parents as possible as soon as possible, this recent raise will help us finalize our go-to-market strategy.
What are your post-COVID office plans?
Our top priority is keeping the team safe. While most of our development has required our scientists to be in-lab, we’re always keeping a close pulse on local, state, and federal guidelines to ensure our full team is safe at work.
What was the funding process like?
When it came to participating in the round, it was incredible to hear that everyone had a personal connection to what we’re doing at Helaina. There is clearly a need for innovation in this industry, and it’s been incredible to use technology to create something that is so close to people’s hearts.
What are the biggest challenges that you faced while raising capital?
Raising capital during a pandemic. A lot of our conversations were still happening via Zoom, which makes it challenging (but not impossible!) to build meaningful relationships. Luckily, we had some folks able to meet us in person, see our lab, and meet the team, which made a big difference.
What factors about your business led your investors to write the check?
Investors were drawn in by our novel precision fermentation approach, overall mission, and ability to directly disrupt the infant formula market by offering babies the immunity-benefits of human milk proteins. Not to mention our incredible science team and the speed in which we’ve rapidly executed our goals.
What are the milestones you plan to achieve in the next six months?
Our main focus at this time is safety and developing parameters that are critical and necessary for regulators. We’re also in a scale up phase where we’re partnering with manufacturers to scale Helaina’s technology from lab to production.
What advice can you offer companies in New York that do not have a fresh injection of capital in the bank?
Always stay true to your vision for the business, regardless of where you are in the brand-building process. Keep your head down and stay focused!
Where do you see the company going now over the near term?
We see our technology as a tool to improve health outcomes in formula-fed infants and in the future and plan to expand the use of its proteins and immunity in a variety of consumer products.
What’s your favorite outdoor dining restaurant in NYC?
There are so many great restaurants, it’s hard to pick just one. I like sidewalk dining because you get to eat in the middle of New York City. My top picks are Ernesto’s in the LES, Bar Primi in Noho, and the backyard at Joe & Pats in the East Village.