What’s a breastfeeding parent to do when the freezer is jam-packed with breast milk and the diaper bag is full of thawing sachets that need to be used up quickly? To preserve the nutrients, make them shelf-stable for years, and store and transport them easily, parents may consider turning their breast milk into powder.
There are a plethora of companies that do this, all with names that convey the seriousness of the matter: It’s My Leche. Boobie Juice. Booby Food.
There’s also BBy, a Y Combinator startup that condenses breast milk into Cheetos powder-like dust (more on this later). The company announced a $3 million seed funding round led by Pioneer Fund with participation from Y Combinator, 7G Bioventures and Cathexis Ventures.
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The company turns breast milk donated by lactating parents into a powder for neonatal intensive care units (otherwise known as NICUs). Infants benefit from the nutrients provided by breast milk, but the process of storing, thawing and reheating it on repeat every single day costs hospitals millions of dollars a month.
Vansh Langer, the CEO of the company, started BBy when he was a medical intern at his hospital’s NICU.
“If you think of the last 70 years of hospital innovation, everything has changed in the hospital except for the way we store breast milk,” Langer said. “Why is that?”
Powdered breast milk is reaching the masses
Last month, I watched a Houston-based powdered breast milk startup called Milkify on Shark Tank.
The company demoed its milk-powdering service it claims preserves the nutrients in the milk while keeping it shelf stable for three years. After battling it out with the Sharks, Milkify’s founding couple walked away with a deal with Lori Greiner of QVC fame and actress Gwyneth Paltrow (the product samples touched by Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran did not contain real breast milk, fyi).
While this was my introduction to breast milk as a commodity, startups like BBy have been around for a minute.
However, BBy works differently. The company uses a proprietary laser technology and algorithm to spray dry breast milk, much like how Frito-Lay creates its shelf-stable, sterilized cheese powder to dust over Cheetos. But instead of sterilizing the breast milk, BBy’s algorithm keeps the product within a temperature zone to preserve the bioavailability of nutrients.
BBy also currently only works with hospitals, while several other startups primarily cater to consumers. Milkify, for instance, sends parents an at-home kit that comes with a pharma-grade insulated cooler. Processing around five weeks worth of breast milk costs around $475, or $1.60 per ounce. According to the company, some of its customers were able to get their employers to pay for the service.
Between breast milk and formula
Freeze drying is a good option for preserving nutrients, but can diminish breast milk yield by 20% to 30% if it is done in bulk and the temperature conditions aren’t regulated. Freeze drying is often used by direct-to-consumer startups, but can be an expensive endeavor for hospitals. To be clear: freeze drying isn’t bad, it’s just better in certain circumstances.
“No [parent] is going to come to you with a couple thousand ounces of milk at a time,” Langer said. “And if they do, I mean, they are super rich and that’s very rare.”
But the process can be cheaper if more people use that service. BBy itself is working on a self-service kiosk that sits inside hospitals that parents can use to condense their own breast milk.
Powdered breast milk has its promises. The process of shipping and storing liquid breast milk is expensive — it needs to be shipped quickly and in a cold environment. It’s bulky and needs to be stored in freezers. There’s a labor cost here too: Nurses have to spend valuable time babysitting bags of defrosted milk for infants to make sure they don’t curdle.
“Labor hours are completely wasted every day, highly skilled labor that’s essentially watching a water bath to make sure that the milk doesn’t curdle,” Langer said.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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