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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Food Tech Startup Bets on the Future of Cell-Based Milk

Cell-Based Milk

Does cell-based milk have a future? The rapidly growing food tech sector certainly believes so.

Milk and humans go way back. Evidence suggests that as long as 10,000 years ago, humans began drinking animal milk, after observing animals nursing their young. 

The demand for milk keeps growing with the world’s rising population. Keeping up with the need for real milk so far has not been possible without employing larger numbers of cows.

The Israeli company Wilk Technologies, though, has found a way to generate milk from mammary epithelial cells. Both human and animal milk can be produced this way, with all the critical ingredients preserved, and with far less impact on the environment and natural resources than cattle farms.

The company was established 18 months ago with the clear vision of developing milk ingredients anywhere and preparing “real” milk sustainably, according to Wilk’s CEO Tomer Aizen. 

“We are really focusing and aiming to change the world so people will be able to consume real milk and we will protect animal welfare,” Aizen said. “Milk is highly important for humanity; milk is in so many products. There is a demand for dairy milk and babies need breast milk. We have solutions to answer that demand.”

Once the mammary gland tissue is obtained from women and animals, milk-producing cells are separated from other cells and additional cells are grown in a bioreactor. Dairy companies will be able to purchase milk ingredients so they can supplement their milk or create their own. Human milk fat and protein also could supplement baby formula. Cheese can be manufactured with cultured ingredients, said Aizen.

Wilk entered into an agreement with two of the largest hospitals in Israel to obtain breast milk and mammary gland tissue, for which women are compensated, he said, and the company has a source for mammary cells from cows. “Technology will allow us to have our own cell bank in the near future,” added Aizen.

The research that supported the technology was conducted by Prof. Nurit Argov of Hebrew University. Wilk’s potential has caught the attention of Coca-Cola Israel, which invested $2 million in the company. The goal is for the milk ingredients to be commercially available by 2024.

“Milk is the only food that has evolved throughout time with mankind,” noted Rachelle Neumann, Wilk’s vice president for marketing and corporate affairs. “It exists to help us survive.” Pre-term babies, for example, have a 50 percent less chance of survival without breast milk, she said.

Bursting with protein, calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins, potassium and vitamin D, milk is one of nature’s most complete foods. Nevertheless, milk production takes a toll on the environment, requiring large amounts of land and water and generating lots of waste, largely in the form of cow dung. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has concluded that the global dairy industry’s emissions have risen steadily since the mid-2000s.

Climate change also is affecting the dairy industry as water becomes more scarce. Producing one liter of milk requires 1,000 liters of water, according to Aizen. “Those are huge resources needed to create one liter of milk,” he added. The increasing world population —  about 1.1 percent per year —  also means the desire for milk is outgrowing the traditional means of milk production. “Think of how many cows we need to produce that amount of milk,” Aizen said. “(Now) We have the power and opportunity to change that situation.”

Plant-based milk substitutes have been increasing in popularity and filling some of the need. “I cherish what plant-based products do for consumers and the planet,” said Aizen. But the industry is not growing fast enough to keep up with demand, and plant-based versions of milk don’t have all the nutrients that real milk provides, at least from Aizen’s point of view. Plant-based beverages often are low in protein and vitamin D, while also containing additives to enhance their flavor and texture.

Wilk is not the only food tech company cultivating mammary cells. TurtleTree, with facilities in the U.S. and abroad, is growing dairy products and meat from cells. Some researchers think cell-grown products could surpass plant-based beverages. Maria Mascaraque of Euromonitor noted that some companies are still tinkering with formulas for vegetable-based milk substitutes, like peas and potatoes, but as the price for generating cell-based milk decreases over the next decade, dairy products grown in labs could become the more popular choice.

That is good news for the world’s milk drinkers, especially the youngest ones, said Wilk’s Neumann.” I wake up every day and think of millions of babies, and how we will be able to contribute to their health and welfare.” 

Image credit: Mirza Mustofa via Unsplash

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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