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How a 29 year old launched a company that might be the solution to the baby formula shortage

May 27, 2022, 9:00 PM UTC
Laura Katz, Founder and CEO, Helaina
Rebecca Greenfield for Fortune Magazine

Despite instant formula being a $50 billion global market, a recent shortage shows the need for innovation in the space.

The U.S. has been facing a shortage since March, after the FDA found traces of a potentially deadly bacteria in a key plant and shut down production. Recently, the U.S. imported 70,000 pounds of baby formula from Europe to ease the crisis.

However, as young entrepreneurs in the food industry innovate, an alternative to baby formula is in the works. 

29-year-old Laura Katz has always been passionate about the food industry. As she learned about its broken parts, she decided to gravitate towards innovation and advancement. Aiming to revolutionize instant formula, she launched Helaina.

What does Helaina do?

Helaina uses fermentation to recreate the proteins found in breast milk. At the company, the design and build team makes sure the yeast will produce and bring the same immunity to the baby that breast milk does. These technologies will give parents access to a healthier option than instant formula. 

However, once the product hits the market, it will look like instant formula. The founder says the product will be “powdered” and “pretty recognizable,” but it will be different because it will be composed of the proteins that the yeast creates through the fermentation process. So “instead of relying on conventional sources of agriculture,” the founder explained her product was more sustainable.

How did it all start?

Six years ago, when Katz was 23, she learned through a podcast that there was a black market for breastmilk out there, and parents would go on the internet to buy breast milk from strangers because they wanted to give their infants the benefits of baby milk.

“As a food scientist at the time, seeing all this innovation going into alternative dairy and alternative meat, ok, we can make a burger bleed, but why aren’t we channeling that technology towards making the things that are so essential for babies and for parents?” she questioned.

So she set on a quest to make a product that empowered these parents and recreated the immunity properties in breastmilk, and Helaina was born.

Challenges ahead

“The infant formula category is highly regulated” and “there are a lot of safety steps.” The company has to prove safety in many different ways, which will take time, explained the founder. This means it could take years for the product to hit the market.

“Seeing these new tools like fermentation and non-conventional agricultural sources of food, creating new mechanisms to manufacture our food using biotechnology is an emerging space, it’s expensive, and it takes time to develop,” shared the founder, who remains optimistic that the food industry will move toward a more sustainable path.

The founder is proud because they are the only company putting human proteins in food. “No one has done that before,” Katz said.

While the company still has a long way to go, Katz is hopeful that innovation will give many parents and infants the immunity they desire and that the food industry will shift towards healthier options. “I think within the category that we’re in we’re starting to see and I’m hoping to see people shift more from focusing a lot of their effort on figuring out how to make food taste better” to “how we can use technology to make food healthier for us and more accessible,” shared the founder.

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