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BIOMILQ Wins Grand Prize in Fowler Social Innovation Challenge

Last week’s Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge (GSIC) marked the first time in the international competition’s nine-year history that the final round was held virtually—as well as the first time a team from Duke took the top prize.

BIOMILQ, led by cofounders Michelle Egger MBA ’20 and Leila Strickland, earned the top Changemaker Award prize of $22K, as well as $2K as the runner-up for a Women’s Innovators Award, in a field of 40-plus entries from 24 countries.

The Fowler GSIC, a social venture pitch competition, awards student-led social ventures focused on sustainable change. During the final round, teams that had been selected as their universities’ top picks and gone through an additional round of competition presented their ideas tied to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Improving Infant Nutrition and Environmental Impact

BIOMILQ—which produces cultured human breastmilk using patent-pending technology—works to provide more complete nutrition for infants and reduce the carbon footprint from dairy-based formula production.

For reasons ranging from low milk production and medical challenges to workplace issues and stigma, four out of five mothers in the US switch to dairy-based infant formula before the recommended six months of breastfeeding—many before they would prefer to stop. And when it comes to the environmental impact of formula, Egger and Strickland estimate that the formula required to feed a child annually requires 4,300 gallons of freshwater and produces 5,700 metric tons of CO2.

Egger and Strickland hope that BIOMILQ, produced by culturing mammary cells, will provide caregivers with a new option for infant nutrition that is both complete and sustainable. BIOMILQ recently raised $3.5M in a fundraising round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Bill Gates’ investment firm focused on climate change.

The Journey to Duke

Egger graduated this spring from The Fuqua School of Business. “I’ve done exactly what my essay said I would do, which is very uncommon for business students,” she said with a laugh.

Egger has always been passionate, she says, about two things: feeding people and trying to find ways of helping others. As a food scientist at General Mills, she had the opportunity to volunteer for Partners in Food Solutions, a nonprofit that helps local food processors and mills in Africa develop a sustainable food supply chain vital to feeding the continent’s growing population. Egger was a dairy lead for Ethiopia and loved the work—and was dismayed when she learned that a favorite client had lost funding.

She dreaded sharing the bad news with the client. “But they said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, we got a grant based on a recommendation you made, so we’ll be busy,’” she remembered. “And I found that so impactful—that a glancing thought I’d shared would have such an impact and could even change the trajectory of an industry. I sort of thought, ‘What could I do if I were trying?’”

So Egger applied to business schools—or rather, business school, since she submitted just one application. She was attracted to Fuqua for its reputation in social impact and entrepreneurship and particularly for its Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). “I saw amazing potential not just to learn the necessary skills, but to be emboldened to be the kind of leader I wanted to be,” she said.

After her first year, she worked at the Gates Foundation on alternative source supply chain stimulation in South East Asia. It was interesting and rewarding work, but she said, “With big philanthropy and big food, things didn’t work fast enough and nobody could agree.” She knew there were amazing new technologies out there that she could potentially combine with her newfound business acumen to make significant impact.

So when she was introduced to Strickland through a Fuqua alum, “It was too amazing a fit to ignore,” she said. She became BIOMILQ’s CEO, with Strickland serving as CSO.

BIOMILQ Cofounders Leila Strickland and Michelle Egger
Michelle Egger, right, with cofounder Leila Strickland

Learning to Find Imbalance

Asked how she has balanced being a business school student and CEO this past year, Egger laughed. “I started out thinking, ‘I am Superwoman, I will fit it all in,’” she said. “I quickly realized I would die trying. I’ve learned sometimes I knock it out of the park, and sometimes I embarrass myself, and that’s fine.”

She’s also quick to cite the advantages of being in business school while running a company. “Fuqua was a great place to start a business, mostly because of the culture of Team Fuqua,” she said. “Most classmates really do want you to succeed, and the overall culture is one where if someone can help you, they will. I also had the benefit of getting to try out the concepts I was learning in class right away in the real world.”

Pursing Both Purpose and Profit

Egger entered the Fowler GSIC to be part of the ecosystem and have access to mentors in the social entrepreneurship space—but at every stage, she doubted they would advance. There were so many ideas, she reasoned, that the funding could be more useful for. “After all,” she said, “BIOMILQ could be a very profitable business.”

She decided to use her regular pitch and not attempt to fit into a social entrepreneurship model. Egger says that unlike questions she fields from investors, the questions she got from the judges—about accessibility for low-income caregivers, for instance—“are the ones that keep me up at night. I don’t have an answer for some of them, but I’m so excited to do that work.”

What’s Next for BIOMILQ

With a goal to get BIOMILQ on shelves by 2025, the company will spend the next few months hiring a team here in North Carolina. They’re slowly reopening their lab space now that COVID-19 restrictions are easing, and technical optimization will happen over the next couple of years. On the business side, BIOMILQ will be gathering input from clinicians, parents, caregivers, and the breastfeeding community in order to best serve their future consumers—work Egger embraces.

“As [CASE Executive Director] Erin Worsham always says, we’re ‘getting into the muck’ to spend time with real people talking about real problems to see how we can solve those problems in the best way for the greatest number of people.”

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