Part 1 of 3.
My guest for this week’s episode is Fengru Lin, Founder and CEO of TurtleTree, a biotech company revolutionizing food for good. Having raised a 40 million dollar Series A, TurtleTree is creating cell-based milk, with a current focus on releasing LF+, the world’s first sustainably produced lactoferrin made with cutting-edge precision fermentation technology.
Prior to TurtleTree, Fengru worked at UL, Salesforce, and Google, gaining a tremendous amount of experience in sales and business development. Her breadth of experience makes her insights invaluable to life science companies looking to create opportunities for themselves in their verticals.
Join us as we sit down with Fengru to talk about her upbringing in Hong Kong and Singapore and her time in the Girl Guides. Fengru talks about how her early love of planning helped hone her operational management skills as an adult. We also cover her thoughts on the value of business people for their ability to connect the dots and communicate ideas effectively.
Lastly, Fengru talks about graduating college, her internship at Nestle, and how her first job out of college at Collis Asia taught her about the importance of QA/QC. Please enjoy my conversation with Fengru Lin.
Girl Guides https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_Guides
What Should Investors & Founders Expect https://www.excedr.com/resources/investor-founder-expectations
Write a Lean Business Plan https://www.excedr.com/resources/how-to-write-lean-business-plan
Write a Business Plan https://www.excedr.com/resources/how-to-write-a-business-plan-for-biotechs
What Is Cash Runway https://www.excedr.com/blog/what-is-cash-runway
Loan Covenants & Their Effects https://www.excedr.com/resources/loan-covenants-and-their-effects
Blanket Liens & Their Effects https://www.excedr.com/resources/blanket-liens-and-their-effects
Fengru Lin is the founder and CEO of TurtleTree, a biotech company revolutionizing food for good. TurtleTree is creating cell-based milk, with a current focus on releasing LF+, the world’s first sustainably produced lactoferrin made with cutting-edge precision fermentation technology. Prior to founding TurtleTree, Fengru worked at UL, Salesforce, and Google, gaining a tremendous amount of experience in sales and business development, which she applies in combination with her entrepreneurial acumen to drive TurtleTree's mission to "change the face of food."
Intro - 00:00:01: Welcome to the Biotech Startups Podcast by Excedr. Join us As we speak with first-time founders, serial entrepreneurs, and experienced investors about the challenges and triumphs of running a biotech startup from pre-seed to IPO with your host, Jon Chee.
Jon - 00:00:23: My guest today is Fengru Lin, founder and CEO of TurtleTree, a biotech company revolutionizing food for good. Having raised a $40 million Series A, TurtleTree is creating cell-based milk with a current focus on releasing LF+, the world's first sustainably produced lactoferrin made with cutting-edge precision fermentation technology. Prior to TurtleTree, Fengru worked at UL, Salesforce, and Google, gaining a tremendous amount of experience in sales and business development. Her breadth of experience makes her insights invaluable to life science companies looking to create opportunities for themselves in their vertical. Over the next three episodes, we cover a wide range of topics, including how her time as a Girl Guides fostered a love of planning and management, how she ended up at Salesforce and later Google, her experience founding TurtleTree, and how refocusing on quicker commercialization helped raise their Series A funding. Will discuss Feng Ru's childhood in Hong Kong, her Girl Guides experience, the importance of connecting the dots in business, and what it was like getting started in sales after college. Without further ado, let's dive into this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast.
Jon - 00:01:24: Fengru, it's great to see you again. I appreciate you taking the time to jump on the podcast.
Fengru - 00:01:28: Thanks, John. I'm excited to be here.
Jon - 00:01:30: So as my team and I were doing our homework and trying to find a place that, you know, we thought would be a good place to start and kick things off, we wanted to really turn back the hands of time and go back to your early days and really, for the listeners, give them an opportunity to learn vicariously through your experiences and your upbringing. And so we thought a good place to start would be like, what was your upbringing like? And how did that influence your approach to leadership and your approach to company building?
Fengru - 00:01:56: Yeah, sure. So in my early years, I actually grew up in Hong Kong up until I was in kindergarten. And my mom was always pretty strict with my sister and I. She's always instilling a lot of great values onto us.. I didn't understand it back then, but now I do. But it was a lot of values around. It's not about whether or not you can do it, it's whether or not you want to do it. So this really focused us on being self-reliant, on being determined. And she always told us, you can do whatever you want. You can achieve whatever you put your mind to it. So from a young age, I kind of had that thought and thought I could do that. And I think it really showed in secondary school. Back in the day, I was in the girl guides. It was a ton of fun. I didn't think it was going to get anywhere, but I was pretty serious about it, doing the leadership stuff, the camping stuff. And in secondary four, when I was 16... I actually got the President's Girl Guides, which is the highest accolade of girl guides in Singapore. Got to meet the president and so on. So that really anchored my determination and my belief that I could actually achieve what I set my mind to.
Jon - 00:03:12: Awesome. It's funny that you say how your mother left a formative impression, obviously, on kind of what you would eventually do. And I also find it funny that you may not have appreciated it as a younger you because it's the same way. I was like, oh, mom, dad, can you just let me like, let me just I want to want to go out and play sports and just play outside. And please stop. But looking back, I'm very grateful for that instillment of those life lessons. You mentioned Girl's Guides and your early days and adolescence. Did you always have this drive to lead an organization or is that something that came about serendipitously over time? Or did you know early days that this was something that you wanted to do? I think it's more serendipitous. I enjoyed
Fengru - 00:03:57: working with teams. I enjoyed being operationally quite excellent. When I'm showering, I was like planning out the whole camp. I would think about the equipment I need, the manpower I need for each person. I would think about the equipment I need, the manpower I need for each person. Part of the whole planning of the camp, like there will be a three day, two night camp that part of the leadership team would have to plan out for the younger folks. And I enjoyed that whole process. And I would think in detail what needed to be done. I didn't think like it was a leadership thing back then. I just loved the planning process. I loved working with the team. But now looking back, I mean, I haven't thought about it much, even in my own free time. But now that you're talking about it, yeah, I think there's a connection there. Like even today, I do enjoy thinking about the gaps, where the gaps are, how I can fill it. How I can think creatively, tapping on other resources.
Jon - 00:04:49: Yeah. As you kind of like, just like think back on it, you can connect the dots retrospectively, perhaps in the moment you can't connect the dots, but when you look back, it's like, I have the same thing, but it wasn't necessarily in an organization. I played a lot of video games growing up and with video games like Starcraft and the like, there's a lot of like resource planning. And I was like, huh, yeah. This is pretty similar to what I do. Obviously, it's not a video game and not on a computer, but there's like similar elements where I was like, ah, that like scratched an itch for me. I can see why I kind of got led to that point. As you're leaving kind of the early school to heading to university, how did you choose to study information systems and marketing at Singapore Management University?
Fengru - 00:05:31: Yeah, in school, I think after my A-levels, we had to choose a course. I knew for a fact I wanted to do business. My dad was a businessman, so that was the adult life that I was exposed to. And I thought it was a pretty good life. You get to talk to customers, you get to learn from different industries, you get to be creative about dealing with people. And I knew I wanted that route. And I think when I started university, that was in 2007. Tech was up and rising. The internet just exploded less than a decade ago. I knew that was a path that was going to be the promise of the future. So I wanted to dive into it. I was pretty good at math, but not that great in my sciences. So I thought business was the best way forward. And fast forward to the day I graduated, people who entered that course were pretty like in the middle, I would say, in the cohort of the year that I was born. But people who graduated, really increased the value of the output because tech was really booming in 2011. And the banks, the tech companies, the consulting companies, they were all hiring the tech folks like mad. It was not difficult for tech folks to find a job. So I was really fortunate. I kind of fell into the right course and could find a job pretty rapidly the moment I graduated. Yeah.
Jon - 00:06:57: Yeah. And I'll give yourself a little bit more credit. That was like very prescient. I don't think you just like fell into it. I think the knowing that there was the wind at your back, as they would say, I think was, you know, fortuitous and obviously turtle trees and in the sciences, as you alluded to, did you know you would eventually end up in biotech? You know, looking back, it's kind of hard to say because, you know, it's a little bit of time ago, but like, did you know you'd eventually end up in biotech?
Fengru - 00:07:25: Absolutely not. It's like I told my secondary school teachers that I was going to end up in the sciences. They would just laugh. It was absolutely not possible. And my grades on the sciences, I mean, I'll be frank with you, were pretty bad, but I was really good at math and talking to people. So I think, Today, I'm not great at the sciences. I'm probably like the worst in the organization. But I think, you know, connecting the dots, talking to people, yacking away, that's what I do. And I think I do a good job at that.
Jon - 00:07:52: I think it is critically important, which, you know, as I've talked to folks who are embarking on the startup journey in the biotech industry, or the sciences writ large, there always seems to be the science will solve all the problems. The company will just form itself and it will be a grand slam if the science is sound. But I think sometimes folks fail to appreciate that there's like other parts of an organization, a company that need to also operate at a very high level. Like exactly what you're saying, like connecting the dots, making connections, communicating, because like if the science is sound, but you can't communicate how sound it is, you're in a precarious position. One that's funny aside, I was the reverse of you. I was very bad at math, but I was good at science, but terrible at math. And my dad's an engineer. So he was like, why aren't you good at this? And I'm like, I don't know. I'm trying.
Fengru - 00:08:45: Interesting. Yeah, I mean, today I understand the value of it. I see the value of it myself, because I think a lot of the scientists, postdocs, they have been working on one small piece of the puzzle for the last 20 years of their lives. And sometimes it's difficult for them to look beyond or outside of what they've been focusing on. So for business folks, we just need to know enough on the surface level to know that person A needs to speak to person B to build something amazing. And so that's the value that we're able to bring, to be able to talk to these folks, understand a little bit and connect the dots. And today I'm seeing a lot of that happening within my organization and also externally. And that's the value that business folks bring.
Jon - 00:09:29: Absolutely. And speaking is kind of like branching out and doing a breadth of work. I know you're on the biking and skating team in university. Have you been like, always competitive in sports? Or was it something that you picked up while at uni?
Fengru - 00:09:42: Yeah, so just to make it clear, I'm competitive, but I'm not great. I like competing, but I don't always win. The biking team is more of a fun thing than a competitive biking team that I'm in. I like being good at something. So we were pretty good to the point in 2010, we actually cycled all the way from Thailand back to Singapore. It's 2010 kilometers. And yeah, it was a lot of fun, a lot of planning. And it was in conjunction with the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore back in 2010. So it was a fun experience. Again, I enjoyed the whole planning experience, organizing everything, making sure that we have the right rest stops at the right spots, making sure we have the car following us, the right equipment, the right support team, logistics, and so on. Same with skating as well. I just love the leadership team of the skating team. Yeah, I love the organization part.
Jon - 00:10:33: Yeah, I would imagine going that distance, you would have to plan it well. My close friends spiked a lot of Southeast Asia, but they did far less planning. And the stories they came back with, I was like, oh my goodness, that sounds like you might have run out of food. You need to plan for this. But they're okay now. So don't worry. They're alive and well. They came back and it changed their perspective on planning, let's say. But they had a blast. And I know during uni, you also were very active finding summer work and summer gigs. Can you talk a little bit about how you found your summer opportunities, where you worked and what you did?
Fengru - 00:11:09: Yeah, sure. So some fun ones, some a bit more serious. Let's start with the fun ones. I actually did a gig at SeaWorld in Florida. So I was like the ticket person scanning tickets and so on. It was a ton of fun. But on a more serious note, I was doing a couple of internships. One at a Japanese bank, Daiwa. I did an internship with MOA. Nestlé in their Milo plant somewhere in the West Coast. It was like a total performance management internship. So basically, they were collecting a lot of data in the runs of Milo (drink), the malt drink. And my role was to build a small system to flag out when certain runs are not according to specs and automate some of these processes. Another internship was a marketing internship with this marketing firm called Yolk that I think got sold to WPP. It was a fun experience. I think overall, it was very enriching and I learned a ton on what I wanted my career to look like or what I don't want my career to look like.
Jon - 00:12:09: I think that's important too. Like it's important to know what you don't want to do as much as it is important to figure out what you do want to do. And I would imagine that Nestlé, that was like kind of seeing, I mean, Nestlé, a massive organization and you're seeing like how a massive well-oiled machine, I'm presuming a well-oiled machine. Would you think that that kind of influenced the way you're thinking about your org and getting to that stage?
Fengru - 00:12:35: Yeah, it really humbled me that Nestlé experienced to how food is produced. It's such an operation. It's such a well-oiled machine, not just the machinery itself, but the people part of it, having different groups of people coming in to make sure that it runs 24 seven. And you don't just have people running the machines, but you have a whole set of other folks who are maintaining the machines. And also office folks, administrative folks, making sure that the machines have their upkeep. I mean, all of these different parts working together like a big symphony to optimize production. I think at the end of the day is how much Milo we can churn out every week, every day. There cannot be any downtime. I think it got me to appreciate how complex the food system is and also how fragile it is. Just one piece breaking down can really affect the entire food system.
Jon - 00:13:24: Absolutely. I think we take it for granted. Now everything being on demand, just go to a store, perfect. We're never out. And you got the inside look that if something just goes awry a little bit, it could just go completely haywire. I'm kind of jealous of that experience. I've worked in labs, but I've never been in a full-scale production facility. I've seen how that works. It's pretty cool. As you were transitioning out of uni, how did you find your first job opportunity at Collis Asia and ultimately UL Solutions?
Fengru - 00:13:52: Yeah, so I was just mad at applying. I think everyone wanted to find a job before they graduated. So I was just mad at applying. And for me, I knew I wanted a sales job because again, my dad was in sales. That was the kind of life I knew. The only life I knew. It was a fun life because I saw my dad traveling quite a bit to different parts of the world, talking to different types of people, different organizations. And that exposure was really what I wanted. I knew I wanted a company that was international as well because I wanted that international experience. So I was really happy when I landed Collis. What they do was back then was a transactional security company, basically building software and also providing services to verify that the point of sale system, which is the POS or the credit card, adheres to Visa, Mastercard or American Express standards. So these cards and this POS, these systems are interoperable across different parts of the world. So my customers would be banks or card issuing companies. And it was kind of fun because I got to understand the finance system. I got to understand how quality and standards work. And that was like my first foray into QCQA and making sure like standards are met. Because today it's a different industry, but it's a really complex, rare, regulatory framework that we have to navigate. And I could comprehend how complex and important that is. So building TurtleTree, we made sure that regulatory always comes first. And it really started from my days back in Collis.
Jon - 00:15:30: That's really fascinating. And there's a bunch of different directions I kind of want to go. I was going to say like, much like healthcare or food, finance is like also heavily regulated when you're handling money. You know, I've heard stories about how rigid it can be working with Visa and Mastercard. Coming in, doing sales, that's kind of like the deep end, as you've been thrown into. How was that first sales experience in a heavily regulated industry and a global one at that, like just the sales and BD aspect?
Fengru - 00:15:58: It was a great learning experience. So maybe talking a little bit about my CEO back then. He's an engineer, he's a computer engineer, and he was very detail oriented. It was about a 200 man team back then. And every proposal that went out had to go through him before it got said. And so, These are like 25 page documents. And he would check that every page had its page number right. Every full stop was written right. And like the sales reps, we had to like do a little customization on the first few paragraphs. He'll make sure that there were no grammatical errors. It was all sound. And then we could send it out. And this was already after my manager reviewing it. And the CEO reviews it. So he's very detail oriented to almost a fault. Fault because sometimes things get held up. He tries not to hold things up, but it was a difficult job for him because he just had to be on it 24 seven. And for me, I definitely picked up some of these detail oriented habits from him. Whenever I send something out, I would first export it into a PDF, make sure I run through it before I send things out myself today. But I also learned that it's important to be able to trust and enable your employees, especially some of the leadership team, to take off some of these responsibilities from you so you don't get too overwhelmed.
Jon - 00:17:21: That's something that I can empathize with and I honestly struggle with a little bit is like early days when it was just Excedr was one person, which was just me. I had to like, I didn't have a team to do the review. And so I was like, over the years, just like ingrained, okay, I need to kind of like your previous CEO, just like, okay, I need to double, triple check everything because there's no other eyes looking at this. And as we kind of grew as an organization, I realized I was the bottleneck. But it's hard to shed those habits, I think. And exactly what you said, you need to empower your team or else you're the bottleneck and you don't get to where you need to be. So I empathize with that. But I love the insight. It's like the balance is, you know, be thorough, but not so thorough that nothing is happening.
Fengru - 00:18:03: Exactly. Yeah, no, but he's wildly successful. Two, three years after I joined, he sold the company to Underwriters Laboratories, one of the biggest testing and certification companies in the world based out of the U.S.. And now he's on to his next startup. I'm not sure if he's sold it already. That was a couple of years ago, but his habits definitely brought him somewhere.
Jon - 00:18:23: Yeah, sounds like it. That's not a bad outcome, I would say. And as you were doing sales in BD, were you doing international sales in BD or were you kind of geographically focused?
Fengru - 00:18:34: I was focused in Asia, North Asia, Asia. So I was covering places like China, Korea, and Singapore. It was a ton of fun. I got to meet banks from all of these different countries, India as well. And they all had really different systems, different ways of working, but they all had to comply with the visa standards.
Jon - 00:18:55: Yeah, yeah. It's kind of crazy that Visa can just do that. They're just like, all of you guys all over the world, here's our rule set. Just comply. I'm going to imagine Zoom wasn't really a thing yet. So you were traveling all over the place meeting with these banks?
Fengru - 00:19:10: Yeah, yeah. Can you imagine? I was like a 23, 24-year-old meeting all of these banks. Yeah, it's a ton of fun.
Jon - 00:19:15: Very cool. Sounds like a blast. And this is your first array and kind of like what your father did, traveled for work in different countries. Were there any interesting business culture differences or notable ones in the kind of territories you were managing?
Fengru - 00:19:29: Yeah, absolutely. For example, I feel like the Koreans, the North Asians, they're very hospitable. When I went to Korea, they would bring us out for dinner. There was like the live octopus on the table type of service. It was really fancy. But I think in other parts, like say India, they were less hospitable. It was more of a go in for a meeting and go out. Whereas in Singapore, it was very professional. It was just like a meeting in the office and then you checked out as well. So I think some of these cultures are like, they really want to take care of you. Others are a bit more transactional.
Jon - 00:20:04: And it's interesting. I think that's something we're thinking about, like international business culture. There's like this business etiquette that you just kind of have to be aware of if you're planning this international expansion for the U.S. Being a US-based company and thinking about other countries. And likewise, you know, for you thinking as you're working in these territories, I'm always interested in kind of like what international business practices are like having not done that travel. While at UL and Collis, it sounds like the CEO was someone who had the lasting impression on you. Would you say he was like a mentor, took you under his wing, you know, in addition to your team and the work that you were doing, someone who left a lasting impression? He definitely left a lasting impression,
Fengru - 00:20:40: but he wasn't really a mentor. He was based out of Leiden, actually, just a few minutes from Amsterdam, but it was difficult to interact too much with him. He's really busy, but he definitely left a lasting impression because he was so detail-oriented. So every time we submit a proposal, I make sure to connect with him and ask him what he feels about it. So I definitely learned a ton from him.
Jon - 00:20:59: And that's cool that you have an opportunity to interface with the CEO. I'll say my early jobs, I wasn't really interfacing with the CEO. So I'm envious of that.
Outro - 00:21:09: That's all for this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Fengru Lin. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, leave us A review and share it with your friends. Thanks for listening. And we look forward to having you join us. Again for part two of our conversation with Fengru, where we talk about her time at Salesforce, her experience at Google, and how she ended up founding TurtleTree. The Biotech Startups Podcast is produced by Excedr. Don't want to miss an episode? Search for the Biotech Startups Podcast wherever you get your podcasts and click subscribe. Excedr provides research labs with equipment leases on founder-friendly terms to support paths to exceptional outcomes. To learn more, visit our website www.excedr.com. On behalf of the team here at Excedr, thanks for listening. The Biotech Startups podcast provides general insights into the life science sector through the experiences of its guests. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from the podcast is at the user's own risk. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not the views of Excedr or sponsors. No reference to any product, service or company in the podcast is an endorsement by Excedr or its guests.