Fengru Lin | TurtleTree | Part 2

About the Episode

Part 2 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 experience doing sales and business development at Salesforce. She talks about the success of placing the customer at the core of the sales motion, the importance of the 90/10 rule, and the value of knowing your audience in every conversation you have.

She also discusses the importance of executive buy-in, shares her thoughts on innovation enabling other parts of your org, explains how the idea for TurtleTree came about, and tells us the story of how she met her co-founder. Please enjoy my conversation with Fengru Lin.

Resources, Links, & Mentions

Guest Info

Fengru Lin headshot

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."

See all episode by 
Fengru Lin

Blog / Transcript

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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. In our last episode, we spoke with Fengru Lin about her early years, her first experience in the food industry, and her early foray into sales and business development. If you missed it, be sure to go back and give part one a listen. We continue our conversation in part two, diving into Fungru's time at Salesforce, her year working at Google, and how a hobby led to TurtleTree Labs's creation.

Jon - 00:00:52: And as you were wrapping up your time at UL, I know you headed over to Salesforce. How did that opportunity come about? And why did you choose Salesforce?

Fengru - 00:00:59: One of my friends was working at Salesforce and they were looking for sales reps, business development reps. And I've heard of Salesforce. I know it's a great tech company, but I didn't know much about CRM or software, but I kind of knew that tech was the way to go. So I just gave it a shot. Transactional security is great, but it's really, really narrow. The folks that you interact with are limited to just banks. And I kind of wanted to widen my horizon to explore a bigger company, to talk to even wider range of customers. So that's where Salesforce came in. It was such a great experience because nobody runs sales like Salesforce. 

Jon - 00:01:40: Yeah, I was going to say, yeah. 

Fengru - 00:01:42: Sales excellence to a fault almost. It runs like a well-oiled machine.

Jon - 00:01:48: I'm very curious. I've never worked at Salesforce. I've only heard what their process is. For the listeners, what makes Salesforce sales? Sales process and motion so special?

Fengru - 00:01:55: Sure. I think at the core of everything Salesforce preaches is really the customer. So the customer is the core of any product that they have, any process that they have. And they really build the CRM around the customer. I feel like I'm selling like back in the day. 

Jon - 00:02:11: Don't worry. Look, you were formerly in sales there. So I'm always very curious about how a proper sales motion works, right? Especially for science. It's like sales and science feel like they almost butt heads. But they ultimately need to coexist. Please. I'm very fascinated. I'm sure people will find value in it.

Fengru - 00:02:30: So at the core of everything is the customer. And there are different products that are branching out from the customer. The first branch is the CRM. Basically, the database or the software that connects every touchpoint with the customer. It could be emails, phone calls, different collateral that you interact with the customer. It could be a website when your customer clicks on your website. So all of this customer network or connections is done through the CRM. And then you have a service desk. So when customers call you to talk about any complaints or ask about questions, that will be part of the service desk. And you have a service team addressing those customers from the service desk. And you have other branches as well. For example, an interface where it connects your customers' digital touchpoints with you, either through your website or through a marketing email or through your e-commerce website. So all of these can be connected with the marketing cloud back then. I think they have to have renamed some of these products. So let's just focus on these three parts. First is the CRM, the service, and the marketing. And how they organize the data within the software is really by the customer, the account, for example, Nestlé and people working in Nestlé. So the whole sales process is built around that. First, if I'm interested in finding out more about Nestlé, as a customer of Nestlé, I will go to Nestlé's website and figure out, okay, they have maybe infant nutrition. I want to find out more about the infant nutrition products. So then once I click into it, they gather data about me. They can start sending me emails. They can start targeting ads when I read the news. They can have pop-ups for me. So all of these can be connected. And once I interact with more of these touch points, the sales rep can call me up because I've left my information. I want to find out more to ask me what I want to know about infant nutrition. Okay. And then they can have many more conversations with me and put me through a sales pipeline from generating interest to finding out more, to sending maybe a contract, in terms of contract, to closing the sale. So this whole sales process can be managed by the CRM system. And after the deal is closed, I get passed on to, say, the service desk. When I have questions, I can ask them. Or when I have complaints, I can chat with them about it. So this whole process... You think about it, translate it from the Salesforce point of view. If I am Salesforce and I'm addressing Nestlé as a customer, this holding is dialed in from rep to rep. It's all really seamless on the same platform because the same platform can tell me the previous interaction with that same customer, whether or not it's from the sales team, the service team, or the marketing team. That's about it.  

Jon - 00:05:24: This is amazing because I kid you not, I literally had a conversation yesterday with a university spin-out, life sciences, but they're going to be revenue generating, selling tools, life science tools. And they were asking how to do sales, really, like how to do sales? And how do we get that first customer? Because your first customer is like radical. And the sales process generates, kind of you figure out the product market fit where you need to tweak things to make things better, kind of figure out what to do more of and do less of. And everything you described, I think, is something that is not taught in a science curriculum. But can be critically important to a life science company that has to ultimately sell a product and may not just be focusing on R&D. And I think something that's very interesting, I find interesting about sales is that it's very scientific process wise. There's a lot of experimental elements to it. And everything you described about each touch point, who is the customer? What do they care about? And then moving them down the funnel is not just kind of like what Hollywood may portray a salesperson where it's just like, you know, slick back hair, phone call, and you just like, you shake a hand and the deal is done. I think everything you described really brings to light the scientific nature that sales can be.

Fengru - 00:06:40: Yeah, yeah. And I think once you reach scale, sales is really a numbers game. It's about how many you can fill at the top of the funnel and how many you can convert over time. It's about improving all of these stats, filling more and converting more that bring you more sales. To kind of twist it a little bit for what we do today at Turtle Tree, sales is important. But I think especially in the food space, there's a lot of production and operational challenges that we got to look into as well to complement the sales part of it. And that's where I think a lot of ERP systems need to come in to layer on top of the sales systems to make sure that we can deliver the best products on time to the customers.

Jon - 00:07:22: Absolutely. And I've always thought about like speaking to institutional capital is kind of like a sales motion, too.

Fengru - 00:07:28: Oh, yeah.

Jon - 00:07:29: Right. Like you're not just going to talk to one investor and then just pray like there is a funnel that you have to kind of create. But here are a bunch of people we want to speak to who are potential investors and eventually get to a point where you hope, you know, one will say, OK, we're good. But I think it translates in that way, too, I would imagine.

Fengru - 00:07:47: Absolutely. There's that science of it. And there's also the art of it. In sales, there is this 80-20 or 90-10 rule, right? 90% of your customers will make up 10% of your revenue. 10% of your customers will make up 90% of your revenue. So we also got to make sure we identify some of the hottest opportunities that we have, because those are the ones that are going to be the most likely to convert and bring in the most revenue. Same for the investor pool.

Jon - 00:08:13: Absolutely. And I guess one thing I will say that is, for me, sales were difficult, because there's also no... As much as making it process-oriented, it was very emotional. Someone saying no to you, as much as I want to say it didn't affect me, it always continues to affect me. Do you just deal with it well? What was the emotional component of doing sales and business development, whether it be at UL, Collis, or Salesforce?

Fengru - 00:08:38: It is always sad when people say no, but it happens so much that it's fine. We just let it roll off me. And it really helps when we have a bunch of friends, co-workers that share stories. And you know, you're not the only one. Some of the stories are funny. We make fun of each other. It's a good time.

Jon - 00:08:55: Yeah. Having it be sad alone is like salt on the wound, but at least there's a group where you can kind of group commiserate.

Fengru - 00:09:02: Dang.

Jon - 00:09:03: This sucks. This sucks. But I think it's helped me build a thicker skin because in the early days, I took it really bad. I'd always be like, I can't do this anymore. I was speaking to my girlfriend at the time, my now wife. I was like, I can't do this. She's like, you can do it. You can do this. You can do this. So at Salesforce, would you say, was that kind of where you got really like, it's a baptism of fire. This is how sales should be done. And were there any folks or colleagues or mentors that you met while at your time at Salesforce?

Fengru - 00:09:32: Yeah, absolutely. So my first boss, her name is Michelle. She was really a mentor. She is still a mentor to me. She's really clever when it comes to talking to customers or anyone at all. She's always instilling the idea of knowing your audience in whichever conversation, your end. It could be with your customer. It could be with your boss. It could be with your partner. You got to think about what drives that person before you craft your message to try to get to where you want to get to. So if I'm trying to sell something, I got to craft the message that that person will be able to sell it to his boss or his stakeholders, because that's what he cares about. If I'm selling Salesforce to him, how can he prove that he can sell more or he can sell more or he can provide better customer service when he has Salesforce on board? So some of the deck that I built for these customers, some of the talking points are really for them to pass it on to their stakeholders.

Jon - 00:10:32: I forgot about that point. Like to think about this conversation I had yesterday, they were saying, we're like currently in talks with the name of a top 10 pharma company. And they're like, how do you handle that? And then they're like, also we're talking to small biotech. I was like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Very different exactly what you said with like a larger org. You have to like make sure that throughout the chain that you know the information is getting conveyed, which I've always found hard to do when there's so many layers. And then obviously with a smaller company, it's a bit easier, but the deal dynamics are different. At Salesforce, were you focused on the size of the company? What was your focus?

Fengru - 00:11:10: Yeah, so when we first started out, it was small and medium businesses. And my focus was on some of the marketing tools. So the conversations that I have are with people in the CMO position, people in the sales leadership positions. But always we would try to target the CEO, because once the CEO has a buy-in, it's a lot easier to cascade down the needs to the rest of the organization. And it's not just about buying the software. Where Salesforce is really big on customer success. If no one is using it within the organization, there will be attrition pretty fast. So they want to make sure that the CEO makes sure that everyone is using it. Everyone is using it effectively. So the executive connect is always something I'm aiming for. And I think if I translate that to where I am today, for TurtleTree Labs, we are producing a lot of novel ingredients. And it is really a mindset change that needs to come. We need to come from the top to understand that innovation is here to enable other parts of the organization. There are changes that need to happen in terms of regulatory within the organization, in terms of building a talent pool that understands the technology that we're using. So it needs to be an organizational change. And having that exact connect is extremely important.

Jon - 00:12:28: Absolutely. That completely resonates with me. Having that communication channel, we always kind of like call it like skip levels, like making sure that you're just not talking only to your direct reports, but also just like speaking to folks who are coming in at boots on the ground, executing and not losing that. Because I'm going to imagine you would experience too, as your old tree grows, there's kind of this diffusion. It's kind of like entropy, this thing starts to get crazy. And you kind of like need to make sure that the messaging and communications are conveyed. And so after Salesforce, I know you headed over to Google. How did that opportunity come about? And can you talk a little bit about your experience at Google?

Fengru - 00:13:03: Yeah, I was headhunted by one of the Google HR headhunters. I was there for just over a year. I was part of the Google Cloud team. Google Cloud is a really complex product. They have hundreds of products, hundreds of brands. It was quite technical to navigate. It was a fun time though, because Google really encouraged folks to own the business that you're running. So for example, I was running the Taiwan Sales Cloud business and I was the one who would have to run in-country events to get developers to come in and engage and network. I would have to work with local partners. I would have to work with customers. So I was literally like a little business owner of that patch that I was in. And they really give you the autonomy to run the business any way you want. So I was very thankful for the experience and the resources that were given to me.

Jon - 00:13:53: I've always seen it like from a managerial style. You can either be completely just kind of what you described where folks get to own it like a small business of their own. And then there's like companies where it's like different, where it's like top down. Here are marching orders from you, whoever it may be, follow my orders. But that's really cool because I'm going to imagine that probably lends itself well to eventually when you start your own business, like you're like, well, I was kind of running my own business at Google anyways, before moving on to where you're at now. But how did you know you're kind of itching to start your own business? Was that the inspiration? You're like, this is kind of fun. Like I can do this. How did you start to formulate the idea? Like I may want to start my own business.

Fengru - 00:14:33: Yeah. So it didn't really come from Google per se. It was more from an outside influence through my hobby. I was learning how to make cheese as a hobby. Three quarters way through my time in Google is quite fanatic. I went up to Vermont to learn how to make cheese for a couple of weeks. I wanted to make cheese in Singapore because cheese in Singapore was so expensive. I just couldn't wrap my head around how it could be so expensive. So I went to do this cheese course, and wanted to replicate this whole process back in Singapore. But Singapore had no milk, no access to raw fresh milk, which is what you need for cheese making. So I had to go down to Indonesia, Thailand to look for fresh milk. But in these places, there were a lot of problems with contract farming, hormones, antibiotics put into the cows. So as a result, the milk quality suffers. There is not enough calcium. There's not enough calcium in the milk. There's not enough nutrients. And the mozzarella I make, for example, couldn't stretch. And you would try to hack it. You would try to like, okay, let me try to put calcium chloride to see if it makes it better. But the whole condition of cattle farming was not great in some of the places that I was visiting. So I gave up this whole cheese idea. I was still working for Google. So that was when I met my co-founder, Max. He just exited his previous tech company and he was in Google talking about different technologies on stage. And some of the technologies that he spoke about were companies in the US, Memphis Meats, now Blue, and now Upside Meats and BlueNalu . So these are companies who are using cells to make meat and seafood. So it was really interesting. It blew my mind. I couldn't believe that you didn't need animals to access meat. So after the talk, we started chatting about using similar methods to make milk. And a bit of background about Max, he's an entrepreneur. So the good thing about him is whenever he has an idea, which is the milk idea now, he would start executing on it. He started to say, hey, why not let's reach out to Fonterra, let's reach out to Abbott, let's reach out to some scientists to see that if cell-based milk is a concept, it's crazy. And that was how we started exploring this. And what's interesting is nobody said it was crazy. The scientists started to say, yeah, I thought of it. I just never executed on it. And it was door after door that opened up to a point where I thought, I think there's something here.

Jon - 00:16:52: That is incredible. I think it's a superpower, but it's an underrated superpower of just like, Let's just go reach out and talk to experts. And I'm probably, I would imagine this is familiar for someone who's done sales, but like, you'd be surprised who picks up the phone and will be willing to talk to you. And sounds like Max didn't have a bio background. He was like kind of outside looking in. Is that correct?  

Fengru - 00:17:16: Yeah, that's right. It's also tech, IT tech. So none of us have a biotech background. 

Jon - 00:17:20: That's incredibly fascinating. And also, I love how the kind of inspiration came from a hobby. And I think there's sometimes a kind of emphasis on just like putting on the blinders and just focusing and not exploring things that are outside that purview. But a hobby, which is obviously, by definition, not your sole focus, turned into something much larger and much grander. And you were able to make the connection when you saw Max talk about it. Now you've kind of started to have these conversations with the experts and they say it's possible. When did you know it was time to go and found the company and really get this thing officially started. 

Fengru - 00:17:57: When we first started exploring, we bootstrapped a little bit. We hired our first scientist ourselves. And they did a little bit of research and made some breakthroughs and filed our patents. So that was the second half of 2019. And once we filed our first patents, I felt comfortable enough to leave my job at Google and started TurtleTree Labs. I knew we had something that we could go out and to start fundraising on. 

Jon - 00:18:22: That is kind of crazy. From research to patent real quick. Was it pretty straightforward as that? Or were there points in time where you're like, oh, this is maybe a little bit turbulent here?

Fengru - 00:18:31: I think the technology is not entirely new. There has been research about how memory cells, like breast cells, can be cultured in an environment to express milk. So pieces of this puzzle have been explored before. But we are the first to kind of talk about industrializing it on a large scale and stringing different inventions together. So it was a couple of months. It wasn't immediate. It took us almost nine months to put together this patent. We had to get a patent lawyer to help us draft it, write it, and submit it. So it wasn't an easy process. But once we did it, I felt like there was something more solid as well that we can start talking to not just investors, but the Fonterras of the world, the Abbots of the world, to ask them what they think about it.

Jon - 00:19:17: Awesome. What was your experience filing that patent? And what were like some frustrations or common pitfalls that you can name out for anyone who might be embarking on filing their first patent?

 Fengru - 00:19:28: So I think for the first patent, there is always the mistake of trying to throw in the kitchen sink. I mean, it wasn't a mistake. I don't regret it. I'll probably still do it the same way. But over time, we had to pull out some of the claims because the risk of one of these claims getting rejected and voiding the entire patent is high. So over time, you just have to focus on a few claims that you want to make. But it really helps when you have a good patent lawyer who can help you look through all of that. We were very lucky to have found one that we could rely on.

Jon - 00:20:02: Yeah, it sounds difficult. And you definitely want an expert on your side when you're forming the foundational patent for the business. And it's interesting, too. I talk to these founders all the time who haven't started their company, but they're planning to. And sometimes, like you said, you're kind of building on existing technology, and then industrializing it. It's kind of like this exercise of de-risking the business a little bit. There's definitely room to build a business from like, there's nothing there. We're going to create this from thin air. But I think it's very interesting to hear how businesses can de-risk the opportunity by working off of technology that's already been explored, at least to a certain extent. And I'm going to imagine that helped conversations when you started to reaching out to the investors. Is that correct?

Fengru - 00:20:48: Yeah. So I think knowing what I know today, that first patent is probably more for establishing the hypothesis that this is possible, this whole process is possible. But the commercial opportunity is actually much further out than we realized back then. After we've done a lot of research, we realized that cell-based milk is probably going to be seven to 10 years out from commercialization. And I'll tell you why. Milk is really complex. It's almost like blood. There are 2000 different ingredients that are found in milk. And scientists today are still trying to characterize everything, the structure, the isotopes of every complex sugar out there. They're still trying to identify every molecule and what it does to the human body. So even if we're able to produce all these different ingredients in a petri dish environment, the regulators will need to be able to characterize all these 2000 ingredients as well. So it's going to be a lengthy process. In total, we are still working on that with a small resource dedicated to cell-based milk. But today, we are focused on a different technology called precision fermentation to produce some high value proteins that are found in milk. So I think if I take a step back, the patents were important for establishing the process. And I think that's why we're still working on that. And I think that's why we're still working on that.

Outro - 00:22:43: That's all for this episode of the Biotech Startups Podcast. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Fengru Lin. To learn more about her journey, tune in to part three of our conversation, where we cover TurtleTree Labs's vision, the process for refocusing to reach commercialization, and her experience raising Series A funding. 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 on the Biotech Startups podcast for part three of Hungary's journey. 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.

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