Disrupting cow, sheep, goat & donkey milk: Cell cultivated start-up Senara emerges from stealth

Having been operating in stealth mode for the last year-and-a-half, Senara claims to be the first cultivated milk company in Europe. The start-up is targeting the animal milk market in a bid to not only make milk more sustainable, but digestible for all – includes those with allergies.

Sourcing cells from milk, not tissue

In typical EU diets, milk alone accounts for one-quarter of the carbon footprint, sometimes reaching as high as one-third. And globally, the UN FAO estimates that global dairy production accounts for around 4% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Senara is not the only cultivated milk company in Europe: Nūmi​, which is cell cultivating human milk for infant nutrition, was founded in Paris last year.

Senara’s approach is to produce milk outside of cows and other dairy-producing animals. 

From the outset, founder and CEO Dr Svenja Dannewitz wanted to set up a sustainable, circular process that had minimal interactions with the animals themselves. Instead of sourcing cells from the cow to recreate its milk, the start-up has developed a process of sourcing cells from the milk itself.

“We don’t interfere directly with the animals, which I think is a much more elegant solution,” ​Dr Dannewitz explained.

Senara has also developed a selection process to select the cells most efficient at producing milk. From there, it’s about providing the right environment, temperature, and nutrients for the cells to duplicate and grow, Dr Dannewitz told FoodNavigator.

After 18 months in stealth mode, the Senara team is emerging from stealth to disrupt the conventional milk market. Image source: Senara

Unlike other kinds of cell cultivation processes, for example those used to make cultured meat, Senara does not have to separate its protein from biomass. Instead, the company only takes what the cells secretes: milk. This makes the process more energy efficient and sustainable, and allows for a continuous cultivation process. 

Although the technology used is not precision fermentation, it’s similar in that the cell secretion becomes the final product. “This makes it more cost efficient in production compared to cultivated meat. Which means with our technology, we can really tackle the mass market for animal milk.”

As to the final purification process, the founder explained they need to adhere to general food safety guidelines. But compared to conventional milk, much less cooling is required because it’s free from bacteria and yeast. “We have found a way to produce a full milk without having to use excessive purification steps afterwards.”

‘The purest form of fresh milk you can have’

This is how Senara cultivates cells for most animals. But for some, sourcing cells directly from their milk is more of a challenge. “For some types of animals, it’s not preferable to take the cells from the milk. Milking a buffalo is pretty much impossible, if you want to come out alive,” ​she only half-joked.

In this case, resorting to tissue biopsies is the only way. But it’s a small needle, she stressed.

Senara is working with cow’s milk, but is also screening cells from other milks to test their efficiencies. “We’ve got buffalo cells, bison, donkey, as well as goat and sheep. We want to produce a full range of animal milks.”

The ambition is to completely mimic the nutritional benefits of conventional milk, but without any bacteria or antibiotic residue. “The milk is the purest form of fresh milk you can have.”

milk RapidEye

Senara wants to completely mimic the nutritional benefits of conventional milk, but without any bacteria or antibiotic residue. GettyImages/RapidEye

There is also scope to further differentiate Senara’s milk by developing products with higher qualities of A2 protein, or making the milk lactose-free. As to how the start-up would develop these varieties, Dr Dannewitz said there are ‘many levers that can be pulled’.

Hesitant to reveal too much, she said the company sources ‘different types of cells’, uses customised FCS-free cell media, and has a screening process in place. “The milk that we produce is GMO free, so we do not have to resort to genetic editing to achieve these goals.”

Senara’s CEO said she wants everyone to have access to fresh milk, even those with intolerances. “What we produce is a standard milk, or milk that is rich in A2 protein. This allows a much wider range of people to digest milk.

“We’ve also got a lactose-free option that we can produce directly in our bioreactors, without having to add additional enzymes afterwards.”

This could prove beneficial to Asian markets, where it is estimated around 90% of consumers are lactose intolerant.

Scaling up using custom bioreactors

Another way Senara sets itself apart is through its equipment: the start-up has developed a customised bioreactor for the purpose of cultivated dairy cells.

Dr. Svenja Dannewitz_Senara_4

Dr Svenja Dannewitz is Senara’s founder and CEO. Image source: Senara

Current bioreactors on the market are largely used for cultivating bacteria or yeast cells, which have different requirements compared to animal cells. Senara’s approach is to develop a system that optimises the growth and lifespan of the primary cells. A patent for the technology has been submitted.

Although scaling up bioprocesses is known to be amongst the biggest challenges for biotech start-ups, for Senara, having customised bioreactor equipment is one of its ‘main advantages’. Others struggle to move from a microlitre to millilitre scale, and then continue to scale up, Dr Dannewitz explained. But Senara designed its processes ‘with upscaling in mind’.

“We’ve tested it and have already skipped over this type of step,” ​the founder revealed. Senara is currently working with a 100L pilot-scale bioreactor. Upscaling is predicted to be ‘easier’, given that the company is already working at pilot scale.

Once at scale, Senara wants to produce drinking milk, as well as milk for yogurt and cream production. It could also be used in ice cream and chocolate confectioneries. The start-up is already in discussions with ‘several players from the industry’ who are interested in establishing a novel product like that produced by Senara in their product lines.

Senara is backed by Positron Ventures, PurpleOrange Ventures, Partners in Clime, Black Forest Business Angels, and SquareOne Food. 

Before it can be stacked in the dairy aisle, or incorporated into confectionery products, Senara’s cell cultivated milk needs to undergo regulatory approval. Timing is working in its favour, the CEO suggested.

“A lot of governments have been pushing to take this forward, including in the EU. They know they will be missing out if they are not more proactive.”

Senara expects a transition towards more cell cultivated foods in the next couple of years, and by 2028 believes cell cultivated milk will be a standard option on supermarket shelves.