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Female Disruptors: Laura Katz of Helaina On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is something I think about a lot — it’s essential to the mentality of the start-up, to be moving forward. Taking the next imperfect step might actually teach you more than trying to get it perfect before moving forward. At Helaina, we believe in iterating, in making mistakes and then improving on them for version 2, version 3, and beyond. This actually allows us to make gains at a quicker pace than if we worried about getting experiments in our lab perfect right from the start.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Katz, Founder and CEO of Helaina.

Laura Katz, food scientist, is Founder and CEO of Helaina. Founded in 2019, Helaina is the first company to produce human milk proteins that are identical to those in breast milk, creating a new category of infant milk.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I am a food scientist by training, and spent the beginning of my career developing new food products. My passion for feeding people is at the heart of that early work, as I developed new foods from conception to manufacturing and all the way to market. But I knew that for my next step, I wanted to do something with a wider impact, though I didn’t really know what that meant — it was a real existential moment for me! And then one night in 2016, riding the subway to Brooklyn, I had my a-ha moment: I was listening to the Reply All podcast which had an episode called “Milk Wanted,” about black-market breast milk. As I listened to this story about the lengths people would go to feed their babies, I thought, there must be a better way.

So I spent that summer talking to and interviewing women about the challenges of the childbearing years, and I learned very quickly that feeding infants was a major concern across the board. One of the biggest challenges after a baby comes is that — for many reasons — some parents aren’t able or don’t choose to breastfeed for the full first year of life. There is so much shame and guilt around breastfeeding, about not being able to breastfeed, or about needing to go back to work and being unable to comfortably pump. These conversations are the roots of Helaina and our belief that breastfeeding should not define the health of a child or the worth of a parent.

In my work as a food scientist, I’d seen so much growth in the alt-meat and alt-dairy spheres, but infant formula has been stagnant for decades. I thought this industry was incredibly worthy of disruption, and that technology (specifically fermentation) could be used to bring parents something closer to breast milk. So six years ago I started that process, and now Helaina has created a new category of infant milk with natural, immuno-identical proteins that are identical to those found in breast milk.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

No one has brought human proteins into food before. We are the first. This has the potential to dramatically change the infant formula industry, and to change food in general. There are proteins found in human milk that are known for immune benefits; these benefits can be transformative not just for babies, but for all populations. At Helaina, we are utilizing fermentation to create these proteins, and in the process, are innovating an entirely new category of food. This would be disruptive at any period in history — but it is particularly volcanic today as our country and world seek to feed a growing population and to find alternative sources of protein.

There’s another important aspect of our work that is disruptive: 25% of parents in the U.S. only have 2 weeks of parental leave. For this and countless other reasons, many parents turn to formula in order to feed their infants. Providing parents with something that more closely resembles breast milk — this has the potential to be really empowering. Regardless of work status, ability, or desire to breastfeed, all parents deserve to feel good about what they’re feeding their baby. The first food we eat builds a foundation. Helaina will give parents freedom to make the choices that work for them. I wish that this kind of support for parents wasn’t disruptive, but I think that it most definitely is.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When you are first getting started, there are so many things you don’t know that you don’t know. And sometimes, the only way to begin is just to start. Thinking back to the early days of Helaina, I had a certain boldness that inexperience can bring. I remember emailing really important investors, just going for it. Hey, I’m Laura, I’m starting a company… I wouldn’t call this a mistake, maybe a misstep of youth, but I also think it’s valuable to remember our younger selves who are unafraid to make the big call, reach out to the important person, press send on the email — to not let fear get in the way and just move forward.

Mistakes are such a fascinating topic! This question reminds me of a moment in early 2021, when one of our freezers broke down over a weekend. I sprinted to the lab to move items from one freezer to another, to try and save our work. But with the freezer alarms blaring, I locked myself out of the lab and basically had to break my way in to save our samples. While in full panic mode, I was on FaceTime with one of our scientists. Maybe at first I thought it was a mistake to let one of my team members see me in a complete state of panic, basically losing it, but now I think there’s a power in the vulnerability of that moment. My team knows that I’m human, that I’m passionate about our company, that I’m totally invested in our work — even to the point of panic. Sometimes as women I think there’s a pressure to be perfect, that we can’t panic, we must be poised at all times. But it’s much more real to admit that we are humans, with feelings, and sometimes a good panic is completely appropriate.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I couldn’t agree more — we all need a little help along the way. One of my most important mentors is Tom Williams, one of the first angel investors at Helaina. He’s had a big impact on me. He taught me to be an empathetic leader, how to not just lead a team (pursuing ambition and business goals at all costs), but to bring people along on the journey. Tom reinforced the idea that what a team can build is much better than anything you can build on your own, and that’s certainly been my experience at Helaina.

Being able to count on a mentor was particularly important during Covid. Helaina set up our lab in January 2020, and we were ready for a full-steam-ahead approach, but a couple of months later, everyone was working from home. I felt pressure to prove milestones, to get lab projects done, but obviously my plans (along with so many other companies across the country and beyond) were uprooted. Tom coached me through this period, helping me to understand how to support a team during such an unprecedented time. He encouraged me to be mindful of my team’s mental health and to meet people where they are. This was an important learning experience for me, to take a fresh perspective on managing a team, and take cues from them. I believe that by extending empathy for what people are going through, we’re building a stronger company in the long run.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

To me, the word disruption is synonymous with opportunity. The infant formula industry, long ignored, is a prime example of when opportunity equals disruption — this industry was ripe for change and today we have the technology to innovate it. But unlike other industries where disruption can be quick and have an immediate impact, our category moves at a slower pace; anything related to early-life nutrition has an extensive system of checks and balances, ensuring that what we give babies is truly safe.

I think part of the popular definition of disruption is speed, sort of pouncing on a problem and finding an immediate solution, but that’s not the only way to be disruptive. Our version of disruption is more gradual, as we conduct clinical studies and our scientists continue their work. Rather than create a tidal wave, we’re looking to ignite long-term change that can support as many parents as possible.

I do think that most people who share an impulse toward being disruptive share one characteristic: thinking that nothing is impossible. I built Helaina by getting over one hurdle at a time, by reminding myself that nothing will be easy, but nothing is impossible.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is something I think about a lot — it’s essential to the mentality of the start-up, to be moving forward. Taking the next imperfect step might actually teach you more than trying to get it perfect before moving forward. At Helaina, we believe in iterating, in making mistakes and then improving on them for version 2, version 3, and beyond. This actually allows us to make gains at a quicker pace than if we worried about getting experiments in our lab perfect right from the start.

Don’t ride the highs and don’t ride the lows. I am responsible for setting the tone for Helaina, which has an impact on my full team. So while the occasional panic-at-the-broken-freezer moment is a reality, I also think it’s important to stay calm in times of chaos. And to make room for that practice. So to kick off the week at Helaina, we often begin with a meditation. I think this helps to center the team, to stop our heads spinning and stay grounded, knowing we’ll get everything done that needs to get done.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. We knew we needed to raise a seed round in summer 2020, but after Covid hit, the way in which we could build relationships with investors completely changed. We were now in a Zoom world and had to start conversations with investors for the first time virtually. I was concerned about the challenges of virtual fundraising, but I knew that while we were all adjusting to the new normal, we needed to just dive in. Simply getting started allowed us to get ahead and take a step forward closer to our goals.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

At Helaina, we are only getting started. After we bring our first infant formula to market, the next question is: how do we feed the world with our proteins? This would empower people to bring a preventative approach to their health, rather than a reactive approach, and improve their immune system and general health through what they eat. Long term, I can see a reduction in reliance on pharmaceuticals and other remedies, as people build their immune systems through food.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

One fact that is tough to swallow is that in the start-up world, women get 2% of venture capital. This makes it significantly harder to build a business. Women disruptors must prove ourselves in a way that isn’t asked of men, and it’s harder to take a misstep as a woman, the stakes feel higher.

Conditioning and expectations around gender roles are also at play. Something I face a lot is that as women, we’re expected to always be nice, to take the time to be particularly nice and courteous (or risk criticism); men don’t face this challenge in the same way. But when you’re trying to aggressively grow a business, there isn’t always time to be nice. Sometimes I simply must answer an email with one line, no niceties! The expectation that women always act within certain boundaries can be a challenge that male counterparts don’t really face.

I also think that women and men experience age differently. When I’m challenged at times about my age, I think: nobody is going to ask a man that. Men are applauded for succeeding at a young age while women can be treated with suspicion, as if we must constantly prove that we belong in the room. At NYU, I was the youngest ever adjunct professor in Food Science & Technology, regularly teaching students who were older than me. But these experiences taught me a valuable lesson: how to feel confident regardless of age and criticisms around age or gender and how to let unwarranted feedback roll off my back.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I am a podcast person, so many have shaped my thinking! I’d like to share two here: first, The Happiness Lab by Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale. Her podcast focuses on human psychology and happiness and has challenged my assumptions around ideas such as stoicism — check out that episode, which turned my idea of stoicism on its head. I am drawn to podcasts like this that help me to understand how people think and how to approach complicated situations.

The second podcast is called The C Word, and hosts Lena Dunham and Alisa Bennett profile different women who have been called “crazy” over history. It interrogates what “crazy” actually means and what the women went through. Hearing these women’s stories, including their successes, in spite of serious challenges is very uplifting for me. This podcast shows how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go as a society in the way we treat women and mental health. I’m often thinking about this podcast for days after I listen.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d love to inspire a movement on better U.S. parental leave policies! This would include spreading the word about how fair, empathetic parental leave policies are not only good for families, but businesses, too. On a more micro level, I’d love to inspire a movement that removes any stigma from breastfeeding. It can still be perceived as taboo to feed an infant in public; we see this every day with women feeling the need to cover while breastfeeding in public places. A public health campaign around supporting parents with breastfeeding, including providing tools for breastfeeding in the workplace, could have a serious impact on parents, families, and their employers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Don’t Fear the Difficult. During fundraising, investors sometimes told me that I’ve chosen a difficult road. This might be intended as a kind of warning, but I don’t interpret it that way. I know how challenging the road will be — we are working to disrupt a category dominated by big industry, doing something in food that has never been done before. So, of course, breaking in and making waves is a colossal mountain to climb. But that doesn’t scare me. I believe that challenges should not be avoided because they will take significant time and effort; that very fact makes them worthy of time and effort. Our vision to support parents who need to feed their baby is well worth an uphill climb.

How can our readers follow you online?

Please follow me on LinkedIn!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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