Dairy, done differently: Business School alum leads innovative start-up

A female-led alternative dairy start-up is blazing a trail with their research into precision fermentation.

Irina Miller of Daisy Lab

It’s about thinking of the future - we just want to give this technology and
these products a fighting chance.

Irina Miller, CEO, Daisy Lab

What if you could enjoy the same creamy, full-flavoured taste of a glass of dairy milk, without the harmful environmental effects of producing it – and without having to involve cows in the process at all?

That’s the idea behind Daisy Lab, a female-led biotech start-up breaking new ground in Aotearoa New Zealand’s dairy industry. Daisy Lab is researching precision fermentation, which ‘trains’ friendly micro-organisms to produce the same dairy proteins you would usually get from a cow – but instead of being produced on a dairy farm, they’re made in the lab.

Co-founder and Business School alumna Irina Miller says she initially started the company in 2020 “mostly out of frustration”. She had heard of precision fermentation and thought it was a “no-brainer” that it would take off in New Zealand – but after years of watching and waiting on the sidelines, she decided to do something about it herself.

“I just couldn’t believe that precision fermentation was not being done in New Zealand, considering how much we’re reliant on our dairy exports and how much of our environmental resources we invest into the production of dairy,” she says.

Irina took the idea to Dr Nikki Freed, who was then a Senior Lecturer at Massey University and is now Lead Technologist for the University of Auckland’s genomics facility, and Daisy Lab was born. Research scientist Emily McIsaac joined as the third founder in 2021, and the company has grown from strength to strength since, with funding from the Callaghan Innovation Grant, the Westpac NZ Government Innovation Fund and angel investors helping them with their mission of creating an animal-free, climate-friendly alternative to traditional dairy farming.

In the past year, Daisy Lab has achieved successful expression of both casein and whey, two of the essential proteins in milk. The next step now is to scale it up and get products like ice cream or yogurt into the market, so punters can taste for themselves.

“The proof is in the pudding, we just don’t have enough protein to make this pudding yet. We want to scale it to the point where we can either create ourselves, or co-create with an existing plant-based or dairy brand, products that we can put on the shelves.”

As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue for our planet, companies like Daisy Lab could be the future. In New Zealand, the dairy sector is responsible for 46% of our country’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.* Last year, Fonterra was the country’s top emitter of greenhouse gases for the second year running, producing 13.1 million tonnes of emissions in the period from 1 July 2021 – 30 June 2022.**

Having previously worked at Fonterra herself, Irina saw first-hand the impact of our dairy industry.

Working there, the scale of it all hit me. Being faced with what it means for the land, for the animals – that was a really pivotal moment for me, in terms of my own values and how I live my life.

Irina Miller, CEO, Daisy Lab

However, Irina is quick to say their ambition is not to replace the industry completely.

“Even if we wanted to, we can’t take out the dairy industry overnight, or even over the next ten years. It’s more about thinking of the future - we just want to give this technology and these products a fighting chance.”

While there’s still a long road ahead for the Daisy Lab team, Irina is hopeful about where the future will take them.

“It’s very interesting, and we’re excited to be in the midst of it all.”

*New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre
**ETS participants emissions: October 2022