Last summer at a research lab on the outskirts of Cambridge, UK, I nervously rolled up my sleeve and tucked my hand deep into a tray of pulsing, writhing maggots. (Yes, keeping in touch with the future of farming is a mandate the AFN newsroom takes literally.)
The tray — and all its wriggly inhabitants — belonged to the insect farming startup Entomics, which has recently re-branded to Better Origin. These larvae were at an early stage in the life cycle of the Black Soldier Fly, explained Miha Pipan, the firm’s chief science officer and co-founder. This particular species of insect is generating a buzz among scientists and investors because they are capable of rapidly growing in biomass while breaking down food waste; once grown, these tiny livestock offer a highly nutritious protein source for larger livestock like poultry or fish. (Pet dogs or cats of the future might enjoy a serving of this too, though humans could find this particular protein source a little icky; they are less palatable than crickets or stinkbugs.)
Honey, I shrank the livestock
With the air of a well-rehearsed performer, Pipan then scooped up his own handful of larvae and posed for photographs. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said, before describing how his startup was looking to create a distributed and automated system. The idea: to design, build and install hardy mini-farms where insects could be grown, harvested, and ultimately served to nearby livestock.
A year later, and the precise details of that system are becoming clearer. And last week the firm was touting what it calls the X1 – its first shipping container-sized mini-farm that can be deployed on farms to grow feed for their livestock. X1 is powered by pattern recognition algorithms together with a patented engineering process to replicate how insects breakdown waste in nature. Rather than getting farmers to learn how to rear this new form of livestock, the company makes it as automated and simple as possible through an app-based user interface; that means the farmer knows exactly what is going on inside at any given time — and the scientists at Better Origin looking to streamline their algorithms and growth rates can also keep track and make continual updates.
“Our technology uses natural processes to fix the broken food system, restoring insects as the missing link in the modern food chain,” believes CEO and co-founder Fotis Fotiadis: “Until now there was no accessible way for food producers to turn abundant feedstock or food waste into useable food.”
According to the company, the X1 completed a successful pilot project on Wood Farm in Cambridgeshire earlier this year, and is now poised to collaborate with farmers to support happier, healthier hens on farms across the UK. “We love the ethos and concept of Better Origin,” says Charles Mear, owner of Wood Farm. He said it fits well with his farm’s plans to produce a carbon-neutral, free-range egg.
Black Soldier Flies are not the only insects on the menu for carbon-neutral chickens. Mealworm production is a popular choice for insect startups, especially after Ynsect’s robotized mealworm farming tech broke records with its $125 million Series C round last year. It was the largest farmtech deal outside the US at the time, and has been followed by other large deals for similar plans to grow mealworms, like the purchase by Caixa Capital Risc and CDTI of a 40% stake in MealFood Europe. Officially, the amount was not disclosed, but the Mealfood team claims the total value of the projects they are working on is €50 million ($56 million). Those sorts of sums should keep Ynsect and Mealfood buzzing for a while – so long as the next pandemic does not mutate from a mealworm wet market. Other fashionable choices for startups include bees, locusts, crickets, or grasshoppers. Common themes include automated production systems, extraction processes. or dedicated gene editing for breeding.
Lords of the Black Soldier Flies
Even among those who do opt for Black Soldier Fly farming, there are a number of varying approaches. The distributed model of Better Origin’s mini-farms contrasts with some of the central ideas of other ento-preneurs; NextProtein, for instance, a French-Tunisian startup, recently raised €10.2 million ($11.2 million) in Series A funding on the promise of designing and building a central facility in Tunisia. More mature insect startups like Enterra, AgriProtein, or Entocycle have similarly centralised models.4$
Offering a mid-sized option — too big to be mini, too small to be centralised — are companies like Bulgaria’s Nasekomo, which has recently raised $4.5 million to deploy its proprietary robotized insect rearing technology and is already selling “ecological pet food” in European markets. (The VC funds Morningside Hill and New Vision 3 backed by the Fund of Funds in Bulgaria participated in the round.) On the phone with AFN, Nasekomo co-founder Marc Bolard spoke about his firm’s designs for a specialised insect rearing robot informed by computer vision, and rather than using trays in stacks, has conceived a novel “rearing bed.” He also pointed out how Black Soldier Fly byproducts could be a useful fertiliser for local farms.
And there are debates in the entomological community about how these flies can be even more useful. At a conference just before lockdown hit London, BetaBugs CEO Thomas Farrugia explained how the Black Soldier Fly could actually be bred to be even more voracious, and to grow even faster; their short life cycles made them ideal candidates for observing the effects — or side effects — of gene editing. Regulations on gene editing of insects may end up being lighter than larger livestock, he believes, and so the upside could be faster synthetic evolution. The downside … Frankenflies?
“You select the traits that will bring the greatest benefit to your company,” reads the BetaBugs website. “Whether these are growth rate, protein content, fat composition, temperature tolerance or anything else you may need we will do our utmost to ensure we can supply a strain that provides them.”
Other startups are considering leaving the production and breeding to others, and to focus on the extraction of valuable chemicals from insects. The Singaporean entrepreneur Chua Kai-Ning, for instance, co-founded a startup back in 2017 called Insectta, which set out as a farm for animal feeds but has recently pivoted to the extraction of Black Soldier Fly biomaterials. After all, farming insects in Singapore on a large scale would be costly due to rental prices and electricity prices in the Lion City. Competing in areas like animal feed, fertilizer or human nutrition would require reaching high volumes in commoditized markets.
The pivot caught the attention of The Trendlines Group, which has recently invested an undisclosed amount in Insectta via its Singapore-listed Agri-Food Fund. In a video call with AFN, Anton Wiboro of Trendlines explained what looked promising about this pivot.
He noted that Insectta produces high value, novel materials for multiple industries such as agrifood, pharmaceutical, and electronics. Chitosan, for instance, first registered as an active ingredient in 1986, has quite a few interesting physiochemical properties. It is bioadhesive, biocompatible, and biodegradable, making it suitable for applications related to biomedical engineering, food, and biodegradable plastics.
Chitosan is typically derived from crustaceans, but the current extraction process is unsustainable. (The process requires large amounts of chemicals.) According to the team, Insectta’s technology allows for an extraction of chitosan from insects without the use of harsh chemicals, with the founders hoping to set a new industry standard for purer, traceable, and high-quality chitosan. Using byproducts created by insect farms as the raw materials required for the extraction process, Insectta’s technology builds on the circular economy within the insect farming industry.
It is a contrast to Trendline’s other recent insect deal, where it took part in a $3m round into the Israeli startup Hargol, which rears grasshoppers. Hargol FoodTech (formerly Steak TzarTzar) has developed optimized methods and technology to enable grow large quantities of grasshoppers quickly in captivity. It is not too much of a conceptual leap, however, to imagine a sci-fi synergy of these companies, where Inseccta concentrates on an extraction of biomaterials from hitherto nonexistent creatures like, say, Black Soldier Hoppers, and Hargol masters their production.
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