French Food Startup Aims To Sell "Insect Meat" Around The World
Can bug by-products help satisfy the world's growing appetite for animal proteins? The French founders of Ynsect think so.
EVRY — With one hand, he holds a container crawling with beetle larvae: 2 centimeter-long, thin, brownish maggots. With the other, he proudly shows three others containing his products: flour packed with protein, oil rich in lipids, and chitin powder, a precious molecule derived from insect exoskeletons.
"Every part is good in mealworms. Even their excrement makes excellent compost," says Antoine Hubert, who talks about the "breeding, slaughter and transformation" of his Tenebrio molitor beetles as a farmer would talk about his prize chickens.
Hubert isn't a farmer per se, but he does have a background in agriculture as an agronomist engineer. He is also CEO of a startup called Ynsect, based southeast of Paris in a town called Evry. His goal is to cover the planet with "ento-refineries," factory-farms where insects will convert food waste and plant by-products into animal protein. Why? To feed this mealworm to pet dogs and cats, to aquaculture fish, to poultry and pig stocks, and even — where it's authorized — to human beings.
"Fish naturally eats insects, and yet we now essentially feed them soya flour. And we feed chicken with fishmeal, even though prices keep increasing. It's absurd!," says Hubert.
He says the farm-produce system used now has a devastating effect on the environment and will lead to a future shortage of animal protein. "With 9 billion mouths to feed in 2050, the planet will lack agricultural land and fish resources. There won't be enough meat either. Global meat consumption increased twice as fast as population growth between 1961 and 2009."
Could beetles, flies and grasshoppers help solve this devilish equation? Yes, say Hubert and his three associates, who have nothing but positive things to say about their bugs. Insects are already the natural nutrient for fish, birds, reptiles and 2 million humans. There are more than 10 million species, rich in protein, lipids, amino acids and vitamins. They feed on waste and crops residues. Some can even digest wood. Their production cycle only lasts a few weeks. Better still: it's possible to breed them both intensively and frugally, with very little energy and water.
Chasing a dream
Hubert wasn't always an entrepreneur at heart. "I had a steady job at the consulting agency Altran, where I carried out missions on soil decontamination, then on biofuels," he says. But he was also very involved in ecology with Worgamic, an association that promotes vermiculture and urban vegetable patches. Then, in 2010, the young professional discovered a report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization recommending insect farming.
From there things just fell into place. "I talked about it a lot with my friends Jean-Gabriel Levon, Fabrice Berro and Alexis Angot," Hubert says. "We imagined a model to produce insect proteins in an industrial and sustainable way â€¦ and we made the move!"
Between them, the "four musketeers" brought a diverse set of skills to the table: Levon studied at the prestigious École polytechnique; Berro is a bio-computer engineer; Angot graduated from the ESSEC Business School. They all left lucrative jobs to pursue their goal, which is to invent tomorrow's insect farming.
Their pedigrees, professional experience and enthusiasm worked wonders. Yï»¿nsect was able to collaborate early on with the public incubator Agoranov. Together with some of France's most prestigious labs, it put together a research and development project that was financed, to the tune of 1 million euros, by France's National Agency for Research. Ynsect also benefited from various tax credits that are available specifically for young innovative companies. "We don't talk enough about how France is a real haven to create a technology startup," says Hubert.
Ynsect gained further momentum by winning numerous contests, including the Cleantech Open, Innovation 2030, and MIT Technology Review award, which boosted its finances and its visibility. Finally, in early 2014, two venture capital funds (Emertec Gestion and Demeter Partners) invested 1.8 million euros. An additional 5.5 million euros were added when the Asian fund New Protein Capital made its entry last December.
Finding the right bug
But the entrepreneurial adventure hasn't always been smooth sailing. To make ends meet in the beginning Ynsect had to sell his apartment. The young company is also having to chart its way past various technological, commercial and regulatory obstacles of an insect agro-industry that, until now, was nonexistent.
The first challenge is to find the perfect bug and diet. The Tenebrio molitor beetle is particularly promising. "It's herbivorous, it doesn't fly — except in situations of extreme stress — it enjoys promiscuity, doesn't pose a health threat and can be slaughtered after 50 to 60 days," says Hubert.
In the Evry labs, the agricultural engineer's beetles and larvae are testing diets based on soya, wheat, barley, rapeseed, beet, as well as waste from biscuit factories, breweries and ethanol producers. "The aim is to understand in detail their nutritional needs at each stage of their growth, in order to recreate this diet on various soils, based on the local biomass," Hubert explains.
Ynsect is also developing new surveillance techniques for its "livestock." Sensors are placed in larvae-filled trays to monitor various parameters: gas emissions, humidity, temperature, mass, motor functions. The idea is to determine the "signature" of a perfectly healthy mealworm so as to detect any potential illnesses at an early stage.
"Norway took more than 40 years to go from 0 to 1.2 million tons of farmed salmon," says Hubert. "With insect farming, we're at the dawn of a revolution like aquaculture was, but which could be faster."
Ynsect's next big project is build a 3,500 square-meter facility capable of producing several tens of thousands of tons per year. Construction is set to begin later this month in the town of Dole, in eastern France. The team will also have to invent robots capable of handling the larva stress-free, perfect the autoclaves for slaughtering and sterilization, the construct press rooms for separating the meat and oil.
"The aim is to offer our mealworm for 1,000-1,500 euros per ton, which is cheaper than fishmeal, which costs around 2,000 euros per ton," the CEO explains.
"It smells like cereal"
The company will also, of course, have to find buyers, which is easier said than done given restrictions regarding the use of insect-derived material. In France, for example, it can only be used so far in pet food.
Hupert opens a flask to smell a dog biscuit sample made with mealworm. "It smells like cereal, with a hint of undergrowth. Mmmmâ€¦ we even tasted them. It's very tasty!" he says. Industrial buyers are also enthusiastic, particularly about the high protein content of Ynsect's sample products.
But what the company really hopes to do is convince regulatory authorities to allow the use of "insect meat" in the aquaculture, poultry, pig farming, and maybe even human nutrition markets. In the meantime, Ynsect is exploring the Asian markets, which are more tolerant. "We want to act fast, like Blablacar did with carpooling, to reach an annual revenue of 1 billion euros (1 million tons of mealworm) within 10 years," the audacious entrepreneur explains.
The day after our visit, Antoine Hubert dashed off to Singapore — the regional hub for biotechs — to find partners that could help him set up a production sytem adapted to the Asian ecosystem. His aims are the fish, prawn, poultry and pig food markets. He is also eying the agribusiness milk powder substitute market in China.
Hubert then plans to focus on the United States, where half a dozen startups have already begun commercializing cricket-flavored cookies and cereal bars. The entomophagy revolution is only beginning.