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The FreezeM team
'If you look at other established agricultural fields, they are segmented, because as the industry matures, you need to have specialization in each part of the supply chain.' Image credit: FreezeM

Exclusive: BSF ‘breeding as a service’ startup FreezeM nets $14.2m series A. ‘We want to be the seed company for the insect ag industry’

February 14, 2024

FreezeM—an Israeli startup seeking to disrupt the insect farming segment with a breeding-as-a-service model that decouples black soldier fly breeding from large-scale protein production—has raised a $14.2m series A round.

The round was led by an undisclosed group of “industrial investors” and the European Innovation Council Fund (EIC Fund), along with FreezeM’s existing investors and partners, and will help the firm build a hub of breeding facilities to supply insect farmers in different regions.

Decoupling breeding from rearing and processing

Right now, as in many immature industries, said FreezeM cofounder and CEO Dr. Yuval Gilad, insect farmers are often doing everything themselves, combining breeding, farming, and in some cases processing, on one site.

While this vertically integrated model might seem efficient, insect breeding and rearing require very different skillsets, claimed Gilad, who founded FreezeM in 2018 as a spin-off from the Weizmann Institute of Science with Dr. Yoav Politi (VP, R&D) and Dr. Idan Alyagor (CTO).

“If you look at other established agricultural fields, they are segmented, because as the industry matures, you need to have specialization in each part of the supply chain. Insect breeding requires knowledge of entomology, biology, and biotechnology. The same applies to [other forms of] farming where you have companies that specialize in breeding, genetics and seeds, and then companies focused on farming.

“When we looked at the insect ag industry, we saw that almost everyone is vertically integrated, and they all face the same challenges when they want to scale up,” he told AgFunderNews. “So we decided to focus on the biology which we see as the major bottleneck of this industry, and enable others to do the farming in an efficient manner.”

Suspended animation: ‘We basically induce a state of hibernation’

Black soldier flies (BSF), the most widely used protein source in insect ag, live for a few days, mate, lay eggs, and die. After two to three days, the eggs hatch into larvae, which then feed voraciously for up to 14 days until they reach the pre-pupal and pupal stages where they stop feeding. Finally, they turn into flies, and the cycle begins again. Insect ag companies harvest the mature larvae but keep some aside to turn into flies for their breeding operations.

FreezeM supplies neonates (eggs that have just become larvae and are just 0.5mm long) that it has induced into a state of ‘suspended animation’ through placing them on an undisclosed substrate.

According to Gilad: “We basically manipulate their metabolism in a way that induces a state of hibernation.”

The ‘paused’ BSF neonates (dubbed ‘PauseM’) are then shipped at room temperature to insect farmers, who ‘activate’ them by feeding them.

The ‘paused’ neonates have a survival rate of 90%+ over 14 days, and potentially far longer, said Gilad, who noted that for reasons no one yet understands, the ‘paused’ neonates deliver consistently higher yields that their regular counterparts once they start feeding.

“We see that once they’re activated, they grow bigger with a higher performance compared to non-suspended neonates. So you get more yield.”

As for the ‘hibernation’ period, he said, “We provide a commitment that they will be fine for 14 days, but we’re working now on extending that for 21 days and later on for 28 days.”

CRISPR gene editing for 25% increase in feed conversion rate

Separately, FreezeM also has a CRISPR gene editing program that edits the genomes of BSF eggs such that the larvae have a 25% increase in feed conversion rates, delivering a dramatic increase in yield. The new line of gene-edited neonates, dubbed ‘BSF Titan,’ will be commercialized later this year.

The company is also collaborating with the Khalaila lab at Ben-Gurion University on a new technique enabling the simultaneous editing of hundreds of eggs in the ovary of an adult female black soldier fly or pupa via a single injection, paving the way for large-scale editing with the potential for heritable changes across generations, explained Gilad.

Each female has hundreds of eggs so this means you don’t have to inject them one by one. When you do that, you can think of a variety of applications that were not possible with one-to-one injections.

“Some of it will be CRISPR, some of it can be RNAi [RNA interference, whereby small pieces of ribonucleic acid, which is present in all living cells, can shut down protein translation by binding to the messenger RNAs that code for those proteins] or mRNA [messenger RNA, a molecule that contains instructions that direct cells to make a protein] applications.”

Asked who owned the IP on this work, he said: “The injection platform was developed in collaboration with the university so we have a license agreement with them.”

Hermetia illucens - Black soldier​ fly larvae in feeding plate with organic waste, Insect farm.
Black soldier flies (BSF), the most widely used protein source in insect ag, live for a few days, mate, lay eggs, and die. After two to three days, the eggs hatch into larvae (pictured), which then feed voraciously for up to 14 days until they reach the pre-pupal and pupal stages where they stop feeding before turning into flies, and the cycle begins again. Image credit: istock/Tomasz Klejdysz.jpg

‘A gradual shift from the vertically integrated approach’

FreezeM—which has filed patents around all of its tech including counting and dosing the tiny neonates so customers get exactly what they order—currently ships from sites in Israel and Germany (in collaboration with German partner Hermetia) to “multiple players globally,” claimed Gilad.

“The next goal is to expand our market reach, to expand our production, and close large offtake agreements with customers. There is already big traction from the market and I think we’ll see a gradual shift from the vertically integrated approach that the first companies in the market took, because now it’s much more difficult to raise money for capex. The trend of building the new biggest insect facility is now ending and everybody’s focused on showing revenues and profitability.

“And this is aligned with our strategy because we can save insect companies all the hassle and risk and CapEx involved with setting up their own breeding hubs.”

Suspended animation state larvae ‘grow faster and better’

But haven’t some of the largest players in this segment already developed significant in-house expertise on breeding, or established partnerships with breeding experts that they believe gives them a point of difference?

According to Gilad: “People have told us that they have their own genetic lines adapted to their waste streams and they’ve been breeding them for years. And then they try our suspended neonates and ask why are your larvae growing better on our feed than our own larvae?

“We don’t actually know the reason why, but suspension gives an advantage such that the larvae just grow faster and better [enabling farmers to increase production capacity by replacing in-house breeding with PauseM suspended neonates].”

While first-generation insect farming sites have breeding operations built in, that will change, he predicted. “When they’re looking into opening new sites, we can help them scale faster and more efficiently [if they outsource the breeding operation to FreezeM]. They can also operate a hybrid model where they have their own colony, but they can buffer their production by working with us.”

‘The industry is at a turning point’

FreezeM—which currently has a team of 27 in Israel and Europe—ultimately aims to provide a series of regional BSF breeding hubs to supply the global insect ag industry, said Gilad.

“We envisage one hub in each continent. Our main product [PauseM] does not require refrigeration so you can ship it and easily store it at ambient temperatures, so in practice, you can send it once a week, store it on site, and use it according to your production needs. Compare that to an in-house colony, where you have to wait for the eggs every day and you have a lot of fluctuations in the breeding output and many surprises. We’re getting rid of all the uncertainty.”

He added: “I think the insect ag industry is at a turning point. You see more players entering the field to become producers, not just to test the market. Products are already in the market in animal feed and petfood and everybody is looking at building up efficiency, so it’s perfect timing for us, because when you scale up, you need us.”

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