Frustration initially led Arseniy Olkhovskiy to start insect protein company FlyFeed.
“I was frustrated global hunger still exists in the 21st century, and that the number of people affected by it is increasing instead of decreasing,” he tells AFN. Many people, he adds, can’t access the recommended amount of protein humans need to function optimally.
FlyFeed is the latest company hoping to solve this problem with the black soldier fly. It’s automated farm system consists of compact crates stacked in vertical layers where larvae reproduce, fed on a diet of local food waste. Protein from that process is then incorporated into feed.
The Estonia-based company just raised €3 million ($3 million) and soon plans to open its first large-scale farm in Vietnam. At present it’s focused on protein production for animal feed.
That said, Olkhovskiy (AO) hopes to eventually fill the protein gap for humans. Below, he discusses how the company plans to do that, what led him to insect protein in the first place and a couple important lessons for startup founders.
AFN: What led you to insect protein?
AO: My career has had zero connections to agriculture, food production or even to any physical products because I’ve been working in IT. Startups like Legionfarm, for example which is an educational product.
I was sure that working in extremely fast-growing companies — earning money, gaining networks with investors, gaining experience in managing a rapidly growing team — could be used in solving global problems, which I care about.
Global hunger is one of those.
A year and a half ago, I left Legionfarm with some money, an investors network, and with some experience working on complex problems. I was really frustrated that this problem [global hunger] still exists in the 21st century, and that the number of people affected by it is increasing instead of decreasing.
It seemed like we needed to understand why this happens and try to find the technology or solution. We didn’t even know what the business be except something which could respond to this problem. At some point we just became sure that insects were the optimal choice.
AFN: Walk us through your business and technology.
AO: Black soldier flies are amazing naturally in terms of their growth rate, in terms of how fast they breed. Our job is to make it easier for them to get what they want from food waste, which makes it easier for them to breed.
FlyFeed gets supplied by organic byproducts of waste from farms: for example, wasted mangoes, waste from rice processing, coffee processing, etc. Our job is to then make that waste nutritionally available for black soldier fly larvae, and find the right recipe, form, humidity, etc.
Then you just have those thousands of crates with larvae and substrates inside, and you have some surprising technological issues. For example, the main issue is climate control, because those crates with waste and larvae emit a lot of heat. At some point the temperature goes really out of optimal range and this affects production process.
But after seven days with FlyFeed’s technology, we get big larvae rich in proteins and fats which get processed into products we sell to feed companies. It’s protein flour we sell locally to farmers.
We’re hiring a lot right now. Even though FlyFeed already has a pretty big R&D and tech team, we are still looking for people for our entomology department, for our engineering departments, for our chemical processing department.
AFN: Why’d you choose Vietnam for your forthcoming production facility?
AO: There are several reasons. First is, we really aim for scale. Our goal is not to just build one mid-size factory but to make it bigger to be able to reduce costs at scale. We’ve been looking for a location which doesn’t have limitations that stop scalability.
One is availability of raw materials. It’s really crucial for insect farming companies to be close to a source of food waste that’s stable and allowed by regulators. It’s not easy to find those sources in Europe. In Vietnam, they have a wide range of different vegetables and fruits available for our type of business.
Second reason is that Vietnam offers natural climate which is optimal for black soldier fly rearing. And the climate control is one of the biggest sources of costs in this business. It’s really expensive to control climate in a huge facility. So we picked a location that could let us work with the smallest temperature [challenge] possible.
Vietnam offers great worldwide logistics and recently got all the regulation needed for insect farming, too.
AFN: How can we get humans, particularly those in the west, to eat more insects?
AO: FlyFeed is not [focusing on] human consumption for the upcoming years. We realized that if we go instantly into producing food for human consumption, we’ll be forced to work on marketing challenges — trying to make people love insect protein food.
Also, there’s not much of a problem with the diversity of protein sources available for people in Europe and United States. We wouldn’t be solving a problem for these people.
So our question was, What’s the market that will allow us to focus on technological challenges instead? Because we see the huge potential in optimizing the environment technology first and then switching to human food production. We believe that our target market is not Europe or United States. In terms of human food, our target markets is those regions where people currently can’t afford the minimum healthy amounts of animal proteins they need every day.
We believe that when FlyFeed is ready to offer its product, which is like three times cheaper than chicken but is tasty, nutritious, there will be no marketing problem at all.
At the same time, research shows younger people are okay with eating insect-based foods as long as they are not in insect form. So something like bread with insect protein flour is absolutely okay. It’s healthy. It’s more eco friendly.
AFN: Any advice for other startups?
AO: I would have loved someone to tell me before I started FlyFeed that when you do something really new, both for you and for the world in general, it feels like there is some expert who can explain every detail, and you just need to execute it. So you spend a lot of time and a lot of emotional resources to try to find this person.
The truth is that, from my experience, not just from FlyFeed, there’s never such a person who knows everything.
But it’s really important to understand that there are always some specific details of your business where you have other people that know better how to do this. Your main job as a founder is to be able to identify those people and convince them to want to help you.