It might come as a surprise to most, but the world of cricket farming is getting competitive.
The tiny insects have been eaten in developing nations for centuries, but now consumers in the Western world are increasingly accepting them as an efficient and sustainable source of protein. The arguments are similar to those promoting other sustainable proteins that aim to replace traditional meat and egg sources: a need to feed a growing global population, with fewer resources, and bearing the impact of agriculture on the environment in mind.
And there are a number of different brands popping up offering consumers food made with crickets such as cricket protein bars and cricket protein flour. Exo, thinksect, Chapul, and Crik Nutrition are the four such brands, but there are many more on the horizon.
There are cricket farms also popping up to serve this growing consumer demand; and things are heating up, according to Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, CEO of Tiny Farms. The startup, which is currently building a pilot cricket farm in an old Dodge car factory in San Leandro, California, has just closed a seed funding round but does not want to disclose financial details about it, namely the amount of investment it raised.
“Until we have the technology protected, we don’t want to give anyone clues around what it is that we’re actually doing at our cricket farm,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “There are so many different ways of doing things; we want to keep our methods under wraps until we’re ready to license the technology.”
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He did disclose an interesting group of investors that contributed to the round, including Arielle Zuckerberg, sister of the Facebook founder and a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a top venture capital firm. She was joined by Investors Circle, one of the largest, if not the largest, impact investor groups, Drew Fink, an impact investor and associate of the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation, and a music industry executive.
“Most of the people we raised from already had an interest in the sector and have been watching it develop for some time, so they were excited to have the opportunity to invest,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “I’ve been surprised by the amount of awareness there’s been for what we’re doing and the amount of inbound inquiry. At a recent sustainable food summit, everyone in the room raised their hand to say they’d eaten an insect food product; that was very different to three years ago when we started. The conversation has changed really quickly.”
Tiny Farms, which will complete construction of its pilot farm in just under two months’ time, is currently in the middle of doing patent applications for its farming technology. It’s been quite a feat of engineering, according to Imrie-Situnayake.
“There are a few cricket farming companies that have raised significant investor money which has gone into building farms, but in our opinion we’re the only one doing it with a strict engineering focus,” he says. “We want to keep things a bit vague until we have the proper protections in place, but the idea is that we’re taking a technical approach to farming crickets, rather than scaling up a backyard cricket farm. And a lot of work has gone into engineering that.”
After the patenting process is complete, Tiny Farms will license out the technology to cricket farmers, who will produce the insects to the startup’s specifications and sell them back to Tiny Farms. Imrie-Situnayake claims that cricket farming will provide a much higher return on investment for farmers than chicken farming: “we’re looking at being able to generate an income that’s above the average US household income, from a very small capital outlay.”
Under this leasing model, Tiny Farms will help farmers get their crickets to market, and provide training, support, and feedback throughout the process.
“The core part of who we are is a hub through which all information that farmers are generating, and everything they’re learning about what works and what doesn’t, flows back through us. We can then capture this data and analyze it to come up with engineering solutions for future iterations and so on.”
Tiny Farms has already had interest from potential cricket farmers ranging from nut farmers in the central valley to property investment conglomerates in the Middle East, to rural Mexico. The company will start working with those that have some agriculture experience already, particularly indoor farming, as they will find it easier. It will later open up to anyone that has the capacity to do it.
“The amazing thing is that you can do it in places that you can’t usually do livestock, and you can make genuinely significant money with a small space,” says Imrie-Situnayake.
And the sky’s the limit for how many farmers could join the Tiny Farm network; the company’s order book is filled up for the next 12 months from food companies; according to Imrie-Situnayake. And that’s just for human consumption.
“The animal feed sector is really exciting and could be huge,” he says. “It might take some time before it makes sense for us to serve that market, as currently we can’t grow crickets cheaply enough to compete with other feed, such as fish meal. We’re just not there yet, but we will be very soon.”
The startup is likely to return to the market to raise additional financing later in the year to fund the growth of its network.
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