Beta Hatch

BREAKING EXCLUSIVE: Wilbur-Ellis Invests in Insect Startup Beta Hatch After Customers Demand Fishmeal Alternative

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Cavallo Ventures, the venture arm of agriculture retailer Wilbur-Ellis has made an undisclosed investment in Seattle-based mealworm farming startup Beta Hatch

The company has closed $1.6 million of a $1.8 million seed round including Cavallo, Seattle-based angels, and cleantech investor Element8.

Beta Hatch cultivates mealworms for animal feed using patent-pending equipment, a trade-secret process, and unique genetic stock, developed by entomologist and founder Virginia Emery. 

Emery said that mealworms grow with less water and in less space, than black soldier flies (BSF), the insect farm that investors have favored in the few sizeable venture deals to date for insect farms, the largest of which was a $50 million round for Dutch BSF operation Protix in 2017, which has since expanded into mealworms as well via acquisition.

Wilbur-Ellis had been looking to make an investment in insect farming to meet the demands of their customers for alternatives to fish meal, Mike Wilbur, corporate vice president of business development at Wilbur-Ellis told AgFunderNews. 

“We have been selling fishmeal for almost 100 years — that’s how the company was founded. Our customers are asking for alternative sources and they’re looking for more sustainable options.”

Wilbur said one reason he was drawn to Beta Hatch was its singular focus on feed replacements, unlike many other insect startups that split their attention between human and animal consumption. The company is simply following the larger market, says Emery.

“We’re not looking to produce insects for human food. We don’t have to convince birds and fish that insects are delicious. We love the edible insect space, but ultimately there are many millions to be made in insects as food. There are billions to be made in insects as feed,” she said. 

Wilbur-Ellis does not currently sell any insect-containing feed products because Wilbur says the cost remains too high: “That’s one of the challenges that Virginia is going to have,” he said. 

Beta Hatch is currently operating out of a 7,000 sq. ft. pilot farm in Seattle supplying small accounts locally. In the near-term, the company will build out a 5,000 sq. ft. warehouse farm to demonstrate the company’s full processing capacity and scalable rearing tech.

In her pilot program, Emery said that salmon fed exclusively with mealworms have grown at the same rate as fish fed a formulated feed mix. 

The price of fish meal has been climbing for the last five years and though Emery says that aquaculture farmers she talks to believe it will eventually fall, she emphasizes that the ocean is no longer a renewable resource.

Despite Beta hatch’s early stage, Emery is confident that her mealworms will be able to reach price parity with fishmeal within one year of commercialization. What’s more, she said that aquaculture operations will pay a premium for consistency and quality. The price of fishmeal ranges from $1400-2400 per ton with an unpredictable supply chain of which consumers are becoming more and more aware. 

Emery is targetting a price of $2,000 per ton with a ten-year guarantee, selling to feed manufacturers and not directly to farms.

In addition to year-round consistency, mealworms can replace or eliminate the need for feed additives that influence qualities of salmon that matter to consumers, like color potentially decreasing costs to farmers. Beta-Hatch will also sell mealworm frass, or insect manure, which can be used as organic fertilizer for specialty crops. The mealworms themselves eat agricultural byproducts. 

To date, Beta Hatch has raised $500,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation and other government agencies. 

In addition to being Wilbur-Ellis’s first feed investment, Beta-Hatch is the earliest stage investment yet for Cavallo Ventures.

“The market is asking for this solution so we went out and looked at any number of companies and found what we wanted at this stage,” said Wilbur. 

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