Can crickets save the world?
The answer might be yes according to two Montreal startups. They work side-by-side producing food for humans and dogs using – you guessed it – grinded up crickets.
William Walcker, the founder of Naak energy bars for thiathletes and long-distance runners, and Phillipe Poirier, cofounder of Bug Bites treats for dogs (Hexa Foods), both use cricket powder as the main ingredient for their foods. Vegetables and other natural flavouring ingredients round out the products.
Cricket powder is one of the most sustainable forms of protein. Sustainability remains a huge issue as experts around the world furiously warn the world’s growing population about future food production woes. Crickets, say these two entrepreneurs, could be a missing link.
“It’s a superfood, actually,” said Walcker, a triathlete who first tested his energy bars on his fellow athletes. His 60 gram Naak bars contain a bulky 10 grams of protein. “Crickets have twice the protein as beef, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more vitamin B12.”
“It’s the fat profile too,” added Poirier. “Fatty acid levels in crickets are comparable to fish, so you get a perfect balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 which is impossible find in land animals.”
We tried Naak’s delicious snacks and they were comparable to most energy bars in taste. But my neighbour politely declined when I tried to offer a slick-designed bag of Bug Bites dog treats for her pit bull.
Like my neighbour, changing people’s mindsets about eating insects is the most important factor in their success, said both Walcker and Poirier.
There exists a “huge job to do in educating the market.” Still, Walcker said, “it’s only a matter of time.”
In fact, insect eating is common in 80 per cent of the world.
“It’s a cultural shift. One hundred years ago lobster was only given to prisoners and slaves and now it’s a delicacy,” said Poirier, 26. “We do a lot of tasting events and we specifically tell shoppers that two people in seven consume insects.”
Consuming and capitalizing on cricket powder isn’t completely new. Poirier’s own startup and many competitors have received ample media coverage over the past three years as sustainability continues to be a huge global issue.
In the past three or four years, more than 25 startups that sell insects as food have been launched in the U.S. and Canada, according to entomologist Aaron Dossey. Dossey’s company, All Things Bugs, sold 10,000 pounds of cricket powder in 2014 to startups like Exo, Chapul and Six Foods. It was on track to sell more than 25,000 pounds in 2015.
Moreover, a 2014 report by New Nutrition Business projected that the edible-insect industry would be worth more than 230 million pounds ($360 million) by 2019.
Common to all these entrepreneurs including Walcker and Poirier (and Poirier’s Next 36-graduated cofounder, Paul Shenouda) was the United Nations’ landmark Food and Agriculture Organization’s report a few years ago calling insects a major player in the future of food. At the time it said insects were already being eaten by more than two billion people worldwide.
In Montreal, things got testy in 2013 when a McGill University team of PhD researchers unceremoniously booted out a cofounder from their team just before claiming a $1 million prize from Bill Clinton’s foundation. The idea was reportedly the work of the cast-away Jakub Dzamba, involving a radical form of production, processing and promotion of insects for human consumption.
Dzamba, as it turns out, is now an advisor for Poirier’s Bug Bites.
Both Walcker and Poirier felt Montreal was the perfect place to spread their niche ideologies. Walcker specifically targets triathletes and long-distance athletes, who he feels are naturally more inclined to consume things “closer to nature.”
Poirier said his clients, dog-owners, are “more physically active and more aware of the nutrition side of things.”
“They don’t care where the protein is from, they just want the optimal nutrition for their dogs,” he said.
The pair operate independent companies but work side-by-side and share an office. Since they’re producing products for humans and canines they don’t feel they’re competing with each other. The pair insist they want to take market share away from traditional food conglomerates who mass-produce less sustainable foods.
In fact, Poirier said it takes more than 9,000 litres of water to produce one beef hamburger, or approximately the same amount of water used over three months of showering. The same sized burger made with cricket powder would use just four litres of water. Moreover, Bug Bites’ website says crickets produce approximately 10 times less greenhouse gas emissions than chicken, an ingredient typically used for dog treats.
The cost of producing the cricket powder remains high, mostly because the cricket farms still require manual labour. But while the costs of traditional sources of protein “skyrocket,” cricket powder prices are going down due to automation.
One pound of the cricket powder costs about $20, while Poirier’s 40 gram bag of Bug Bites retails for $10.
“Since we started our product we’ve seen a gradual 33 percent reduction in our raw materials (cricket powder),” he said. “It’s fairly easy to have a very fair gross margin.”
Ultimately, Poirier thinks we’re slowly moving towards premium cricket-based products being made at mass-produced prices.
“That’s the most attractive part of cricket powder for me, that we can make the most healthy, sustainable and delicious product out there that costs lower than the cheapest bacon or Kraft Dinner you can find.”
Both Walcker and Poirer readily admit there’s ample competition in both of their spaces residing in both North America and Europe. That’s particularly true within human food, where Exo raised a $4 million series A round in March.
The biggest competitors remain huge food conglomerates. More people selling sustainability will help grow the market. Poirier said while it certainly hasn’t consolidated yet, he does expect to see acquisitions within the space soon.
“There’s so many new players being created and not every one of them can survive. Some will merge together,” he said.
In October, Bug Bites will expand to all of Quebec and will also launch a rebrand. The company pitched earlier this winter on Quebec’s version of Dragons’ Den and received offers from four out of the five dragons.
Meanwhile Naak is currently selling it’s “V1” product, while it will start shipping a packaged product in the fall.