Entocycle: Creating a buzz with alternative protein
The following is an edited transcript of Nicole Erwin's interview with Keiran Whitaker, founder and CEO of Entocycle. Click below to hear the full interview.
Nicole: I'm talking with Keiran Whitaker, founder and CEO of Entocycle. To give listeners an idea of what your company is about, I want to start with a description of your website. It opens with what appears to be millions of fly larvae. You scroll down a bit further and you see a tractor that looks like it's seeding, and then a striking message appears next to a fly that says animal farming is killing the planet. All of this appears to be a pretty bold statement. Keiran, what is Entocycle trying to tell the world?
Keiran: The angle here is that a lot of people don't realize — and, obviously, I understand the current audience is much more clued-in — but it’s to help the general public understand that, when they eat a farmed animal, that farmed animal has itself eaten feed, and that feed comes from various locations around the world — most often from developing countries.
What often happens is that there is a heavy impetus placed upon the environment or area of the local region — a.k.a. cutting down rainforests to grow soy, catching small fish as fishmeal to feed animals. All of that has a huge negative effect on the environment. Actually, the local farming itself is not necessarily a negative. It's in many ways very positive — a lot of care is taken, a lot of effort — but it's all that upstream feed that goes into it that people are starting to realize is a problem, and what we're talking about is tackling that huge problem. For every kilo of meat you eat, you have to feed it several kilos of protein for that animal to feed and grow. We're tackling head-on the core root, which is a big problem.
Nicole: Was Entocycle born out of kind of an “a-ha” moment, or was it an idea that came out of solution-seeking discussions about population growth and unsustainable grain production?
Keiran: I think, personally, I had an “a-ha” moment, but the actual idea wasn't an “a-ha” moment, per se. My background is environmental design, environmental engineering, and I did a master's in this field, which I thought was a very good business opportunity to start. I then went traveling just one more time after university, and it turned into a five-and-a-half-year, around-the-world experience working as a scuba diving instructor. I worked in Southeast Asia, Central America, South America, and I lived up here in North America for a while. Almost everywhere that I went, especially in the developing world, rainforests are being cut down; our coral reefs are disappearing — not even dying, they're just disappearing — and our fish populations are nonexistent. The phrase “plenty of fish left in the sea” just doesn't apply anymore.
Essentially, I know that we will always find a new technical solution. It's just a matter of how much we are willing to give up from an environmental point of view until we find that technical solution. So, I want to push it now. You’ll meet very few people who moved from a beach in Mexico back to wet, windy, rainy London in January, but I had my mission and here I am today.
Nicole: Your solution is the world's first environmentally-controlled, fully-automated system to produce industrial levels of black soldier fly protein. Can you tell me a bit about that process?
Keiran: There are many different types of insects that people are starting to farm: Crickets, locusts, mealworms, et cetera — even house flies. But a lot of them have negative issues. They're pest species or disease vectors, or they're just too slow to produce. We focused on black soldier fly because it is non-disease and non-pest. The adults don't even have the traditional digestive systems, so they don't eat, which means that the larvae have to get all of that energy before metamorphosizing into the fly, so they are the fastest. They literally go from [the size of] a grain of sand to an inch within a space of less than a week, really, and they consume food waste. We're tackling two problems head-on: the massive environmental burden from food waste, plus a new source of protein. When I say “new,” animals eat insects anyway — it's just a natural part of their diet — so we're just returning to a normal function.
For us, our belief is you need to use 21st-century technology to bring what is a 150-million-years-old solution into the food chain. We are talking about robotics automation, machine learning, visual recognition to drive down that price point so it can be competitive. With any new industry, you need to take a holistic approach, so we feel that the farmers of tomorrow are the engineers of today. We will always become more advanced in the way we're doing things in agriculture. It's just evolving into this new kind of technological space and we went a bit in front of that.
Nicole: When you're talking about the larvae eating food waste, a lot of things could come to mind. What specifically are they eating?
Keiran: The insects themselves can eat nearly any food waste — we’re talking everything from manure on a farm to household catering waste — but what we're looking at and where we think the future lies is in pre-consumer wastes. These are whiskey grains, beer grains — both the solid and the liquid grains — spent coffee waste from coffee shops or industrial processing plants, or rotten vegetables.
They can take anything, realistically. We want to make sure it's a clean source. We know what's the input because, then, we know what the output is. As the technology evolves, maybe we can evolve into new areas, but right now it's beer grain, coffee waste and potato waste, is what we're using in London.
Nicole: My partner is a home brewer, and the spent grain starts to ferment quickly. Is that when the larvae like to feed most, when the grains are kind of odorous, or is it best to get the grains as quickly as possible?
Keiran: For us, because we are a precision-farming operation, having a standardized input will always give you a better-quality product output. But, realistically, when the apple falls from the tree and starts fermenting, the insects land on the apple, the bird eats the insects and off we go up the food chain. There are amazing things about biology that we don't see every day, including that many animals digest food external to their stomach before then eating it. Remember, these insects have been fighting for billions of years for the same resources — with fungi, with bacteria — and they’re the winners. They are the big boys and girls in the market, so they will always win. They don't mind anything — so they would love the smelly grains.
Nicole: Just out of curiosity, are there certain grains that the larvae seem to respond to better than others? In other words, are they more into simply barley-based beers or ones with more glucans that typically come from wheat and rye, like Belgian beers? What kind do they like?
Keiran: Again, we don't just feed them with a single input. We are using a combination. Much like us, they need a balanced diet, so we use a combination. What we're currently using — because we sit right in the tip of the very trendy Bermondsey Beer Mile in London, and we have about seven big, very fast-growing breweries doing IPAs, stouts, the whole range — so we take a big plethora of inputs. They love it, honestly.
Nicole: They're not picky.
Keiran: No. You have to think, this is essentially like a wormery, but instead of taking six months, it takes us six days to go through the same process. When they digest it, they leave behind their fertilizer. We are not just double-impacting with the input wastes in our product; we are also producing two different products, which are protein and fertilizer.
Nicole: How do you actually collect the larvae?
Keiran: We have two processes: we farm the insects ourselves, and we have the world's first fully-automated insect farmer to do this. One percent is used to repopulate — so, the adult broodstock — and 99 percent go into controlled environment crates, then eat the food waste. At the end of it, you have a fine fertilizer and very large larvae, which we just put over a separation sieve plate and the soil falls through. The larvae go down to be processed into protein flour.
Nicole: When you market this to farmers, do you just kind of take out your handful of dried flies and pitch it into a pond for aquaculture and say, "Look how tasty these are?” How do you market something like this?
Keiran: When I was in Brazil, we used to just feed a lot of the animals on the farm — chickens and pigs — with the raw live larvae, and the amount of amazing happy noises would come. I would be followed around by a gaggle of around 40 chickens at any one point when I walked. The pigs would always know when we're coming nearby and will just literally stop me. I'm not going do a pig impression of pigs happy, but you can imagine what it sounds like.
Realistically, where we're looking is at the high-quality nutrition industry —providing just the protein flour to big feed companies, such as Alltech Coppens, to make into specialized pellets, predominantly aiming at the higher-end aquaculture market. But last year, aquaculture was deregulated. Next year, chickens will become deregulated. In 2020, it looks like pigs will be also. So, the market is huge — just in aquaculture alone, they are saying it's a $100-billion opportunity — so take that across all the different industries. Remember, year on year on year, we're growing bigger and bigger and bigger in terms of the farming industry. Even though I started off saying farming is a negative influence, I actually think it's a huge opportunity to increase massive sustainability, and to also feed the growing population.
Nicole: When you say it's being deregulated, do you mean insect protein?
Keiran: Yes, insect protein — the market it can be used in. I mean, it's almost a joke in a way, because it's called fly fishing when you go catch a salmon because you put fly on the end of the hook. Everyone knows you get a premium for free-range chicken because it's, half the time, in the field eating insects. It's just a natural source, and we need to commercialize it. That's where we're focusing.
Nicole: How does the cost compare to other feed? You said that it is kind of a higher-quality protein.
Keiran: Right now, we all know and the whole market out there knows that insect protein is more expensive purely because it's such a novel industry, even with the big players out there. They're still producing just relatively few tons a year.
Where this industry needs to go is the tens of thousands of tons a year per facility. What we're focusing on is not necessarily producing protein, but producing the technology to produce the protein and, then, finding partners to do that with — whether that’s with large waste producers, feed companies or farmers who already integrated, or even entrepreneurs who are looking to put a new unit in their farm, for example. This is a technology, so we're looking more at a decentralized model and working with other people, but our focus is on the technology to do this.
Nicole: What would you say is the true cost of global protein obsession, conventionally speaking?
Keiran: Yes. I think that’s one of the big fundamental issues, is the untraceability, or what is unknown by the final consumer — the everyday mom and dad who are buying the chicken meat, et cetera. We don't include the water cost that comes from developing it. We don't include the labor cost, the shipping cost. I would probably say it's probably five times larger than what we're paying. But somewhere along the supply chain, someone is paying — and realistically, it's not us or the end consumer, it's the early-stage farmer.
Whether you care about farming or not, you should care about the whole supply chain. There is no reason why we can't be doing more sustainable things today. The only rationale is that people are just following the process as before, so we want to be really pioneering at the front. I think that’s why being in this partnership and this Accelerator with Alltech is phenomenal, because you guys are doing the same thing across the world. If we can tap into even a small part of that, then we have a massively positive effect as well.
Nicole: Can you talk a little bit about how you've been able to fund what you have so far?
Keiran: Yes. I saved up a bit of cash while I was a scuba diving instructor, as I talked about. It was not much. I moved back to the UK and moved back in with my folks after about ten years of having lived away. It was tough, I'm not going to lie. But I was almost manically obsessed with developing this technology, so I was working until 4:00 a.m. every day by myself. I found a very cheap place to work from. I then moved to Brazil and built a pilot facility over there for nearly six months. I stayed there for eight months in total.
When I came back to the UK, we got into an accelerator program called MassChallenge. We were one of the winners, so I got £20,000 there. I managed to hire few people. We started winning several big grants from the European and the UK government, including the European Space Agency, actually. We then got into Y Combinator, which is one of the global accelerator programs in Silicon Valley — I think it's like, one in 40,000 gets accepted each year — so, off the back of that, we raised our first significant seed round and we're now looking at our second raise, especially as part of the development we've done with Alltech. It just opened so many doors to us. It’s upward and onward, I suppose, is the right way to put it.
Nicole: You recently presented at the Pearse Lyons Accelerator. What was that like, and how did you come across the opportunity?
Keiran: We were approached to apply for the Accelerator program, and honestly, at the beginning, we were like, “We've been through a couple of accelerator programs, but this one might be nice because it's focused on agriculture. Let's have a go.” We applied. We flew over to Dublin from London and were, thankfully, accepted. We didn't know what to expect. We turned up and were literally blown away as to the support — being able to access the vice-presidents and CIOs and CEOs of such a large global corporate entity; it just opened our eyes. They've helped us destroy our business model and rebuild it again from scratch. They've helped us open our eyes as to how you get this into the supply chain, and that you don't have to do everything by yourself. There are already paths that have been trodden by experts — a.k.a. Alltech — that you can tap into and learn from. So, the program has been beyond our wildest dreams.
Nicole: Where do you see them taking you next with your company, then, immediately?
Keiran: The previous step was figuring out, “How do you not just become another commodities company?” How you don't just race to the bottom — which is never going to be good for anyone, whether it's the startup or the company or the end user — and create that extra-valued brand, which is built around trust, which is built around reputation, which is built around product development. That’s what we’re going to follow: don't aim for the bottom, aim for the top. I think that's just a good process to go forward.
Nicole: Lastly, at the Accelerator, I'm sure you were among a number of incredibly interesting startups. Besides your own, what was your favorite?
Keiran: That is a brutally hard question because I think one of the biggest benefits from the Accelerator program is not necessarily the program itself, but it's who you get to meet and, especially, having a cohort. Remember, you are going on a journey and it's quite lonely to run business by yourself. So, if you have other people you can lean on, you can ask, “How do you have that technology? How do you sign that contract? How do you negotiate that? Who do you know who can do this, that or the other?”
I would have to say that, even though it goes against some of my personal principles, I love the guys at Vence with the electronic ear tag, because I've built a lot of fences with my childhood and it's hard work. So that's phenomenal. The eggXYT guys — it's a whole new industry, looking to CRISPR. We will be looking to that as well with improving our product supply chain.
All of the in-house teams as well — they’re great. I mean, it's just been phenomenal. I threw a few winners out there, but everyone is a winner.
Nicole: I'm talking with Keiran Whitaker, founder and CEO of Entocycle. Thank you.
Keiran: Thank you very much. Have a great day.
Entocycle was among the startups who presented their innovative ideas during ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE18). Sign up for free access to watch their presentations and more by clicking below: