In this month’s edition of our Insectpreneur Series we have another great interview lined up with Dr Aaron T. Dossey of All Things Bugs LLC!
Dr. Dossey and his team are creating some of the highest quality Finely Milled Whole Cricket Powder in the industry, and at a large scale.
And as we all know, cricket powder is one of the most useful and versatile ingredients in the edible insect food range.
So without any further ado, let’s dive into the interview with Dr. Dossey!
I’ve always been fascinated by insects. I’m a life-long, self taught Entomologist (and have worked as a professional Entomologist for the USDA 2010-2012, though my Ph.D. is in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology). Since high school I have kept an insect collection and raised over 100 different species in captivity, and for years have had an insect photography hobby. In fact, even in my Biochemistry career I always aspired to incorporate insects and other invertebrates into my professional work – exploring insects as sources of new natural products, drug discovery, biomedical and agricultural applications, etc.
Around 2010 I had been reading about the concept of insects being efficient and a potentially sustainable food source. I had always thought of them as a very diverse source of compounds and knew their miraculous biodiversity and behavioral adaptations. I’ve long referred to them as “low crawling fruit”. So, I was already quite primed to understand that they could also be a very efficient and valuable bioresource.
I began to learn about how various species are eaten and even farmed around the world. So I began to incorporate the concept of insects as a food ingredient (in addition to a source of new compounds) in my research plans floated to some of the over 100 faculty position applications I had submitted.
In 2010, at the Entomological Society of America’s conference (where I gave a talk on my insect chemistry work) I met a group who had given talks on insects as food. Early in 2011, one of that group, Dr. Frank Franklin (a nutritionist University of Alabama at Brimingham), forwarded a grant announcement from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to many of us in the small insects as food community. The topic was: to do something to alleviate malnutrition in children.
Dr. Franklin thought this was right up the alley of insect as a sustainable protein source. So, I submitted a 2 page anonymous application (which is the ideal format for all grant applications by the way!). Later that year the Gates foundation called and said the were very interested in my grant. However, since I was “only” a postdoc at the USDA, and postdocs in the US are not usually allowed to have/control their own grants (even if they write them and drive/conduct the research), I had applied with my affiliation as “independent”.
The Gates Foundation said that one option to qualify for the grant and do the project was that I could hurry up and get a faculty position at a University. The second option given was that I could work at a company or other organization capable of doing the project.
I asked if that included a new company (which I could found immediately), and they said yes.
I now consider myself a “recovering academic”, or “the entrepreneur I didn’t plan on being”. Well, sort of. I actually always thought I would start some sort of business, but had planned on an academic career first.
In 2011 at the Gates Foundation’s prompting, I filed the paperwork to start the company, but they could not promise me the grant until that process was complete (which took several months). I had to wait until April 2012 to know if I would get the grant.
Alas, things worked out and I got the grant under my new title “Founder and Owner of All Things Bugs LLC”. I now call myself President/Founder.
Actually, even in 2011 I had already been growing various species of insects (flies, mealworms, superworms, crickets, scarabs, etc.) and doing kitchen experiments in preparation for getting the project off to a prompt start. And in 2012 with the grant in hand, I found some contract labs (such as the University of Nebraska’s Food Processing Center) conduct experiments which I designed based on my preliminary kitchen experiment work.
I decided that an insect based RUTF (Ready to Use Therapeutic Food) would be the ideal format for an insect based food to alleviate malnutrition in children, having seen its success covered on the US TV program 60 minutes –
During development of that product it became clear that there was a tremendous need for innovation in all areas of insect based food. Particularly in the area of creating a scalable, efficient and high quality insect based powder ingredient process.
I also had to negotiate to buy insects: frozen and by the pound. I found that crickets were the most readily available frozen insect, and cheapest by the pound (of the farmed insects in the US) as well as some of the highest in protein. So I began innovating in the cricket processing / powder space. Following the Gates Foundation grant, I applied for and received additional funding from the USDA SBIR program ($100,000 Phase I and $450,000 Phase II to further develop and evaluate cricket / insect powders as a feasible safe food ingredient and more recently another $100,000 USDA SBIR Phase I grant to explore improving the efficiency and reduce the cost of cricket farming through automation and mechanization of watering and harvesting as well as cheaper more sustainable feed formulations).
This was an exciting yet steep learning curve. There were several categories of challenges and lessons for me during the period from 2011-2013 (and continues today), while building my business and conducting my first 2 major research grant projects:
On the research side, I quickly learned that a fine powder is the most useful form of “insect as a food ingredient”.
Powders have low water content, long shelf life and are fine, so they can mix with other things without affecting their texture, flowability, ability to move through various pieces of food equipment, etc. The goal is to incorporate insect into foods without the consumer overtly noticing the insect component.
I also learned about RUTFs and how useful they have been in treating malnutrition in children world-wide, as well as the extent of childhood malnutrition globally.
In life, I have learned to be better at networking, more outgoing and a great deal more patient. I’ve also learned to be more willing to take chances and be less risk averse.
Starting a business that I have to live off of has given me more of a “just do it” mantra. I’ve always been like that a bit in the lab, but doing that in life and business I find more personally challenging.
In business, I’ve learned to be an entrepreneur by jumping in with both feet to be tested by fire.
I’ve learned to be more resourceful and that often (but not always), things that seem impossible really aren’t that big of a deal. Just put one foot in front of the other and go for it.
For food, agriculture, science: simply, I have learned a great deal about the practical needs of these systems, and I have learned that insects are a fantastic resource and will inevitably transform our food and agricultural systems for the better!
In late 2013, when my Phase I Gates Foundation and my Phase I USDA SBIR grants were coming to a close, I began to decide what the future of the research and business would be. Or, if it would have a future at all.
If I got the Phase II grants (and others had applied for), I’d be set for a few more years. If not, I would either have to start selling a product or do something else with my life.
I started making some cricket protein bars. They were quite good, and a friend who had never eaten insect (or anything exotic) before ate them all on a road trip without even thinking – even though I needed them to compare with other recipes later. I guess they were quite good!
However, Chapul and EXO were already on the market and I could tell things were heating up. I had almost no money, a very small apartment, no other resources and it looked like I really couldn’t afford to rent a commercial kitchen (required by law to sell food in the US). What I had at the time was a fantastic, patent pending process.
I had invented a way to make the best quality cricket powder (or any other insect species powder), in the most efficient and scalable way possible by far.
After a short investigation, it was clear that there were no serious players in the insect based ingredient market, so I began contacting manufacturers. I needed to see what it would cost to produce quantities of this product and at what price I could sell it. I also negotiated reasonable prices for frozen crickets with cricket farmers capable of providing pallets of frozen crickets at significant quantity.
Around November 2013 I floated samples of my cricket powder (at the time courser than the find product All Things Bugs LLC produces now) to EXO, Chapul, Six Foods and other companies making insect based food products. EXO was interested and became my first customer. They put in an order, I scheduled a manufacturing run and in January 2014 had manufactured and sold my first batch of cricket powder to EXO and a few other entities including Six Foods.
At the time, it was called Whole Cricket Powder, because it is made of pure whole cricket – nothing added, nothing taken away. Our newer product is currently called Finely Milled Whole Cricket Powder.
To date All Things Bugs LLC has manufactured and sold almost 10,000 pounds of cricket powder in total to numerous companies, universities and individuals and has provided samples to many more companies and funding and samples as a sponsor for various insect related events (including 2 recent student competition groups at the IFT conference and EXO in Chicago – All Things Bugs LLC was the primary sponsor for the 2 groups from Costa Rica: Cricketa and Molibannann (Cricketa won the competition), the Riverside Insect Fair in Riverside, CA, USA and the upcoming Grasshopper Festival in Republic, Washington, USA).
I think goals for the company are well aligned and synergistic with where I see the industry going.
The next steps need to be getting mainstream food companies, small medium or/and large, to adapt insect as an ingredient in at least one product. They have the capacity, distribution, marketing and overall capability to launch products to a wide consumer base.
Also, this sort of buy-in from a recognized food company – a company (again, small, medium or large) that people in a region, nation or world-wide saw as a food brand before they considered insects – will add tremendous credibility to our entire concept and industry in the minds of the consumer public perception. The scale of these companies, even small ones, tends to be much larger than the insect based food startups currently in our industry, so buy-in (literal and figurative) from even a few of these companies will give our industry the growth that it critically needs to survive.
Scale is another critical element. Right now, farmed insects are quite expensive and not widely available (supplies are barely sufficient for crickets and insufficient and unreliable for all other insects). Scale will quickly improve costs. Additionally, scale will add legitimacy to the concept of insect based food.
See this Food Navigator article for a discussion on this topic
1) Cost/price: Farmed insects are too expensive for acceptance by mainstream food companies right now, but the good news is that we are just starting and there is much room for improvement. I call this “low crawling fruit”. Economies of scale will quickly drop costs of insect based goods as will innovations in insect farming.
2) Scale and supply: The industry needs to increase scale to not only lower costs but also to capitalize on larger potential markets, gain market acceptance and credibility and improve supply reliability. The supply of crickets in the in the US is sufficient for current demand but just barely. No other insect is meeting demand for the food market. Also, supplies of all insects need to be made more reliable. Right now there is somewhat of a seasonality to farmed insect supply, but as this industry grows, we will need reliable constant supply 365 days per year. Finally, scale will add credibility to our concept and industry.
3) Technological improvement: Insect farming probably has the farthest to go as far as technology. Even simple things like automating insect harvesting will greatly improve costs and efficiency. Innovations in automated feeding and watering will also help tremendously to reduce labor costs. Additionally, innovation in farmed insect feed formulations to incorporate lower cost biomass (agricultural and food industry byproducts (food grade materials)), under-utilized grasses and foliage from crop plants such as vegetables or peanuts, and things of this sort will greatly lower the cost AND the environmental impact of insect farming.
4) Need for buy-in from mainstream food companies: As mentioned before, existing food companies not yet using insects have the scale, distribution, marketing, credibility, manufacturing capacity and other attributes that will take the insect based food industry to the next level. Eventually (and soon) we need mainstream food companies to start adapting insect based ingredients. This will require lowering costs of insect based ingredients (ie: lowering cost of farmed insects). Cost seems to be the primary limitation preventing most of the food companies we have talked to from moving forward with insect based products (at least those without other fundamental limitations such as vegan, vegetarian, kosher, etc.).
5) Kosher status: From manufacturing to mainstream food company adaptation to the end consumers, if we could get kosher status approval for any one insect (cricket or grasshopper seem most likely) that will greatly improve prospects for insect based foods.
6) Time: I believe that we need to scale this industry quickly or much of the buzz and interest will fade away. A lot of people will see it as a passing fad, niche or worse that there was some fundamental flaw that made it not feasible. If we can continue the current momentum and grow double or more each year, it will prove out the concept.
7) Public perception I think is not as big of a problem as these others, and addressing the above issues will greatly help with public perception.
8) Regulation: In the US, this is a bit of a black box (USDA/FDA). It seems like the FDA will be most involved with our industry, but USDA will probably get involved on the farming side and organic certifications. Some options we have on this are calling the FDA often, meeting with those officials if possible, getting together as an industry to hire a lobbyist to help liaise with the FDA and congress, etc. We should also work together to pursue GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) status for farm raised insects – first as a food ingredient (crickets, mealworms, waxworms and grasshoppers, probably starting with GRAS’ing powder made from crickets) then looking into feed applications (though feed applications may be intrinsic to GRAS for food).
Right now the ‘hands off’ regulatory landscape is helping our industry get started and grow, but we are now to the stage where we need the guidance and certifications from the FDA for us to grow: for manufacturers to accept insects in their facilities by default and for mainstream food companies to be more open and able to use insect based ingredients.
Read More on Regulation
a. Here is an article with more on the regulatory landscape in the US and edible insect legislation issues in general
b. Find a lot more on our web site with articles posted in the Resources section and “The Science” section of the All Things Bugs LLC web site!
1) If you want to get into the insect based food business, pick one of 3 segments of the industry and focus on it: a) farming, b) processing (providing insects as an ingredient, powder or whole insect or other form) or c) making consumer end products. Trying to do more than one of these would be too much for one startup and counter to synergy with the rest of the industry.
2) If you are starting a cricket or mealworm farm, be prepared to sell loads of 15,000-25,000 pounds of raw frozen crickets or mealworms at a time. This means renting or investing in freezer capacity and getting your scale up quickly. Also, be prepared to sell at $4 (USD) per pound or less. Also, look closely at the 3-4 or more organic cricket/mealworm feed suppliers and try to adapt gluten free USDA certified organic feed into your operation while maintain $4 per pound for your raw frozen insects. That is where the demand is at.
3) Terminology is important: As an industry we should probably abandon the terms “entomophagy” and “flour”. Entomophagy is unappetizing and adds a technical/clinical aspect to eating insect based foods that is unusual for food (we don’t say “porcinophagy”, we say we’re eating bacon). “Flour” is inaccurate and confusing a lot of consumers – thinking they can us it the same as how wheat flour is used. At 60-70% protein and the rest oil and a little fiber and animal based, and “flours” being from plants (primarily grains, nuts and other seeds) and mostly starch, it just doesn’t work the same. We prefer the terms “powder” (if it’s a fine powder) or “meal” for courser products or “meal” for products made from roasted insects (like corn meal, fish meal, meat meal, etc.).
4) Whole insects have their place in the food system, but the vast majority of applications for insects in the food supply involve using them in powder form.
5) Be SURE to label your products properly as potential allergens! Insects are a potential food allergen and related to crustacean shellfish.
6) Get CREATIVE! Imagine all the possibilities! Take this mantra: ANYTHING can be made out of insect.
7) Remember that there are over a MILLION insect species in the world, and food and feed are by far the proverbial tip of the iceberg!
8) Antibiotics, enzymes, industrial materials (chitin), neutraceuticals … There is tons of potential here beyond food and feed – it takes creativity, selecting the right insect and a little R&D.
9) I take a lot of inspiration for our industry from George Washington Carver and Percy Julian.
Farm raised insects are just another protein source, and a potential allergen.
They can be as clean, healthy and as safe as any animal depending on how they are produced, but to date most large cricket and mealworm farms are very clean. We have never found E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Listeria or Salmonella in any raw farmed cricket or mealworm so they seem to be quite clean compared to other animals.
You should take caution with *ANY* new product and find out if you are allergic or not. Also keep in mind that the genetic difference between the mealworm and a cricket is more than between a human and a bird, so an allergy to one insect may or may not mean an allergy to another (just take caution).
Start with a bar, snack, baked good or protein shake made with cricket or mealworm powder as your first experience – don’t go directly for the whole insects. If people see that foods and beverages they are use to can contain insect and still are as good or the same as they are use to, they’ll see right away that there’s nothing “icky” about foods and beverages that contain insect as an ingredient. The beverages and things like pastas or even some baked goods are excellent examples for those looking to really explore, because these products are very sensitive to texture and flavor changes – so people can try these and really tell “hey, I can’t detect the insect at all!”.
Next, I would buy the pure cricket powder to use or cook with on your own. In fact, this might be a first option for a lot of people so you can really try it directly and in it’s pure form. This will help you understand it’s flavor, texture, aroma and uses. Maybe you prefer to make your own food or you can add insect to your favorite food instead of other animal or plant proteins. It will make it more sustainable, healthier or just taste better.
Once you’ve tried these things, find insect based products that are accessible and affordable to you. Find sources of insect ingredients and begin incorporating them into your weekly or daily diet. You’re doing a very good thing for the planet and it may even be healthy for you in the long run too!
We would like to thank Dr. Dossey for taking the time to share his extensive knowledge and experience as a successful Insectpreneur!
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