From a cricket farm in Thailand to insect snacks in Europe: Meet the start-up making the ‘most accepted bug’ affordable
The Cricket Lab boasts the ‘biggest cricket farm in the world’ in terms of production capacity. Based in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, the start-up farms crickets (Acheta domesticus) using vertical farming techniques, before processing them into cricket flour for the food industry.
On the other side of the globe is SENS Foods, a start-up based in the Czech Republic. SENS sells Cricket Lab’s pure cricket protein flour product, as well as a range of gluten-free product offerings including a peanut butter & cinnamon bar, tomato & basil crackers, and red lentil fusilli – all made using the high protein ingredient.
Both start-ups are owned by Future Protein Group Limited, which recently closed a €1.9m funding round. According to co-founder Radek Husek, the investment will help boost protein production efficiency and grow SENS’ market share in Europe.
From little things
The development of SENS Foods was inspired by a 2013 United Nations report, recalled Future Protein Group’s Husek. In the report, titled Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) lists the environmental opportunities of rearing insects for food.
“Consuming insects has a number of advantages,” noted the UN agency. “They have high feed-conversion efficiency…they can be reared on organic side streams, reducing environmental contamination, while adding value to waste; they emit relatively few GHGs and relatively little ammonia; and they require significantly less water than cattle rearing.”
After reading the document in 2015, Husek observed a distinct lack of insect products on supermarket shelves: “To make this whole idea work became our challenge,” he told FoodNavigator. The following year, a successful crowdfunding campaign enabled the launch of SENS Foods.
The founders soon predicted that cost and supply of cricket protein could be a ‘really limiting factor’ in achieving scale, which prompting them to instigate their own farming project: Cricket Lab.
“We did our own research and led countless focus groups to find out which insect variety would be best to use and how to market it,” recalled Husek.
“Crickets really stood out as the most accepted bug among consumers. Knowing that [overcoming] consumer acceptance would be one of the hardest challenges that we [would] have in the business, we decided to go for this species.”
Today, Cricket Lab produces protein with around 100 times fewer greenhouse gasses than a steak, 12 times less feed, and almost no water. “It’s the most resource-efficient, thus sustainable, animal protein on the planet,” he continued.
Nutrition and food formulation
From a nutritional perspective, crickets are ‘full of quality proteins’, as well as fats and fibre, we were told. Specifically, 100g of cricket contains 121 calories, 12.9g of protein, 5.5g of fat, and 5.1g carbohydrates, as well as calcium, phosphorous, iron, thiamine, and riboflavin.
Currently, Cricket Lab processes the insects into flour using simple grinding and drying techniques. “Fortunately, crickets when processed well into a powder have a very mild taste and almost no smell,” Husek told this publication.
SENS does impart specific flavours into its foods, such as ‘Pineapple & Coconut’, or ‘Tomato & Basil’, in order to ‘let people forget any thoughts about how crickets taste’. “Hence, the taste [in SENS’ finished products] mainly comes from ingredients like dried fruit and chocolate in our sweet snacks, or veggies and seeds in our savoury snacks.”
SENS’ offerings contain between 10-20% cricket protein, which the co-founder explained helps achieve a desirable texture in food formulation. “Cricket protein is a really dry powder, so it would not [create] anything delicious if a product [was made from] 80% cricket protein.”
In the future, the business sees ‘big potential’ for crickets to be transformed into ready made products, such as insect burger patties. Crickets, for example, are rich in heme iron, which could be leveraged to mimic the flavour of meat, the co-founder suggested. “I believe in those cases, we [would] play much more with the taste.”
€1.9m boost and European market growth
Future Protein Group closed a €1.9m funding round in late 2019 with participation from three Czech companies: Presto Ventures, Reflex Capital, and UP21.
The company is splitting the funds equally between Cricket Lab and SENS. This will help improve production efficiencies in Thailand, in order to improve affordability for the mainstream food market, and boost market share in Europe.
“We have already seen improvements in what we can do,” explained Husek. “In R&D tests, we were able to quadruple what is the standard output per square metre – which is an important variable as this lowers all fixed costs.”
The investment will enable Cricket Lab to scale ‘fully’, and eventually introduce automated feeding and watering systems. The company has also teamed with scientists to develop specialised feed formula for each stage of cricket development.
In terms of market growth, SENS currently sells its snacks and pasta products in Germany and in the founders’ own Czech Republic – where Future Protein Group first piloted its range.
The decision to launch in Germany was driven by its population’s environmental interests, Husek explained. Germany has the highest number of people who define themselves as flexitarians (19% compared to 9% in the UK), we were told. “This conscious consumer is exactly who we think could get the greatest benefits from adding cricket protein into their diet.”
According to Husek, SENS is gaining momentum in the German retail market. Having passed trial periods with supermarkets such as Tegut and Edeka, the brand now plans to ‘scale out’ into more stores.
“We fully want to focus on the Berlin area and be present at many places and events. So investment in marketing will also be greatly increased.”
The insect in the room
The elephant (or insect) in the room, of course, is EU Novel Food Regulation. In Europe, parts of insects – such as legs, wings, and heads – as well as whole insects, are defined as novel foods.
As of 28 November 2019, just three non-EU countries have novel food authorisation to sell insects in Europe: Canada, Switzerland, and South Korea.
This means that insect products require pre-market authorisation from the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA). Authorisation is dependent on the completion of a full scientific dossier demonstrating safety.
As it stands, no such application has been approved. A number, however, are under review, including one for crickets. Husek stressed he is ‘not concerned’ that Novel Foods Regulation could block market entry, however.
“[SENS] is part of the International Platform of Insects for Food [IPIFF], so we watch regulation closely. We [also collaborated on] Thailand’s traditional foods from a third country application sent to the EU, which we expect could be the fastest novel food dossier accepted.
“There is still a transitional measures period, which is in place now, and these transitional measures are fully accepted for our market operations in Germany and the Czech Republic.”
This article was updated on 12 February 2020 to include the three non-EU countries authorised to sell insects in Europe.