The CLIC™ Chronicles: Meet Ÿnsect, the French start-up raising beetles to tackle growing food demand

rethink sustainability

The CLIC™ Chronicles: Meet Ÿnsect, the French start-up raising beetles to tackle growing food demand

Interview with Jean-Gabriel Levon, co-founder and Impact Director of Ÿnsect


What is Ÿnsect?

Ÿnsect aims to help feed the planet, while respecting the environment and the Earth’s natural capital. Our goal is to put insects back where they belong, at the basis of our food chain. This concept is not new: insects are naturally present in food for fish, birds and wild animals and have been cultivated for millennia.

This concept is not new: insects are naturally present in food for fish, birds and wild animals and have been cultivated for millennia

This is why we created a proprietary system for raising mealworm in order to produce and distribute a premium range of protein and feed. These natural, sustainable products feature as alternatives to chemical fertilisers and animal proteins used in fish farming, in order to feed farm animals and pets.

What was your starting-point for creating the company?

A simple observation:  the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believes that consumption of animal protein will increase by 52% between 2007 and 2030. Population growth and higher living standards have strongly impacted global food demand, leading to considerable protein needs, whether for human or animal consumption (fish, poultry, cattle).

The FAO believes that consumption of animal protein will increase by 52% between 2007 and 2030

Concerned about these issues, we created Worganic, an association which works to reconnect city dwellers with the land and more sustainable or local agriculture. Then, given the urgent need to rethink our food produce and how we feed animals and plants, we looked at insects as original foodstuffs and then as ingredients.


What challenges did you face?

It’s not easy to create a company, and creating an insect company (of beetles, to be exact) is even harder! Today, everyone has heard of insects as ingredients, but ten years ago this was really very new, particularly in Europe. So we had to convince people using our results and by reiterating and conveying our beliefs. The first five years were devoted to Research & Development.

Today, everyone has heard of insects as ingredients, but ten years ago this was really very new, particularly in Europe

We had to select a single insect from one million, study all the manual tasks (feeding, sorting etc.) to automate them as much as possible for efficiency gains, study the insect’s nutrition and test our products with future clients (producers of pet food and aquaculture feed). Today, many of these issues are behind us. And we are going even further with the vertical farm we are building in Amiens (France)! Clients are also backing us; we already have more than 105 million orders for the coming years.

So who are your clients?

We produce ingredients: protein, oils, feed. So we are in a B2B market. Our clients are producers of pet food, aquaculture or other feed, such as COMPO France, Skretting, Torres, Virbac and ANgibaud.


How does an agritech company like yours offer a solution to soil degradation, global warming and conservation of our natural capital?

We are rooted in the circular economy. We recover agricultural co-products to feed our insects, we convert the insects to protein and oils to complement or replace fishmeal harvested on the other side of the world and we recover droppings to make an organic fertiliser that is as good as and sometimes better quality than chemical fertiliser! In short, nothing is wasted with us. On the other hand, our model is local, we buy our raw materials from local farmers and cooperatives and support their transition to agro-ecological farming.

It’s specifically in this context that Ÿnsect has developed its agricultural model of vertical farms, which means we can produce more protein while using less space and fewer resources.

…we convert the insects to protein and oils to complement or replace fishmeal harvested on the other side of the world and we recover droppings to make an organic fertiliser that is as good as and sometimes better quality than chemical fertiliser

In concrete terms, how are you innovative? What technologies do you use, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Insects have always been cultivated – for example, silkworms. But this cultivation was based on manual operations which meant production struggled to meet the needs of the European food sector in terms of volume, competitiveness and quality. Artificial intelligence and data mean we can monitor our insects to adapt to their needs at any time. We can now say we have built version 4.0 that is environmentally friendly and scalable, in order to produce locally worldwide.
 

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You achieved spectacular capital-raising in 2020. How do you explain this and what are your ambitions for development?

This capital-raising was the result of a year's work to prove the viability of our proposal and gain trust in our ecosystems. 372 million USD raised is good, but 105 million USD contracts signed shows the products’ excellence and market reality. Our ambition for the future is going global, of course! We want to produce locally to meet local needs. We therefore expect to ramp up our expansion, in parallel with our developments in France. In 2021, we will announce our plans to set-up vertical farms, specifically in North America, where we will begin marketing in the US pet food market.

This capital-raising was the result of a year's work to prove the viability of our proposal and gain trust in our ecosystems. 372 million USD raised is good, but 105 million USD contracts signed shows the products’ excellence and market reality

You recently announced that after food products for pets, farmed fish and plants, Ÿnsect was preparing to launch human food. Can you tell us more?

On Wednesday, 13 January 2021, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a positive opinion on the use of mealworm as a human food product. The Authority highlighted that this is safe from a health perspective. Mealworm, or Tenebrio molitor, the insect we cultivate, has become the first insect to receive a scientific endorsement for human consumption. This is a victory and a key stage in the growth of the insect industry! We have been thinking about human food for some time. Indeed, studies conducted as part of our relationships with our pet food clients have shown interesting properties for humans – in line with our two strategic priorities of performance and health.

Mealworm, or Tenebrio molitor, the insect we cultivate, has become the first insect to receive a scientific endorsement for human consumption

Could you tell us about investor interest and how this has changed over time?

We have seen a real change in investment activity from 2015 with the submission of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, boosted by the UN Paris Climate Conference, COP 21. Our investors are aware of their responsibility to think medium and long-term, and we’re proud of this.


You have an active social and environmental policy. Can you explain what you have done in this space?

Back in 2017, we set up Impact Management, with its director – myself – on the company’s board. This cross-functional department is tasked with describing, measuring and calculating the consequences of corporate activity on the surrounding world, and enabling teams to adhere to our ‘impact budget commitments’ (IPCC 2°C1 & IPBES2), and check that these are met. This is the famous ‘less is more’ approach, which influences all the company’s actions and commitments on a day-to-day basis.

Against this backdrop, we conduct life cycle analyses (LCA), the most successful tool for overall, multi-criteria assessment of environmental impact, with the company Quantis. This has highlighted that we are carbon negative: we sequester and save more CO2 than we emit.

This has highlighted that we are carbon negative: we sequester and save more CO2 than we emit

Armed with these initial results, in 2019 we launched our ‘rewilding the world’ programme in partnership with charities and initiatives such as the French Association for the Protection of Wild Animals (ASPAS) and WWF. We want to offset our impact directly by returning to the wild, at least, the same horizontal area saved by our farms. To date, more than 370 hectares of land have been protected (directly and indirectly) and handed back to nature


What do you do on a day-to-day basis to reduce your impact? Do you eat insects?

I drive an electric car, I stopped flying completely in 2016 both personally and professionally. Also, I became a flexitarian and I am very involved in developing Ÿnsect! I even had mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) at my wedding!

1 https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/
2 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services :https://www.ipbes.net/

Statistic source: Food Waste in America in 2021: Statistics & Facts | RTS
 

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