Entomics CSO, Miha Pipan, explains how serendipity led him to become an entrepreneur and why the Black Solider Fly is the ‘crown jewel’ of the insect industry…
Hi Miha! Can you explain what it is that you do?
I am the CSO for a 3-year-old startup company called Entomics, which has the goal of using insects as a method of converting biological waste to generate food and animal feed.
How did you and your fellow co-founders meet and what led you to start a company together?
It was all very serendipitous. We were all students from Cambridge university and Matt McLaren (CEO & Co-Founder) was doing an MBA, Fotis Fotiadis (CTO & Co-Founder) was interested in sustainable engineering and I was a biochemist. We all met at a food waste business competition at Cambridge which I’d entered thinking that pigs were going to be the answer to food waste; but together we realised very quickly that this wouldn’t work and that insects were a much better fit. Entomics was born from that.
So you’ve always wanted to be entrepreneurs then?
Ha no, not specifically. We all wanted to do something different and if I’m honest none of us wanted a ‘normal job’. We managed to get a small seed investment of £5k to test out our theories and we thought: ‘why not give it a go?’. So we started with that mindset of ‘No 9-5’ and went from there!
Going back to insects, why choose to work with them to solve the problem of food waste?
Insects are so much more versatile: they are extremely efficient at converting food waste over very short periods, they grow a thousand-fold in biomass over a fortnight so there are advantages from a transport & logistics point of view, there aren’t as many health & safety challenges when it comes to feedstocks in insects as there are in vertebrates due to their biology and they also create additional resources, such as Chitin (from the insect shells) that can be used in the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic worlds. Insects also offer a truly global solution as you can have very high-end systems for western countries or very low cost, manual-intense options for the developing world. In short, insects are a ubiquitous solution.
Your website states that the Black Soldier Fly (BSF) is the ‘crown jewel’ of insects – why’s that?
It’s a very attractive generalist: the BSF maggots can feed on pretty much anything and grow a lot in very short time spans and it can live almost everywhere in the world. Using it for pre-customer food waste purposes is also already legal, so it’s a great place to start.
Do you really think that insect feed can solve the problem of food waste or replace animal feed?
It’s true that insect production at the moment is still expensive when you compare it to a more established feed like soy. However, the field is still young, so I’m confident that costs will come down and make it much more competitive in the future.
How did you get involved with EIT Food?
The initial introduction was made through a connection at the University of Cambridge, who are also a partner in the EIT Food community. However, it was the first networking event that we attended in Bilbao back in February that really showed us how exciting and dynamic the community was. For a small company like us with lots of ideas trying to reach as many people as possible, this was exactly what we needed to be part of. It was also in Bilbao where we met Matis from Iceland, who we ended up collaborating with on our first project that received funding from EIT-Food in 2018. Without the community and support from EIT Food, Entomics as a company probably wouldn’t have happened.
And how did the EIT Food Community help you develop?
Other than helping us get started, being a part of the RisingFoodStars start-up network in EIT Food has helped us become more professional and forced us to work at a higher level than we would have done otherwise. Yes, there are challenges from a paperwork perspective when applying for European funding but this process itself has ensured that the projects we want to work on are better-thought through and more innovative. Our hope is that as time goes by there will be more community-building as it really is a fantastic group of partners who work across the full value chain. We feel very happy and privileged to be a part of it.
So what projects are you working on now?
We are currently working on a project called ‘Metamorphosis’ with our partners Matis and CSIC that looks at the best technology and processing steps required to deliver functional feed for salmon. The project has helped us navigate the regulatory landscape and overcome some of the cost barriers, as a trial with salmon can cost in the region of 30-50 thousand Euros. It has also definitely accelerated our growth and we are now hoping that we will have a product to market in 2019.
What are your plans for the future - any big developments that you can share with us?
We are currently recruiting more people, working on an innovative new decentralised insect rearing project, and are generally growing as a company so it’s an exciting time for us all.
What keeps you awake at night…?
As a young business cash-flow is always a problem! The reality is that we’ve set ourselves up in a new industry where we are developing new products, and this brings with it lots of challenges that play on your mind. It’s certainly not something for the faint-hearted!
…and then finally, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
It’s pretty much the same reasons that keep me awake: as an entrepreneur the challenges that I am solving are exciting and I’m able to see the impact that I have every day and that is really motivating. All you can do is trust that you have the wisdom to make the right choices!