“Insectta fits into that ecosystem of insect farming, but we are not an insect farm. Our specialisation is developing the technology to extract high-value biomaterial from the black soldier fly,” pointed out Chua Kai-Ning, co-founder of Insectta.
Insect farms are no longer relegated to serious hobbyists or seen as a fringe activity to a select few, but they are now a new and thriving trade that’s set on changing Singapore’s agricultural scene.
Insectta is one of the pioneers of the black soldier fly trade in Singapore, which has paved the way for the rising number of insect farm here.
From combating the ‘ick’ factor to stumbling upon a gold mine, Kai-Ning shares with us the ins and outs of running Singapore’s first black solider fly biotech company.
Waste valorisation with the black soldier fly
Insect farming is by no means a new trade, but what changed the game is the black soldier fly. It is a generally harmless insect that does not bite or sting, and is equipped with one superpower: their voracious appetite.
A skill that I’m sure many of us in Singapore can relate to, the black soldier fly can eat up to four times their body weight and are even better at consuming food waste.
When the black soldier fly consumes all this organic material, their frass (their waste product) can be used as plant fertiliser.
“This unlocked a brand new thing in insect farming where insects are not just a low impact source of protein. Now, they have the potential to valorise waste,” explained Kai-Ning.
An environmentalist at heart, the potential of the black soldier fly to ameliorate Singapore’s food waste was something that spoke to Kai-Ning. It is also in line with Singapore’s 30 by 30 goal, which aims to produce 30 per cent of our own food by 2030.
However, as time went on, it seemed that having an insect farm was not a sustainable route to pursue.
We soon realised that even if we build the most efficient and amazing black soldier fly farm, unfortunately, Singapore doesn’t have a strong agriculture industry. We don’t have the means to support the economy of scale. Manpower is expensive and on top of that, land is very expensive. The insect farming model was not going to work out in Singapore.
So as a business, that really led us to think, what more value can we capture from the black soldier fly? Agricultural products cannot be all there is to it.– Chua Kai-Ning, co-founder of Insectta
From insect farm to biotech company
While Insectta started as an insect farm, their business model has evolved into something else altogether. It doesn’t compete, but rather, complements insect farming instead.
“With the usual black soldier fly farming route, the larvae are harvested and used as animal feed, and the larvae poo (or the frass) is harvested and used as a fertiliser. However, over here at Insectta, it’s different. We let the larvae grow into the cocoon, and then to adults,” said Kai-Ning.
In Insectta’s extraction model, they use the cocoon shells after they have hatched.
“A lot of people will think that’s such a strange model, to let the insects breed non-stop and take the cocoon shells,” mused Kai-Ning.
“This is where you have to understand how Insectta fits into the supply chain,” she continued. “We do not want to be the farmers of the insect because Singapore is not the place to do the farming. Instead, what we do is we approach farms around Southeast Asia, and we take their byproducts off them, which is the cocoon shells.”
This is where things get interesting. These biomaterials extracted by Insectta are used in high-value industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and bioelectronics.
It’s a rather revolutionary discovery because what Insectta has essentially developed is a technique to get high-value biomaterials from food waste itself.
Overcoming the ‘ick’ factor
Kai-Ning is confident that insect farming is the future but feels that “there’s no way we are going to have a market if this generation grows up terrified of insects.”
As such, she deems the “ick factor” as one of the largest stumbling blocks to getting Insectta up and running. After all, the black soldier fly is not exactly the most cuddly of creatures.
“As a co-founder, it’s not just about having a product that is very good; consumer education and outreach part are equally important as well,” said Kai-Ning.
In the early days, both Kai-Ning and her co-founder would market their products to nurseries, but she found that since most nursery owners are older, they were also less open-minded about ‘insect poo’ stocking their shelves.
“They’re like, ‘Insect poo? Eee, so disgusting. Are there maggots eggs inside? Are there insects inside?'” recounted Kai-Ning. Of course, the irony of the situation is that these nurseries also stock the likes of chicken manure and vermicast (worm poop), with which they are completely at ease.
For Kai-Ning, the whole ‘ick’ around insects is really all in the mind. She finds it ironic that people are fine with certain insect products like honey, which is essentially “bee vomit”.
We hold it in such high regard that it’s even acceptable to put it on our face and eat it, but most find other insects “disgusting”, she noted.
The only way to change this perception is with consumer education in order to “breed positive feelings together with insects”. This is also why she has branded Insectta as more of a lifestyle product to help change the way people view insects.
We were the first to bring black soldier fly to Singapore. We were also the first for many, many things, not only the concept, business, but also the legislation as well.
We were the ones who worked with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) to come up with guidelines for insect farming in Singapore. Everything from the manpower to biosecurity, to how the place would be raised, was all done by us.– Kai-Ning, co-founder of Insectta
The goldmine of chitosan and melanin
Besides their outreach and education programs, Insectta is in the business of extracting biomaterials that are highly valuable and lucrative, such as chitosan and melanin.
One of the products that Insectta produces is chitosan, which is a carbohydrate that’s refined from chitin.
It comes with a myriad of benefits: it’s anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and moisturising. Given its many advantageous qualities, chitosan is already used in many agricultural and pharmaceutical products.
As great as chitosan is, the way it is produced is unsustainable. Chitosan is currently being produced from shrimp and crab shells, which involves mining marine resources that damage aquaculture is pollutive as well.
In contrast, the methods that Insectta uses to extract chitosan from black soldier fly use lesser chemicals and produces less wastewater discharge than traditionally produced chitosan.
“What manufacturers and consumers are getting is very high-quality chitosan. That is more sustainable from the source as well as the method of production,” said Kai-Ning.
Insectta currently supplies chitosan that’s being used in an anti-microbial spray for produce that are marketed to big supermarkets. While chitosan is already established in the field, the challenge is getting manufacturers to switch, which is not too difficult.
On the other hand, melanin is the real money maker.
Melanin is a pigment that occurs naturally in our bodies that makes our skin tan and hair dark. However, it is very expensive to produce by itself, which is why it is so valuable. To give you a ballpark, the market price for melanin is about S$2,000 per gram.
“I have a small vial of melanin here that’s worth S$4,000, so I’m carrying S$4,000 worth of product in my bag all the time,” said Kai-Ning with a laugh as she held the bottle over our Zoom call.
Melanin is currently being researched as a cancer therapy. It is also biodegradable and biocompatible with electronics, so it can be used in implants that go under your skin. Melanin can also be used in 3D printing circuits, so the possibilities are endless.
“The whole idea is that melanin can be a biodegradable and biocompatible replacement for a lot of things like heavy metals and cancer therapy and all that. The only bad thing about melanin is that it’s so expensive. So it can’t exit out of academia as it is too expensive to be used commercially,” explained Kai-Ning further.
The reason why it’s so expensive is that melanin is rare. It’s very hard to extract and hard to produce in a lab. Furthermore, it is of very low yield as well. Since so little can be extracted at a time, its scarcity makes it all the more valuable.
As such, what Insectta has done is to develop a patented technology that allows them to extract melanin, essentially from food waste using the black soldier fly as an intermediary.
Insectta as a hatchery to supply to other farms
Apart from extracting biomaterials, Insectta also functions as a hatchery supplying eggs to other insect farms.
Breeding the black soldier fly is a rather tedious and cumbersome process. By having a hatchery, smaller insect farms don’t have to dedicate a large portion of their resources to breeding and focus on other portions of the farm.
At the moment, you may see small black solider fly projects popping up all around Singapore and most of them have opened with our help. We are the ones who advised them on the guidelines of rearing insects and all that.
We want the black solider fly industry to grow well. These farms that produce insect products are not our competitors. We see them as collaborators because they are the ones that we’re going to eventually purchase the raw material from.– Kai-Ning, co-founder of Insectta
Aside from all of Insectta’s achievements, something meaningful to Kai-Ning as the co-founder of Insectta is how she can contribute to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
“One thing that recently has dawned on me, not due to my introspection, but what other people telling me is that Insectta is an example of showing that young women can come and go into STEM. Even without a STEM background, you can still contribute to the STEM industry.”
Indeed, Insectta is more than just about bugs. What they are doing with waste valorisation to biomaterial extraction is exciting and groundbreaking.
With their plans to scale up to a power plant next year, Insectta is at the forefront of innovation and they’re only just starting out.
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Featured Image Credit: Insectta