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Spotlight: From Dissecting Bugs To Leading An Insect Protein Start-Up

Mitali Poovayya talks to us about her journey, switching careers from neurobiology to circular business and now leading India’s first commercial insect-farming business, INSECTIFii.

Tell us how you got here and what inspired you along the way.

It has been quite a journey! Wanting to do a Masters in Neurobiology, I spent a year gaining some research experience at Dr. Sanjay Sane's lab, which happened to be an Insect Neurobiology lab at the National Centre for Biological Science, Bangalore. One of the insects being studied was the Black Soldier Fly (the insect we grow at INSECTIFii). I'd always been extremely creeped out by insects and I did this because it was the only opportunity I had to gain experience in neurobiology. So I sucked it up, and began studying them - holding them, dissecting them and what not. Slowly, insects became beautiful and absolutely fascinating creatures to me! Without this experience, I'm certain I would've never entertained the thought of farming insects!

I went on to do my Masters in Neurobiology at the University of Amsterdam. As Netherlands is a circular economy hub, I was exposed to a lot of discussions about how a circular economy framework can be used to create environmentally conscious businesses. My hometown of Kodagu was ravaged by floods and land slides that year which tipped me into switching to a minor in circular economy! There I learnt about the Black Soldier Fly again, but from the perspective of the power it has to create a circular economy business. I made several connections over coffee and through my network I got connected to Shiva Susarla and Narendra Pasuparthy and together we kicked off INSECTIFii.

What does INSECTIFii do? 

INSECTIFii is an alternative protein company. We grow a worm called the Black Solider Fly Larvae (BSFL) for its natural ability to voraciously consume food waste streams and transform them into protein and oils. We do this in a tech-driven and modular manner which makes it easily scalable. This insect protein and oil serve as a high-quality, price-competitive and sustainably grown ingredient for the animal feed industry.

Over half of all crops grown globally, and a quarter of all sea-caught fish go into making animal feed and it is thus a highly unsustainable industry. Instead, we can produce protein for animal feed in a sustainable manner using waste from one industry (urban food) as a feedstock to another (animal feed). This doesn't need vast amounts of land, water, fertilisers and avoids disruption of marine ecosystems.

You mentioned your interest in the circular economy. Is the insect protein business circular?

The main vision of INSECTIFii is to transform low quality waste into high quality products (protein and oil). We are connecting two parallel linear systems - the climate-intensive animal feed industry with the urban food industry in cities that often produces lots of landfill-waste.

This way, waste is not something to throw away - rather, it is an input into our system to produce high quality insect protein. This embodies the cradle-to-cradle vision of the circular economy, eliminating waste from the system altogether. By connecting the end of one linear system to the beginning of another linear system, we bend them into circularity.

Now, we are working to make this process more decentralised to eliminate the energy losses created from moving waste around. Instead of bringing food waste (which is 60% water) to the insects, we want to have a central production point for the BSFL eggs and instead, take the eggs to where the waste is. In this way, we want to build a network of decentralised insect farms that are processing local food waste by growing the BSFL on it.

What are some of the concerns that potential adopters have regarding insect protein?

They are normally concerned with the protein and lipid profiles percentages and composition, and if the larvae is contaminated given it’s eating food waste. These are fair concerns and we run tests to show the larvae has a good protein and lipid profile, no heavy metals and contamination. If we are able to show them the nutritional profile, along with the cheaper and more stable price - most people are willing to try it out. One plus point is that this is already being done in Europe and the USA - indicating to them that this is the future.

How does the protein content of insect protein compare to traditional animal feeds?

In the West, insect protein has already been approved for use in poultry and aqua feed backed by lot of scientific trials comparing it with traditional sources. The protein's composition however, is highly dependent on what we feed them. That’s something we are working on by collaborating with aquafeed and poultry feed manufacturers here in India. We give them samples of the BSFL fed on different food waste streams and learn about what feedstock results in a composition that would work best for them.

Are there any applications for direct human consumption?

BSFL could indeed be eaten by humans - I've eaten one! There is a Malaysian start up trying to incorporate BSFL for human consumption as burger patties and one in South Africa making ice-cream from BSFL! So yes, there are applications but it is quite dependent on country-specific regulations on edible insects. So far, although insects like crickets and mealworms have been approved for human consumption in some countries, BSFL has not yet been approved. It should be a matter of time that we see this change.

Are there studies to check on the safety of human consumption of animals fed using the insect protein?

Yes. There are already many published studies on this based on which it has been approved in the U.S and the EU for use in aqua and poultry feed. There are guidelines on what kind of waste streams are allowed to be fed to the BSFL.

How do you think our food systems should adapt in light of the pandemic and to prepare for future pandemics?

We encroach into forests, and in doing so, shake viruses and their hosts loose from their natural habitats, driving them dangerously close to us. We were all well-warned about this threat but did not pay heed to it. We tend to disassociate what we do to our environment from our own health and well-being. I hope this makes us reflect and rethink our perception of the "environment" as some external thing that needs to be saved. It is in fact a question of our own survival. I think INSECTIFii is very relevant in these times as we are saying hey, we don't need to burn down the Amazon to grow soya for use as animal feed; we can instead grow protein much, much more efficiently by using insects feeding on food waste that take up a fraction of the land and water usage.

Also, the pandemic has taught us the importance of producing locally given the restrictions in supply chains. One of the basic concepts of the circular economy for the food system is to grow things locally and in a manner that is regenerative as it makes food supplies more resilient, healthier, and less climate-intensive. Local-production is also emphasised by another circular economy principle of using "waste" of one process as a source of raw material, or "food", for another process, like how at INSECTIFii we use unsold supermarket waste as a local raw material to grow protein. There are so many bio waste streams being produced in food industries that, with some innovation, they can be used as a local source of raw material for another food industry, or even a non-food industry. Like fruit peels to make soaps, spent coffee grounds to grow mushrooms, shells of coconuts as cups, there are plenty of solutions.

What is your proudest career moment to date?

One was the journey of making it to the finals out of over 3000 applicants at the National Bio-Entrepreneurship Competition. I learnt a lot and met great people. I felt honoured to pitch INSECTIFii at the big finals and really enjoyed it. Everyone was so excited with our work and we received so much positive feedback. It was a very reassuring moment. Even though we didn’t win, the entire process was very rewarding.

Another moment would be just an ordinary day, when I happened to take a step back, and saw our entire facility from a zoomed out perspective. It hit me how there was nothing here just a couple of months ago and that we made this happen. It felt fulfilling to see our actions tangibly preventing waste from rotting away in a landfill and instead being used to grow protein sustainably.

What advice would you give to young adults keen to have a career in the circular economy domain?

Now there are a lot of open source content in the CE space because it’s so new and relevant. Grab up all that information, get acquainted with the different aspects, then you’d be able to know what kind of work you’d like to do. Read up and take up all the available courses and webinars. Reach out to people, go for coffee and learn more about what they do. I did that in Amsterdam when I found so many people working in the space. It’s interesting to see what kind of work you want to do and organisation you’d like to join. Usually when you’re doing these two things: Building knowledge and interacting with people, something somewhere clicks.

What is a quote that you live by?

I am a sucker for good quotes. There isn't just one that I live by, it changes depending on circumstances. Right now, it is "Day one, or one day. You choose."

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