April 23, 2024
Betting on Bugs

Photo: Tequila Ray Snorkel

"About 20% of Americans are interested in eating bugs, but that means 80% maybe not so much and that's OK  the dog and cat food market is huge," says Trina Chiasson.

NextGen

Betting on Bugs

A tech entrepreneur is farming insects to feed animals and help the environment.

Nancy Dahlberg | 6/14/2023

The Entrepreneur

Trina Chiasson, 37
CEO, Ovipost, LaBelle

Trina Chiasson was born and raised in Wellington, Maine, a little town in the woods with a one-room schoolhouse. Always interested in nature, she studied environmental economics at the University of Southern Maine. Her first career stop was at an environmental non-profit in Washington, D.C., where she learned how politics could impede environmental progress.

Chiasson’s next stop was Chicago, where she focused her work on youth leadership and activism. The work was rewarding, but the technology they were using was rudimentary. When the project ran out of funding, she joined a software consultancy as a tech apprentice to learn how to write code and then in 2012 launched her first startup: Infoactive, a data-visualization software company.

Three years later, Infoactive was acquired by Tableau Software, where she worked as a senior product manager for another 18 months. “I was really getting the itch to start something new. I wanted to get my hands dirty again.”

For years, insect protein had been an interest of the longtime vegetarian. “It just really made sense to me that insects had evolved to consume the waste of the world and convert that into high-density protein and fertilizer,” Chiasson says. “My question was, why aren't we already doing this at scale?”

She dove into the field during the summer of 2017, studying insects as a visiting scientist at the Museum of Natural History in New York and creating an interactive traveling art exhibit of a 1950s diner. “We had this menu of insect experiences and the whole shtick was really just gauging where people were at in their comfort levels and then helping them learn something,” she recalls. And, yes, they could also try a bug if they wished.

Meanwhile, she was doing research for what would become startup No. 2: Ovipost, an agriculture technology venture with a team of engineers and biologists creating patented insect farming technology and processes to increase production and reduce environmental impact.

A key realization was that while 80% of Americans can’t get past the “ick” factor of eating an insect, there’s a big potential market in animal food.

Before long, Chiasson and her Ovipost co-founder, entomologist James Ricci, participated in the Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator and brought on biotech hardware engineer Tequila Ray Snorkel as a third co-founder. They were growing insects in shipping containers in a San Francisco industrial zone, figuring out how to use technology to automate and scale insect production cost effectively. In 2018, the trio bought a 30-year-old Southwest Florida insect farm in LaBelle that had seen better days, but the price was right, Chiasson says. “We packed our bags and said, ‘all right kids, we’re going to Florida.’”

Ovipost was initially focused on fast-growing, high-protein crickets, known as a “gateway” bug because of inroads made in the human market. But six months into their Florida adventure, there was a setback. All their crickets — millions of them — contracted a virus and died. Then in January of 2020, Ricci, her close friend as well as business partner, passed away unexpectedly. That was followed a few months later with COVID’s arrival, shutting down their supply chain for superworms — the protein and nutrient-rich larvae of a species of darkling beetle — that were keeping the company alive.

“When you run a startup, it's your baby,” says Chiasson, and through perseverance the business survived. “I had to figure out how to address my own healing process and my own mental health in a way I hadn't done before. A problem a lot of startup founders have is they put the company before any of their other needs.”

With funding from a climate impact venture firm, Ovipost bought a second insect farm in Canton, Miss., in 2021. Now with 30 employees, the startup’s two facilities grow superworms and a species of crickets unaffected by that deadly virus. “We ship millions of bugs every week,” Chiasson says.

Ovipost sells its live insects to zoos, aquariums, animal rescues, pet stores and breeders servicing exotic pets, but the broader $115 billion pet food market is their next target. Dogs and cats consume 25% of animal meat in this country, Chiasson says. “Replacing just a small percentage of the meat in pet food with insect meal could have a very, very large impact on our climate and environment.”

Insects have a very high feed conversion rate, which means that when you feed them, they're not wasting their energy producing heat — like chickens, pigs or cows do — and generate at least twice as much protein per pound of feed, she explains. They’re also water efficient, like dark spaces, and they grow quickly and reproduce exponentially. “They're efficient little buggers,” she says.

The aquaculture market also is huge. Fishmeal, used in animal feed including for fish, comes largely from forage fish, which are small species of fish that are low on the food chain but are the backbone of ocean ecosystems. Today, they’re scooped by the tons from the seas. “The ability to farm insects for a replacement allows fish farming to expand and helps prevent us from depleting more ocean resources in a world where 90% of our fisheries are overfished,” Chiasson says.

In the next few months, Ovipost plans to open a foodgrade processing facility in Mississippi to begin making protein replacements for pet food and fishmeal. “We're finally getting to deliver on our mission to make a dent in climate change and carbon emissions.”

Tags: Agriculture, Feature, NextGen

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