Bugs set to be new health food

Insects can be the next great food source, a Meath start-up tells Trish Dromey

Bugs set to be new health food

With a revolutionary new biotechnology solution which allows insects to be bred and processed on an industrial scale, Meath start-up Hexafly aims to supply the world with a significant new food source.

“We have devised a way to breed insects at a super normal rate and to mechanise production of insect protein on a scale that was not previously possible,” said company co-founder Alvan Hunt, who plans to start selling insect oil and protein powder to agricultural and aquaculture feed companies later this year.

Down the line he also sees possibilities to sell in to the food industry.

“Insect protein has the potential to be a food source for the entire animal feed industry and can also be used for human consumption — as a main ingredient in bars or cakes,” Mr Hunt said.

Set up in 2016, the company is now closing a fundraising round of close to €1m which will be used to open a new 15,000 sq ft facility, before going into production in September.

Mr Hunt says there is a ready market for the company’s insect oil and protein powder.

“We are now in advanced negotiations with a number of aquaculture and animal feed companies and already have one significant order,” he said.

Mr Hunt said it will be first facility of its kind in Ireland or the UK, one of only a handful in the world and one of the first capable of producing and processing insect protein on this scale.

The company, which uses low grade food waste to feed the insects, has applied for patents to cover the fast breeding and the oil and protein production processes and for a bio-conversion technology it has developed to convert low value waste into liquid fertiliser.

“We have produced the worlds only liquid fertiliser that is made using insects,’’ said Mr Hunt, adding that Hexafly plans to launch this under the brand name GrowFast later this year.

The company is the brainchild of three college friends — Mr Hunt, John Lynam and Patrick McGarvey who decided a few years after graduation to go in to business together.

“While looking for ideas we noticed that there hadn’t been a lot of innovation in the agri-tech space and started looking at the food supply chain. Reading about the soaring cost and shortage of supply of fishmeal we searched for viable alternative food sources,” said Mr Hunt.

They identified insects as a possibility but realised that to make this idea work they needed to be able to breed and process vast quantities of insects.

Two years later when they had developed the technology to make this possible, they successfully applied to Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Progamme in 2015. Subsequently securing seed funding from SOS V Ventures in Cork, they built a 1,500 sq ft pilot plant in Meath and began breeding and processing soldier flies.

Supplying samples of the insect oil and powder to aqua-feed and agriculture feed companies, they got a positive response.

Registering Hexafly in 2016, the company took part in Indie Bio EU biotech accelerator programme in Cork, received support from Meath Local Enterprise Office and won Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur Best Business Idea award.

Now a finalist in this year’s National Enterprise Awards finals, Hexafly has been identified as a high potential start up by Enterprise Ireland.

“We have secured funding from venture capital companies and are in discussions with Enterprise Ireland about high potential start up funding,’’ said Mr Hunt.

Currently employing five, the company plans to open its new facility at Ashbourne in June and begin producing insect oil and powder and fertiliser in September.

While the initial target markets are the aquaculture and agricultural feed markets and the plant nutrition industry, Hexafly also plans to produce chitin for the bio-polymer industry within two years.

“Chitin is a high value bio-polymer used in medicine and as a food additive. It is currently taken from shellfish but we will be providing it from a new source — insects,” Mr Hunt said.

Once the Meath facility is successfully up and running, Hexafly plans to open two more in Ireland as well as one in the UK and to franchise or license its technology globally, targeting China, India, the US, and West Africa.

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