Insect Feed Technologies
Creating big nutrition from little bugs
As part of its operations, Insect Feed Technologies (IFT) feeds waste to bugs to create an alternative source of animal feed. But make no mistake – the startup’s focus is not sustainability-focused waste management. As a serious food/agri-tech company, the ambition and innovation of its team ensure that it is poised to make animal nutrition greener, more affordable, and better than it ever was.
What they are actually about
“We believe the key to success in this industry is in being able to produce a consistently high-quality product at an affordable price for animal feed producers – without charging a premium for sustainability”, says Sean Tan, founder and CEO of IFT.
IFT works towards optimising animal nutrition by developing proprietary processing techniques for each phase of the Black Soldier Fly’s development. By doing so, they can optimise nutrient uptake in the insect’s larvae according to the product’s intended function. This is how they valorise food waste (as in, convert it into something of greater value) and contribute to solving 21st century food security challenges.
But for IFT, it is not as simple as it may seem.
“We specifically target certain types of food waste, not just anything that’s available. Sources like consumer food waste don’t give us any control over the nutrition that goes into the insects. Additionally, we have specific processes and environments when it comes to breeding the larvae depending on their end-use, be it aquafeed or pet feed. There are a lot of factors involved.”
Every minute detail must be looked at, trialled, and questioned on whether it can be scaled up. It even matters how they dry the larvae – from microwaving to oven-drying, and even rudimentary methods such as sun-drying, each method and slight variable can affect how the nutrients are preserved. This in turn affects the value of the larvae for use as commercial feed. And that is not all that IFT gets from the critters: frass, the larvae’s droppings, can also be used as organic fertiliser for agricultural crops such as leafy vegetables and flowering plants.
“We determine the nutritional content and amino acid profile of larvae fed on specific types of food waste and find the optimal quantity of larvae to be formulated into feed for animals,” he says. Their goal, overall, is to create a product that is of higher quality, affordability, and sustainability than what the market currently has; the markets in question would be aqua farming industries, pet food industries, and organic crop farmers. To that end, Sean says that they also intend to work with large pre-consumer food waste logistics providers and manufacturers to utilise waste that would otherwise end up in incinerators or landfills.
The big issue, Sean says, is that current sources of nutrition for animals are insufficient.
“Studies predict that by 2050, we will have 3 billion more mouths to feed. To feed that many people, we would have to produce almost 60% more food. And with the ever-increasing demand for meat, global meat production would have to do more than just keeping pace. This calls for massive changes to the way we farm because with current methods, there simply isn’t going to be enough.”
Farming industries need protein to make animals grow. The problem is that the two largest sources, fishmeal and soybeans, are insufficient. But this supply is not just struggling to keep up with growing demand – the sources are also decreasing due to limited land and/or fluctuations in fishing populations and yields.
This is where insects come in: particularly, the Black Soldier Fly. As compared to other insects such as crickets, the breeding of Black Soldier Flies is fairly new territory that has gained traction in recent years. With the right conditions in place, the fly-breeding process can efficiently valorise waste into protein. Sean says that this is what makes it incredibly sustainable both as a business model and for the environment.
He adds that pet-owners are also increasingly partial towards pet food that is sustainable and traceable while being cost-effective and good for their pets. Thanks to IFT’s formulation and optimisation processes, Sean’s team has a lot of knowledge of, and control over, what amino acid profiles their black soldier flies have, which means the larvae have the potential to be the best option for pets while being far more sustainable than the alternatives.
The bugs in their journey
In a nutshell (and quite literally), IFT has had to operate in an especially challenging environment. Besides the usual road bumps common to budding startups, IFT's government-given base of operations is a large white tent in an open-air carpark that does not have a ready source of water or electricity.
“It’s far from rosy and smooth-sailing. Every day is a new challenge. But I know we will get there, and we will get there fast,” Sean laughs. He emphasises that operating a farm in a carpark is especially difficult with no ready access to water and electricity. “Every day we are solving problems – from creating our own solar panel system to implementing new ways to control the environment, there’s no shortage of things to do on top of running the actual operation.”
Sean says he is definitely proud that his team has managed to grow IFT so much despite having no electricity or water (though he also stresses that their place is very, very clean). “I think it is key to emphasise the company vision and to have the right talent with the right mindset for the job. On top of our physical challenges, we’re also not the first players in the industry despite how relatively new it is. But we learn fast and are tapping on what others have done to leap ahead.”
As a result, IFT boasts a commercial product that matches industry standards after just 6 months of operations. For the team’s next step, they are currently setting their sights on fundraising. They are determined to use those funds to improve productivity, develop further capabilities in feed nutrition and formulation, and upscale operations.
Sean says his time rotating across different teams at Enterprise Singapore really played a huge part in how he arrived at his strategy. “The playbook has always been to increase productivity, innovate, develop capabilities, and internationalise. That’s how we grow enterprises.”
Sean has always wanted to contribute to a better Singapore. During National Service, he had wanted to sign a contract with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, but was turned away due to an injury he sustained while serving – so he applied as a Management Associate at Enterprise Singapore to help local companies grow.
“Enterprise Singapore’s mission is to create jobs – and not just any jobs. It’s creating good jobs. They do this by growing our local companies. It’s all about job creation.”
He also enjoyed learning from business owners and the problems they face. While he was in the Startup Development Division, he chanced upon insect farming and its potential to solve problems across the food value chain. “I did a lot of research and spoke to countless partners before deciding two things. First, there is a huge opportunity in terms of the business model and the impact it will have on society. Second, a Singaporean company has yet to scale in this industry and truly make an impact besides all the marketing glitter about sustainability.”
About NTUitive’s support
IFT clinched 2nd place in NTUitive’s ideasinc 2020, a nationwide startup challenge to groom promising ideas into viable businesses, for which the team was awarded $10,000. Since then, they have managed to “accelerate growth in key research focuses”, with the additional cashflow having gone towards hiring staff and conducting projects Sean and his team had been wanting to execute.
“Due to issues, some of our projected finances have been delayed government-side,” he explains, “so the prize money really helped to alleviate our cashflow requirements for our continued growth.”
NTUitive has also been supportive in publicising IFT’s tours, Sean says. “I think that’s very helpful, because we’re so focused on making the place run that we don’t have the resources to establish our brand and do any marketing. NTUitive has been helping us in all of that, and they’ve helped us every time we asked for it.”
Besides funding and publicity support, NTUitive has also provided IFT with a workspace at their satellite office at Blk 79 at JTC LaunchPad @ one-north, which Sean says has given them much-needed flexibility when it comes to conducting meetings both with partners and with their teams off-site.
“It really gives us opportunities to mingle around with the others in a fresh (and cooling) environment,” he adds, also pointing out that the workspace especially helped after their team started growing bigger than what he might call “lean”.
Their Message to Pet-Owners & Urban Farmers
“Try our products not because they’re local or sustainable, but because they’re truly good for your pets and plants. Paying for sustainability and feeling good is one thing, but paying for what you know is a quality product is another. We make sure we work with real heavyweight industry partners in the aquafeed and pet feed industry to get that point out,” Sean says matter-of-factly.
Their Message to Students
“We’re always looking for people with purpose and who want to learn things, to join our team. If not, you can always sign up for our farm tours!”
Their Message to Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Sean admits that he does not have much to say because IFT is still so young. However, he says that there are a lot of resources out there for startups – people just need to look for them.
“Good ideas are important. But execution is even more so, so plan out before you start something. Ideas are cheap, but execution is key!”
Also, he says that plans will change along the way, so it is important to adapt quickly.
*Insect Feed Technologies offers farm tours at $18/pax. You can book a slot for small groups or corporates at https://www.insectfeed-technologies.com/book-online.
Visit their website for more information: https://www.insectfeed-technologies.com