Fotis Fotiadis, Co-founder and CEO of Better Origin, talks to Jack Drury, Principal at Erevena, about the role of insects – and specifically the company’s Internet of Insects – in transforming the modern food system from one of high waste and at-risk supply chains into a sustainable, localised alternative.
What does Better Origin do?
Our solution reduces waste and increases food production by bringing back the missing link in the modern food chain: insects. We are using a combination of nature (insects) and technology (Artificial Intelligence) to convert food waste into animal feed. To do this, we are growing a network of decentralised AI-powered insect mini-farms, enabling farmers to transition to sustainable farming methods. Currently, we are working with chicken farmers, who use our solution to convert second quality grains and food waste into nutritious insect feed.
Where did it all begin?
I am originally from Greece but came to the UK to study mechanical engineering. This led to a career in the oil and gas industry where I worked as a consultant for some of the oil super majors for several years. The level of ingenuity and improvement in the industry was mind-blowing but, equally, depressing when I thought about all that brain power being used to destroy nature.
I left to do a Masters degree in Sustainable Engineering at Cambridge, always with a view to go into something more sustainable and entrepreneurial. I got involved in entrepreneurial projects, including ones looking into food waste. It’s also where I met Miha Pipan who co-founded Better Origin with me in 2018. We set out to address the broken food system, in which a third of all food produced every year is wasted, yet food supply will need to grow 70% by 2050.
Can you tell us how the process works?
We deploy what amounts to a mini factory on farms to convert local waste to local feed. It’s essentially a big AI-connected shipping container, our Better Origin X1 bio-conversion unit, containing millions of insect larvae. Food waste goes into the X1 unit and the larvae feed on this, building high levels of protein and are then fed to the animals. This model aims to democratise insect farming, with food waste converted into high value feed for local use, such as feeding the farmer’s own chickens. It’s all produced on-site while typical feedstock such as soy is imported and travels for thousands of miles.
Tell us more about the tech behind all of this?
Scaling our solution wouldn’t be possible without AI. It allows us to manage the system remotely, so that the farmers don’t have to. This is important. We want the farmers to carry on doing what they’re great at – farming – and leave the technology to us. The AI controls when and how much liquid feed is added to the larvae in the container, with full monitoring of the system back at our own HQ in Cambridge. Technology is part of every sector these days, and farming is no exception.
Will insects ever be an acceptable source of protein for human?
Yes, absolutely. There will be no choice. To feed the world’s growing population sustainably, we need to find new solutions. Insects require much less land, less water, and less energy.
There is the ‘yuck’ factor, of course, but it will only be a matter of time before people get over this. I can see insects going the same way as yoghurt, which is made from fermented milk with microbes and bacteria, but people don’t think about that. What they focus on is the health-giving properties and that’s how we need to introduce insects as a food product.
What impact has COVID-19 had on your company – and on investment opportunities?
I think most businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and we are no exception, in our case, we have had to be more thoughtful about cash flow. However, it has been good to see that the appetite for investment in green technology has increased. People are starting to realise that the ‘what next’ crisis is likely to be climate related. For example, we saw the whole northern hemisphere covered in snow earlier this year, which was highly unusual. There will be more extreme weather conditions in the coming years, all of which could cause the next big lockdown. So, businesses built around sustainability will continue to attract investment.
At another level, the fragility of our global food supply chains were exposed as the pandemic hit home. That’s why our localised model is so important. It offers food supply chain security, promoting a more circular food system to provide greater resilience and flexibility in times of need.
How do you attract the talent you need to drive growth?
This is one of the hardest parts of the journey to get right. For executive and more senior roles, we work with brilliant companies like Erevena, and for less experienced positions, we use our network to get the right people on board. We want them to be excited by what we do and the values we stand for.
We retain the close ties with academia that we’ve had since Miha and I met at Cambridge. We have labs there and work together on genetics and other projects. The great thing about being in Cambridge is that you can leverage its brain power. In terms of attracting talent, however, Cambridge is a highly competitive market and, as we move to more flexible ways of working, we can look further afield because people don’t need to be in the same place. So, we will continue to utilise our network of contacts.
What other key challenges are you facing?
What we are doing is very new, with both the market and technology constantly changing. There are challenges around regulation that will need to be resolved as the industry is maturing. For example, the regulations regarding other animal species do not apply to insects, so the regulators must catch up. All entities face the challenge of investment and how to raise it, although we’ve attracted a good balance of government grants and private investment.
How do the farmers (and their hens) benefit?
From the farmers’ perspective, we’re focused on the customer experience by making it as easy as possible to use our technology. So, for example, our X1 is plug & play, and can be grouped into a system to make it easy for farmers to scale. But it’s more than just the technology: it’s how it empowers farmers to be part of the waste-to-feed food supply solution and the circular economy. There’s also a solid ROI, which varies from farm-to-farm depending on their size and other factors. From the outset, we modelled our system on making money for the farmers, with sustainability acting as the added bonus.
As for the chickens, it is in their nature to forage for insects all day. However, intensive farming means that this natural feeding behaviour has been lost. We’re reversing that situation and taking chickens back to their roots. We do not supply to any farm except those that are free range. We know a high-protein insect diet that they can naturally forage for improves their social and physical welfare, making them healthier and more productive.
What’s next for Better Origin?
We plan to process the insects into more ingredients and target more markets. For example, protein powder could be used in both pet foods and human food, such as high protein flour and pasta. We will also extend beyond chicken farms. Our ambition is to have systems in farms across the world. Insects are the missing link in the broken food chain – and by bringing them back we want to fix it.