The high value of mealworms

They look like worms, but in fact they are insects – or, to be more precise, the larval form of a certain beetle. Mealworms have a high nutritional value, which is what inspired Antoine Hubert to co-found Ynsect, a company that would use them as an ingredient in feed for both livestock and pets. With more than 100 employees, the French start-up created on the campus of École Polytechnique (l’X) raised nearly €40 million between 2014 and 2016. Now Hubert, CEO of Ynsect, is preparing a new funding round with the aim of building a new production unit in France and expanding sales operations in Europe and North America.

Technologist: Where did the idea of creating Ynsect come from?

Antoine Hubert: With one of my partners, I first set up an organisation to raise children’s awareness regarding sustainable food and food recycling. When we thought about what topics to present, we came up with insects as a means of recycling. So what began as a charitable programme evolved into a project where we could have a broader impact on the production of animal feed. We created Ynsect in 2011, focusing mainly on markets with high development potential.

T: So, what’s the potential of the insect-based protein market?

A.H.: We wanted to position ourselves as a sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to protein feed by using an unusual raw material: bugs. But we had to test several species of insects: flies, crickets, and finally Tenebrio molitor, more commonly known as mealworms. Mealworms have the advantage of putting us on the premium market of ingredients for farmed fish and pet food.

Their nutritional value is impressive, boosting fish growth and reducing animals’ stress and mortality rate. But we had to trial the use of mealworms at public animal research centres. We wanted to know how animals would react to our proteins and oils. The reaction was positive.

T: What are the steps in making feed?

A.H.: As we’re active in both raising and processing mealworms, we make our own raw material. To extract the protein and oil, we use the same process as for soy beans or rapeseed oil. Once the eggs hatch, we sterilise the larvae. A mechanical press is used to extract the oil. The dry pulp produced from that process is ground up into meal. The oil and protein powder are then used to make animal feed.

T: What obstacles have you had to overcome?

A.H.: We first had to request authorisation from the European Commission to sell our products to fish farms. To give direction and meaning to our action, we created the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed, or IPIFF. Then, we had to find technological solutions to produce large amounts of proteins at a lower cost. With my colleagues, we took the time to assess all the techniques and streamline them to come up with a product that was competitive in terms of price, nutritional value and production.

T: How do you stand out from the competition?

A.H.: We are currently leaders in the field of insect-based ingredients and hold more than 25 patents. Furthermore, we operate sustainably – everything is reused when you raise mealworms. Insect droppings are used to make fertiliser that outperforms chemical fertilisers, for use in vineyards and for growing corn and wheat. Demand in this market is strong and rising steadily, estimated at $200 billion, of which about $10 billion is for organic fertiliser alone.

T: You’re currently working with a US bank on your fourth funding round.

A.H.: Yes, we’re launching another investing round in order to build our new plant in Amiens, France. This 18-hectare unit will be an automated technology hub that uses artificial intelligence to boost the site’s productivity. The facility will increase our production capacity from a few hundred tonnes to several thousand tonnes of proteins a year.

T: What are your sales targets?

A.H.: We’ve already signed agreements worth tens of millions of euros. With the new plant in Amiens, we can focus on production for Europe while working to expand into North America. The North American market has high growth potential. Canada has its famous salmon, Mexico its shrimp and the US its pet food, not to mention the fertiliser industry.