Fly feed start-up Entomics: “We’re making it perform better”

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Cost is the word. Much like land-based salmon farms who struggle to deliver farmed fish in the black, it’ll take a while before the insect protein sector surpasses its cheaper soy-based cousins. But does it really need to?

The Cambridge-based biotechnology platform Entomics is working hard to make the next generation of insect meal not just sustainable but worth it. SalmonBusiness spoke to its CEO and co-founder, Matt McLaren.

Uni friends
The start up was the result of a “strange idea” that McLaren and fellow founders’ – scientists Miha Pipan and Fotis Fotiadis – had while at Cambridge University. The friends came up with a concept to use rotting food waste to breed larvae from the Black Soldier fly for animal feed and biodiesels. It may have raised eyebrows just a few years ago but today it’s big business, with the industry on the verge of taking off. For example in October, feed giant Skretting produced a large scale batch for the Norwegian salmon farmers Nordlaks. An industrial scale insect farm is also planned in France later this year.

The Black Soldier fly

But with an explosion of competing producers gathering in that field, McLaren, an alumni from the university’s Judge Business School, spotted a gap in the market for quality rather than quantity. Entomics wants to go even further than that.

Commercial alternative
“Insects represent a high quality, sustainable feed alternative for farmed salmon. But one of the key challenges facing the introduction of this new ingredient relates to its effectiveness versus existing feed ingredients such as fishmeal. Fundamentally, ‘basic’ insect meal doesn’t perform quite as well as fishmeal, and will therefore struggle to enter the market in large quantities at the same relatively high price points (around GPB 1,400 per tonne) as fish meal. But given the economics of insect meal production, it is also unlikely that it can compete with cheaper feed ingredients like soy (GPB 300 per tonne). Thus, to be a truly commercial alternative, insect-derived feeds need to either become cheaper or perform better. Here at Entomics, we’re making it perform better,” he said.

In order to do this, the platform – that’s being developed with the support of an InnovateUK grant – uses targeted fermentation techniques and microbial “recipes” to alter the insect meal and tailor specific product characteristics that are of value to the farmed salmon industry.

“We’re a small tech company in Cambridge, but we believe this technology can help make insect-derived feeds a mainstream feed solution, with a price point that reflects the functional effectiveness of the product,” said McLaren.

The teams enhanced insect feeds are currently being trialled with partners such as the University of Stirling.

Key amino acids
“To improve the effectiveness of insect meal in farmed salmon, we’ve developed an advanced bioprocessing platform (the processing step after the insect larvae are fully grown) that lets us optimise nutritional profiles, increase digestibility, and target functional improvements in the fish’s microbiome and immune system. For example, we can use our fermentation process to increase the levels of certain key amino acids – such as methionine, histidine and lysine – that are lacking in the ‘basic’ insect meal but are essential in salmon diets,” said McLaren. “Simultaneously, our microbes break down and hydrolise the protein which makes it more digestible for the fish.”

Looking forward, where do you see the insect revolution going?

“In the future, there are even opportunities to use our platform to develop insect-derived products containing functional probiotics, enzymes and antigens that target the fish’s immune system, and help them resist diseases before an outbreak occurs. This would have the added benefit of reducing reliance on veterinary medicines and antibiotics going forward,” he added.