Some of Washington’s most intriguing farms don’t take place in the valleys or hills of the eastern part of the state. It’s happening inside, in an industrial area in the city of SeaTac, south of Seattle. There are no crops and no cattle. This startup grows insects.
Beta Hatch is the 3-year idea of ââVirginia Emery, a PhD entomologist who has focused on entrepreneurship in hopes of changing the agriculture industry – and possibly the world – by changing it. that animals eat.
Feeding our food is an expensive business. According to Beta Hatch, 30 percent of crop production is used to feed livestock, 60 percent of feed and food ends up wasted, and animal feed accounts for 50 percent of the cost of meat.
Mealworms are Emery’s answer.
âThe food is very inexpensive. People don’t expect to pay a lot for it, but it’s expensive to produce, âEmery said. âThe insects that are the staple of most food chains make a lot of logical sense, but it doesn’t really make economic sense – yet. This is the problem that we are trying to solve.
This work was originally carried out in a makeshift pilot facility, upstairs from a body shop and directly across from where a new 5,000 square foot pre-commercial operation is now operational.
It’s here that Emery and his small team of fellow scientists bioengineered better insects, perfecting the mealworm rearing process (Tenebrio molitor) and streamline everything from mating and feeding to processing and packaging.
It is a one-of-a-kind farm in Washington and the second-largest insect feed farm in the country behind Ohio-based Enviroflight.
âWe’ve done a lot of experimenting with different strains of mealworms, basically hosting the Mealworm Olympics to determine who’s performing the best,â Emery said. “What we’ve tried to do is raise the biggest, fastest, and most nutritious insect.”
The target audience is farmed chickens and fish, where mealworms would replace foods traditionally made from animal proteins such as fish meal and oil. Beta Hatch’s biggest customer right now is the pet supply industry and the thriving backyard chicken market, and they will be distributing specifically through a company called Chubby Pet Products.
âChicken and fish would much rather eat an insect than a processed soy dumpling,â Emery said. âThey call mealworms ‘crack chicken’ because they go crazy for it. They love insects, which makes sense, it’s a natural part of what they eat in the wild. So that was not the problem.
The challenge has been the lack of scale in production and the lack of technology. As an indoor farm, there has to be very good control of the process, especially when it comes to the climate. And the environment must be contained so that what grows inside does not attract what is outside.
âYou create an insect paradise, so everything wants to live in it,â Emery said. From a grow room where the temperature is 80 degrees and the humidity is 80 percent, she comes out and turns a corner to enter a walk-in freezer where the bags of food for her insects are stored at 9 degrees.
Beta Hatch breeds more than mealworms for food. The business also collects what the insects produce, processing their manure, or droppings, in the second half of the business.
The high-protein fertilizer is good for indoor or outdoor plants, and Emery said Beta Hatch produces nearly three times as much droppings as mealworms, accounting for half of its income.
âWe are as much a fertilizer company as we are a feed company,â she said.
The pre-commercial SeaTac facility will be able to produce 10 times what Beta Hatch has produced so far, and the planned commercial facility would increase another 30 times from one tonne per month of mealworm production to one ton per day.
âIt’s a miniature version of what we’re going to build next,â SeaTac’s Emery said.
It’s targeting 2019 and a 30,000-square-foot space in Cashmere, Washington, as its next location – with a price tag of $ 8 million to build it all. Being in a community where the emphasis is on agriculture is attractive to Emery, as are cheaper labor, land and electricity.
As a home brewer, Emery also appreciates that his current operation is reminiscent of the many small breweries that seem to populate the Seattle area these days.
âIn terms of brewing, it’s such a good analogy because there’s a hobby industry around growing insects that’s kind of very similar to home brewing,â she said. “I would say we’re at a sort of craft brewing stage right now, and then we’re trying to move next year to that full scaleâ¦ to a ‘Budweiser’ facility.”
Beta Hatch has received a helping hand in terms of scaling with the recent addition of Lisa Newman as Senior Director of Operations.
An Oxford-educated biotechnologist and long-time agricultural professional, Newman has extensive experience in controlled indoor farming and scale-to-market operations. She spent 13 years at DuPont Pioneer, where she designed and built a fully automated 140,000 square foot greenhouse.
Beta Hatch also received a Phase 2 Innovation and Research for Small Business grant from the National Science Foundation. The $ 630,000 grant will go to R&D for new insect breeding grounds; the development of reusable materials for its breeding program; and the development of automated feeding and watering systems. Their first NSF grant was close to $ 250,000. The startup also raised a funding round of $ 2.1 million last year, led by farming company Wilbur-Ellis.
Emery has been thinking about the edible insect space since his third year of graduate school. Like many entrepreneurs, she called the decision to start a business a leap of faith, and she learned a lot as she made the transition from science to business.
âThe challenge has been that a lot of the startup dialogue revolves around software, especially in Seattle,â Emery said. âThe models of growth and technological innovation are not directly applicable to what we do. It’s different from a computer hardware company, where you design something, you get a factory in China to make your gadget, you sell it.
âWe are creating something totally new, we are creating a new supply chain,â she added. âIt means we look to manufacturing companies, we look to food processing companies, we look to animal production, we look to other companies for inspiration. I have a lot more in common with a Midwestern farmer than with a software developer here in Seattle.