By Eric Peterson | Apr 13, 2021
South Salt Lake, Utah
Cricket flour and insect-based waste management solutions
After Crowley listened to a TED Talk from Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke on the potential impact of insect farming in 2011, he started Chapul (the Spanish word for dragonfly) and unveiled the first cricket-based protein bar the following year.
"I put an agricultural lens on it and looked at the best path to scale the farming side of it," he explains. "I decided to take a market-based approach and launch a cricket flour product into a food product company."
Crowley pitched on Shark Tank in 2014 and landed an investment from Mark Cuban. Sourcing from a major cricket farm in Vietnam, Chapul started selling branded cricket flour as well in 2015. The company retired its energy bars in 2019 as Crowley realized the biggest impact wasn't going to come from packaged foods; rather, he sees insect farming as a way to close the loop in agriculture.
Selling to both retail and wholesale customers (Idaho-based Orchestra Provisions being one of the latter), the cricket flour operation remains based in Utah, but Crowley says he is looking at a bigger map with a new initiative, Chapul Farms, by partnering with large farms and food manufacturers across the country.
"The huge benefit of insects is essentially as a waste management tool for organic material," he says. "There are billions of tons of organic material -- food and ag waste -- going into landfills every year. That's the starting point for our facility design: Where are these undervalued nutrient sources insects can consume onsite and reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation so it's essentially a net-zero situation?"
Insects are ideal for gobbling up these waste streams and converting it to protein-rich larvae that's equally ideal as animal feed, namely for fish and poultry. "We're building a component now that does development for black soldier fly larvae," says Crowley. "That's our second species now and the first we're really farming and building the infrastructure for these products."
The big picture: No industrial process handles agriculture waste as efficiently and sustainably as insects. "There's a long list of benefits," says Crowley. "They're critical to terrestrial ecosystems, and that includes agriculture and plant agriculture and healthy soil. The various markets we're going into, those various environmental benefits are important in terms of marketing and pitch."
"Overall, it creates a healthier soil ecosystem," he adds. "It's months less to go through an insect facility even than it is to go through even aerobic composting."
As Chapul approaches a decade in business, Crowley is bullish on the company's future. "Staying in it for the long run is really starting to pay off," he says.
Challenges: Being a pioneer in a nascent field is a big one. "There are an immense amount of challenges associated with doing something for the first time," says Crowley.
He says "managing complexity" is another challenge for Chapul, because a closed-loop system involves more coordination and variables than the status quo. "They've been more linear business models," says Crowley. "As we move to the need for more circularity in our natural environment, it's the same with our business models."
Opportunities: "I see insect agriculture as part of every municipal waste-management and food-production system in the decades to come," says Crowley. "Inedible organic material then becomes a resource. A lot of communities pay to have these [waste streams] removed."
While he isn't ruling out a return to protein bars, he notes, "The market size for edible insects isn't enough leverage for the waste-management potential of them. When we go into trout, for example, 60 to 70 percent of a trout's diet in the wild insects, so it just makes sense to go into those markets."
Needs: "We're growing really fast right now," says Crowley. "The biggest need for us is focus."