Like the prototypical Silicon Valley startup, Oakland-based Tiny Farms is launching in a garage, the brainchild of tech world founders. But instead of working on the next app, the company is trying to build a model for a better cricket farm–the type of industrial-scale facility that could eventually make eating bugs as accessible as chicken.
“We were looking at food production, and ways we could apply what we know about–design, sensing, and data capture–to something that would basically increase the efficiency of our food system,” says Tiny Farms co-founder Daniel Imrie-Situnayake. Their research pointed to insects as a solution for growing sustainability and production challenges.
Then the UN published a report saying that we should all be eating more insects, and bug-filled food startups began to pop up. The only problem: No one really knew how to efficiently produce something like crickets on a massive scale. That’s the challenge that Tiny Farms hopes to solve.
“If you think about where farming was a few hundred years ago, when the majority of production was through subsistence farming, people had very idiosyncratic techniques,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “They didn’t have great equipment, they didn’t have access to science and engineering that could help them do things more productively. That’s basically where insect farming is today.”
Right now, raising a crop of insects takes a lot of human labor; farmers have to feed crickets by hand, for example, instead of being able to use an automatic system.
“We’re using data to optimize the entire process–from breeding insects to feeding them, rearing them, all the way to processing and distributing them,” explains Imrie-Situnayake. “Our models tell us where the bottlenecks are. Then we’re able to use modern techniques like rapid prototyping to build and test solutions.”
By reducing human labor, the startup thinks it will be possible to produce insects at a scale that can begin to replace some meat.
“Designing systems that are easy and provide minimal human intervention to run can allow you to deal with really sort of astonishing amounts of food,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “If you think about how many crickets you need to feed a city or a state, if people are eating these regularly, you’re going to need hundreds of tons per month. And using the current techniques that’s just not possible.”
After serving as consultants to other bug farms, like Big Cricket Farms in Ohio, Tiny Farms is now raising a round of investment to build out their research and development facility and start creating their data-driven tech for the cricket farm of the future. The company hopes to use the same process to build models for other types of insects as well.
“We’re trying to figure it out first with crickets–how do you identify bottlenecks and build the hardware and the network that will allow you to produce efficiently,” he says. “Then how do you generalize that. There are almost a million species of insects, and thousands of them are known to be edible. Insects are a massive untapped biological resource.”
In their new facility, the company plans to produce cricket flour at an industrial scale, and sell it to other organiztions as they test the technology. Ultimately, a couple of years from now, it hopes to turn the operation into a franchise model.
“If you’re a farmer and you have some buildings available, and you’re looking for an additional revenue stream, we’ll basically give you everything you need to be producing crickets highly efficiently,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “You’ll be able to feed that into our network where we do all the quality assurance, processing, and distribution.”
The startup is convinced that the market for insect food will grow quickly. “I think it already has been surprisingly fast,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “Two years ago we weren’t expecting there to be such a demand as there is today. I think it kind of caught everyone by surprise.”
“It’s basically the next superfood,” he adds. “It’s a healthy and sustainable way to get some protein. The market size for similar categories, even niche products, gets into the hundreds of millions pretty quickly.”
If just one in 100 Americans eats one portion of cricket flour a month–the equivalent amount of protein in half a chicken breast–that equates to hundreds of millions of dollars a year in insect production, he explains.
“That’s before we even start talking about mass market adoption,” he says. “And after that there’s a gigantic opportunity to produce food that a lot of people already eat around the world. They just aren’t producing it efficiently.”