UPDATED: March 27, 2014, at 8:27 p.m.
In the coming months, two recent Harvard College graduates will fill supermarket shelves with food that is more nutritious, uses 2,000 times less water, and emits less greenhouse gas than traditional livestock. Opting for the pair’s food products over other alternatives may seem like an easy decision, but the obstacle they face is largely social: after all, their miracle ingredients are insects.
With the aim of introducing insects into Western society as a healthy and sustainable ingredient to replace the use of staples such as ground beef and other products, Laura E. D’Asaro ’13, Meryl F. Natow '13, and Rose Wang ’13 founded Six Foods last fall through the Harvard Innovation Lab’s Venture Incubation Program. The team’s insect-based food products were designed with the help of Geoff Lukas, the chef de cuisine at Sofra Bakery, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Cambridge.
The former roommates said they discovered the prevalence and benefits of eating insects during separate trips abroad in Africa and Asia during their undergraduate careers.
“When we came back from our trips, we were blown away by the potential that insects have,” Wang said.
D’Asaro said that because insects are small, cold-blooded animals, the amount of water needed to sustain enough insects for a pound of insect meat is only one to two gallons. The amount of water needed for an equivalent pound of beef, on the other hand, can be as high as 2,000 gallons. Wang added that insects are low in fat and high in nutrients, with more iron than other sources of meat.
There is also huge potential for urban insect farming, as it takes little space and few resources, D’Asaro added. She said that insect farming is especially opportune for post-industrial cities looking to revitalize their large, empty buildings.
However, bringing bugs to American dinner tables is notoriously difficult, with Western society’s general repugnance to the idea and the many challenges faced by any entrepreneurial endeavor.
D’Asaro and Wang said that the mentorship through the i-Lab was instrumental in overcoming those hurdles.
After pitching their idea to a group of entrepreneurs, Six Foods was accepted last fall into the Venture Incubation Program, in which teams share their ideas and get feedback from industry specialists and experts. Teams also receive a mentor for long-term guidance that continues after the startup leaves the 100-day program.
“Any entrepreneurial experience is very intense,” said Phillipe Taieb, a social entrepreneurship consultant who serves as the mentor for Six Foods. “There are other things that recent graduates can do that are much less risky, and it takes a personal dynamism that Rose and Laura have.”
Six Foods plans to introduce chocolate chip cookies and chips made with flour from roasted crickets as their first product for mass consumption.
“For these food products, a good taste was immediately there, but to get across the psychological hurdle of eating insects, we had to take away some of the factors that scare people,” Wang said.
According to Taieb, starting with snack foods allowed the start-up to fulfill another goal as well: to prevent their insect-based foodstuffs from serving only niche consumer groups interested in environmentally sustainable products.
“From the get-go, they did not want to limit themselves and wanted a large segment of the population to approach their product,” Taieb said.
Taieb said that Six Foods’ cookies and chips will be in Boston-area supermarkets in about three months. Wang and D’Asaro added that their primary focus now is launching a Kickstarter crowdsourcing effort at the end of April, but they are already looking to develop urban insect farms across the country and testing foods made with actual insect meat.
“They are extraordinary individuals with an energy that makes them very good at getting support from many people,” Taieb said. “There is a lot of goodwill out there for their innovative goal.”
–Staff writer Karl M. Aspelund can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @kma_crimson.