“Eat what bugs you.”
The brightly colored packaging of Chirps chips seems innocuous enough. Made from cricket flour, containing 20 grams of protein per bag, Chirps chips are the newest bug-infused snack on the market.
Founded by recent Harvard alumnae Rose W. Wang ’13 and Laura E. D’Asaro ’13 in 2014, the brand is now gaining traction. Wang and D’Asaro have appeared on popular TV shows like CNBC’s “Shark Tank” and are working to bring their products to people across the country.
Like another famous Harvard startup, Chirps chips had its start in Kirkland House. Wang and D’Asaro met as freshmen in Straus Hall and lived together as upperclassmen.
The idea for Chirps chips, they say, took root one summer when the roommates were half a world apart: D’Asaro was studying abroad in rural Tanzania while Wang was living in Beijing. One hot day, D’Asaro stopped by a street vendor who was selling fried caterpillars. An off-and-on vegetarian, D’Asaro remembers asking herself whether the local fast food dish counted as meat.
She decided it didn’t. “My first thought was: it tastes like lobster!” D’Asaro says.
In Beijing, Wang was also eating bugs. After trying a fried scorpion on a dare, Wang says she, too, became interested in the idea of eating insects.
“Hey, this tastes like shrimp,” Wang remembers thinking. “This lightbulb went off.”
Wang says she returned to campus determined to understand why people hold certain attitudes about food and culture—and to see whether she could change their minds.
“The cool thing about insects is you can raise insects in cities, unlike most proteins,” Wang says. “That’s cool because you can bring the chain between farm and table much closer.”
Wang adds that insect farming also helps combat food waste: The excess food produced in cities can be reused as food for protein sources like crickets. If crickets feed off urban food waste near their manufacturer, transportation costs also dramatically decrease.
Wang and D’Asaro began to experiment with insect-inspired foods while still at Harvard, eventually moving their trials off-campus to local pitch contests. Armed with seed money from the Harvard Innovation Lab, the two tried out their food on test audiences at both Harvard and M.I.T. Soon afterward, Meryl F. Natow ’13 joined Wang and D’Asaro to help launch Six Foods, the company that today sells Chirp chips.
A few days after I spoke with Wang and D’Asaro, I had the chance to try a Cricket chip myself. The snacks became so popular following Wang and D’Asaro’s appearance on “Shark Tank” that it’s taken several weeks for me to recieve my own cricket-infused shipment.
Gingerly opening the BBQ-flavored cricket chips, I’m deeply aware of the spectacle I might be making to curious onlookers. Like D’Asaro, I don’t eat meat; and I’m still unclear whether the chips are, in fact, truly vegetarian.
Insects are still animals—right?
Putting my principles on hold for the moment, I bite into a Chirps chip. The cricket flour crunch is quite good. It actually tastes almost identical to Doritos, but with a zesty BBQ flavor. The chip is also rich with the caramelized and smoky flavor that I associate with eating meat.
As I savor the Chirps chip sliding down my gullet, I marvel that Wang and D’Asaro have managed to create a snack this tasty in the few short years following their graduation from Harvard. But their path to success did not always run straight.
While searching a successful insect-based snack, the two tried everything from mealworm tacos to cricket sushi.
The hardest part of the process, Wang and D’Asaro say, were the long months they spent pestering the United States Department of Agriculture to approve their license for production. It took nine months before the federal agency, which oversees food safety and farming, finally conceded: Wang and D’Asaro could start commercially selling their bug chips.
“We had every certification under the planet and they had to say ‘yes,’” D’Asaro said.
With the federal government on their side, Wang and D’Asaro faced a new challenge: convincing people to buy into the idea of eating bugs. Over the past few years, the blockmates have worked to bring Chirps chips into homes across the United States.
In April 2014, the two raised more than $70,000 in a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. As of May 2015, Chirps chips were being sold in co-ops in Boston and Seattle, and Wang and D’Asaro were in talks with big-box stores, Popular Science reported.
But when Wang and D’Asaro gathered in their Kirkland house dorm room a few years back, it all seemed so unlikely.
Wang describes her decision to become an entrepreneur like this: “Imagine telling your mom, ‘I’m going to find a way to make pigs fly.’”