The Future of Protein: Crickets and Microlivestock

33 min read

The first time Mohammed Ashour ate a cricket was on live TV.

He was on air that morning in 2013 to represent his company, Aspire Food Group, whose model for farming bugs — or euphemistically, “microlivestock” — had landed in the finals for a million dollar social entrepreneurship prize.

But Ashour had never actually eaten a bug himself. He didn’t see it as a prerequisite that he personally consume his product, and, more importantly, there was no place in his hometown of Montreal to get food-grade crickets.

Live on Air

The host of this Montreal morning show had insisted Ashour bring crickets for the interview. Since Aspire wasn’t in operation yet, his team did a frantic search and, bizarrely, a museum in the city helped them track down a chef who cooked with crickets.

The chef made a special creation for the show: crickets on an elegant white chocolate wedge. Ashour showed up to the set, dish in hand and sailed through the interview.

However, in the last minute, the host asked him to sample the crickets with her. He agreed, though as he bit down, he knew if he reacted like it was his first time eating an insect, it could discredit everything he’d just told the show’s audience.

“I was disgusted by the white chocolate,” Ashour recalls. “The cricket was fantastic. I immediately ask [the host] what she thought and pretend like I’m doing this for the hundredth time.”

However, the experience wasn’t entirely painless. “When I got home that morning, I just crawled into a fetal position,” he says. “I can’t believe I was force-fed white chocolate on TV.”

Entering the Mainstream

Ashour claims that eating crickets for the first time proves to be a “spiritual experience” for most people. The 31-year-old CEO, who has the bulging biceps of a protein enthusiast, has converted his wife and children into fans, along with the tens of thousands who are consumers of Aspire’s crickets.

He’s not alone: crickets are crawling their way into the mainstream, showing up in concessions at pro sports venues, including State Farm Arena in Atlanta and Safeco Field in Seattle (where they regularly sell out), as well as on the investing TV show Shark Tank.

Of course, insects as a food source are more than a novelty in much of the rest of the world.

80 percent of the world’s countries regularly consume bugs, including Mexico, Thailand and Japan. Often insects are more expensive than meat because they are seasonal and usually harvested by hand.

Crickets are rich in protein, calcium, fiber and iron. Plus, many people, like Ashour, insist they taste delicious — when not paired with white chocolate.

Watch: Mohammed Ashour on how Aspire got started

Aspiring to Greatness

Before he became an insect-eating evangelist, Ashour was pursuing two degrees at McGill University: his MBA and a medical degree.

In 2013, he heard of the prestigious Hult prize, which was endowed in 2010 by the founders of international education company Education First. The prize provided seed capital to students seeking to sustainably solve global challenges. Past winners include IMPCT, which offers day care in urban slums, and Roshni Rides, which provides safe, reliable transportation to women in Pakistan.

The year that Ashour decided to compete, the theme picked by Hult Prize partner and former President Bill Clinton was the global food crisis.

“For me, it just felt like the natural progression of what being a doctor meant in the first place,” Ashour says. “I mean, how many patients am I going to see as a doctor? What if I could build a business that can have the potential to actually alleviate hunger for millions of people?”

He brainstormed ideas with four MBA classmates: Shobhita Soor, Gabe Mott, Jesse Pearlstein and Zev Thompson. Together, they decided only to pursue the prize if they found a cause worth dropping out of school for.

The team sought an effective way to get nutritious food into urban slums, and realized they needed a food source that could be easily grown within impoverished environments.

A Small Solution

Ashour first heard about eating insects from a hospital patient, and he soon became immersed in research extolling the dietary benefits of bugs.

After three months, the only idea to pass the group’s self-imposed litmus test was the concept of raising microlivestock.

Meat is an $800 billion market global that, for many, comes with significant environmental and ethical concerns. The prototypical family farm raising a small herd has largely been replaced by industrial-scale operations. These are major producers of greenhouse gases, create significant problems of waste disposal and often involve less-than-ideal living conditions for animals.

As the world’s population approaches a projected 9.6 billion people by 2050, the question increasingly raised is how we can sustainably — and nutritiously — feed all those additional mouths.

Crickets have a number of appealing qualities compared to traditional livestock. A 2013 report from the United Nations (well-timed for Aspire’s purposes) found that one pound of beef requires 20 pounds of feed to produce, not to mention the requisite water, land, and pesticides.

A pound of crickets, meanwhile, only requires about 1.5 pounds of feed, while providing comparable amounts of nutrients.

Greenhouse gas emissions from cricket production are also 100 times lower than those from raising cattle. Adding to the case for crickets is a recent study in the journal Nature suggesting that eating the insects may improve gut health.

The Final Pitch

After beating out 10,000 competitors (and conquering the morning TV circuit), the Aspire team landed one of five spots in the Hult Prize global finals in New York City, facing off against groups from as far away as Spain and South Africa.

Before the team’s final pitch — a 10-minute presentation to a panel of Nobel laureates — Ashour huddled with his team in a meeting room.

“I said, ‘Let’s look at the Hult Prize not as the final step we needed to get to where we need to go,” he told his group. “It’s actually the first step — think of it as the very first VC we’re pitching.”

How many companies win over the first VC they pitch, he asked?

Well, this one did.

Aspire won the Hult Prize. When handing over the hefty award, President Clinton noted that he surprised even himself by advocating for insects as food, but that the idea took advantage of existing markets and was “very innovative,” and the group had a “proper business plan to execute their strategy.”

The group has since attracted other investors, notably John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, who believes, “the majority of the protein that we absorb 10 years from now will be from insects.”

After winning the prize, Soor, Mott and Ashour were able to complete their MBAs while simultaneously conducting research for Aspire (though Ashour had to press pause on medical school).

Building a Business

Watch: Mohammed Ashour on how to convince people to eat crickets

With the prize money in hand, the team conducted market research to figure out what insects were both being eaten and able to be farmed.

Aspire first focused on an existing market, looking to bring a replicable model and food security to Ghana by farming palm weevils.

However, after a year in business, they realized that to truly serve their mission, it wasn’t enough to work in countries that already regard insects as food. “We have to induce behavioral changes in the countries that are most contributing to this global crisis,” Ashour says. “I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not Ghana that’s [the biggest source of] global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Today, Aspire has operations in Ghana (managed mostly by Soor, who is CIO) and a robotically managed cricket farm in the United States (managed mostly by Mott, who is COO). Mott, the lanky scientist foil to Ashour’s muscled executive, is tasked with generating the healthiest microlivestock in the most sustainable way, at the lowest cost.

Mohammed Ashour and Gabe Mott
Photo by Jon Coyle

Bug HQ

In September 2014, the company moved its headquarters to Austin, Texas, seeking warm temperatures for the crickets and because, Mott says, with a local culture interested in sustainable food and the unofficial motto of “Keep Austin Weird,” “This seems like a place that will not be freaked out [by eating crickets].”

Aspire operates a massive, 25,000-square-foot facility in South Austin, though it’s already too small for the growing company after just two years in operation.

The crickets are raised in 3-by-3 foot plastic boxes that each house 15,000, for a total of over 100 million crickets harvested per year. The boxes are lidless, so that robots can refill water and drop in food.

The crickets eat a modified chicken starter feed (a non-GMO mix of corn and soy, enriched with vitamins and minerals). Layers of an egg carton-like material give the crickets places to climb and allow for more individuals per box. The walls of the bin are high enough so that the crickets can’t jump out, as any that manage to escape are no longer food safe.

The rows of boxes are kept in clean rooms (meaning visitors must don shoe covers, lab coats, and hairnets) and heated to the temperature of a hot summer day.

It smells like a place where livestock is raised, and crickets can be heard throughout the building. The chirping is almost deafening in the rooms where crickets are kept.

Happy Crickets

Mott explains that Aspire crickets are happy crickets that have never exhibited stress behaviors like waterfalling, in which a group crowds together seeking an exit.

(Mott, a vegetarian, didn’t take to eating insects as quickly as Ashour. He says this is because they were often plucked directly from a tree and still wriggling when handed to him.)

In fact, Ashour notes that one of the challenges of raising crickets at this scale is that creating such an insect-friendly space means the building can also attract unwanted intruders (other bugs).

Once the crickets are fully grown, the company puts them into a harvester (the current version is the company’s eighth iteration), which separates out the live crickets for processing.

They are then placed into bags, frozen, and shipped to a processor to be turned into the brand’s consumer products, which include protein powder, roasted crickets (in flavors like sea salt and vinegar and Texas BBQ) or protein bars (in flavors like chocolate fudge brownie) under the brand Exo, which Aspire acquired in 2018.  

Data Gathering

Courtesy Aspire Food Group

The cricket boxes are also equipped with a slew of sensors.

Aspire collects hundreds of millions of data points on the crickets (as well as a similar amount of data in its Ghana operations), to determine things like the optimal environmental conditions and feed for the crickets during their five-week life cycle in order to yield the greatest number of healthy crickets at the lowest cost and the highest level of sustainability.

For example, data collected by Aspire led to adjustments in the crickets’ diet, resulting in a product higher in protein and lower in carbs.

“At the early stages, the most important thing was to set up the systems just to collect the data,” Ashour says. “Although it’s not the best practice, collecting data in our business is way more time-sensitive than actually analyzing the data. If we don’t capture data for every generation, that’s lost opportunity. Whereas we could technically aggregate that data and then come in at a later point in time and analyze.”

Aspire also took on the difficult task of building its automated technology from scratch, since existing products often work at a much larger than the company needs. For example, the staff initially had to manually clean and refill the crickets’ water reservoirs daily.

A New Market

Since cricket farms are a relatively new phenomenon (in other countries, crickets are literally caught in fields by hand), there was no off-the-shelf automated cricket watering system on the market. The company had to tackle building its own.

While at first it seemed simple, the process was riddled with technical challenges, especially when applying technology to finicky biological organisms that don’t respond in a standard way.

Ashour concedes that the team was perhaps too protective of its IP at first and tried to tackle too many engineering challenges on its own. They could have outsourced some of that work or partnered with expert vendors.

Automating these rote tasks is critical for the Aspire model. Minimizing human touch leads to fewer errors and a more hygienic process for the microlivestock. Automation also helps ensure the process is replicable elsewhere.

“Imagine if I have to go into 30 geographies and train 30 unique geographies and ethnicities of laborers on how to develop a process and to maintain that quality control,” Ashour says. “Compared to going to my same manufacturer and saying, I’ll order 100 of those machines, and we’ll ship them to these countries, and it will unfailingly yield the same output every time.”

Ashour recognizes he’s facing an uphill battle in both marketing edible insects and commercializing the nascent technology, but he’s fueled by the company’s mission to make insects part of the global diet.

“If this was a solved problem, I don’t think I would be this excited,” he says. “If the end prize was something vain or banal, I don’t think I would be excited. But this is something that, yes, it’s a long shot if we get [most of the world eating crickets], but if we do, you’re talking about impacting hundreds of millions of people. It’s 100 percent worth the journey.”

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