Solution Blue cracks the insect industry’s biggest challenge: quality, consistent protein output
There’s a lot of buzz about edible insects – an efficient, sustainable protein source with the potential to change the way we nourish our animals, and ourselves.
Still in its infancy in Australia, the insect industry is being championed by passionate innovators whose spirit of entrepreneurship and collaboration is laying the foundation for success. One such pioneer is Mick Thornett, Founder of Solution Blue, whose innovative black soldier fly production system solves the single biggest problem limiting the growth of the sector: consistent quality output.
A small industry with big potential
AgriFutures Australia see insects playing an increasing role in meeting the world’s rising demand for protein, particularly for animal feeds. It’s an industry AgriFutures believes has high growth potential to reach $10 million per annum in the next five years – a core driver of its Emerging Industries Program.
Solution Blue has been instrumental in fast-tracking the development of the Australian insect industry, participating in the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ Global AgTech Ecosystem (GATE) program, and as a key supplier to an AgriFutures-funded project investigating the potential of edible insects in the development of pet foods.
That project not only proved the nutritional potential of insect-based pet food, but supported the creation of Australia’s first insect-based pet food range, BuggyBlend, which is set to start exporting to key global markets.
The pet food market is big business, with Australians spending almost $4 billion per year to nourish their pets. But other animal industries – such as aquaculture – are also eyeing insect protein as a feedstock. It is the rapidly growing aquaculture market which has Solution Blue Founder, Mick Thornett, really excited.
Improving aquaculture’s footprint with an insect-based alternative to fishmeal
“I originally wanted to grow fish, but only if I could do it sustainably,” said Mick. That meant finding an alternative to fishmeal – the high-protein, nutrient-dense mixture of ground up wild-caught fish that forms the feedstock of most aquaculture production around the world.
Rich in protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, and with a considerably smaller environmental footprint than traditional protein sources, edible insects have emerged as a legitimate, sustainable alternative to fishmeal. Mick explained, “Aquaculture feed managers are very interested in insects. But their biggest problem has been getting good quality protein in the quantity they need.” Solution Blue is helping to change this by delivering a product that meets the requirements and demands of the market.
Twice the productivity at 70% less cost: Solution Blue is streets ahead of its global competitors
The market for insect-based aquaculture feed gathered pace in the mid 2010’s, driven by rising fishmeal prices and the need for an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative. Big global players have invested millions in designing insect protein production systems. “But the methods are so intensive that even with all the robotics and automation they could add, the costs just blow out and you can’t get a product that’s competitive with fishmeal.”
While global competitors have thrown money at the problem, Solution Blue invested time. Building the prototype on a shoestring budget meant every decision had to be geared towards delivering an economically viable solution. That meant addressing the key production challenges and maximising protein output. Five years of trial and error has paid off. “While many of our competitors went broke, Solution Blue has delivered an insect production method that is productive, profitable, scalable – and completely different to every other farming system in the marketplace.”
“I just kept refining it to the point where now, we’ve got this system which delivers twice the production per square metre of any other design in the world, and at a much lower cost. It’s about 70% cheaper per tonne to build, because it’s based on a flatpack design that’s just bolted together; there’s no engineering needed. Our operational costs are 70% lower, too, because there’s a really low energy input requirement and it’s automated – so needs very little human involvement.”
He continued, “Unlike other production systems, we don’t interact with the insects after the four-day stage, when they go into the grow out equipment [a feedlot for maggots]. By limiting human interaction, we’re able to guarantee a food-grade product and avoid the health risks that can come from handling organic material.”
“It’s a great sustainability story,” said Mick, “But it’s important not to forget the business side of it: these things need to be productive. That’s why we spent so much time getting the manufacturing business model right.”
Delivering the consistent, high-quality insect meal that the market demands
The regulatory environment governing the marketing of insect protein products as animal feed is – like the industry itself – still emerging. Regulations differ between states, and livestock species, with the tightest restrictions related to using substrates that contain animal products. Solution Blue has avoided these complexities by using low-grade grain, such as split or out-of-spec corn, as the input. This means they not only end up with a saleable product, but a consistent one.
Mick explained, “If you feed an inconsistent input [like food waste], the protein content of the insect meal will vary by 10 – 15%. High-value animal feed markets like aquaculture can’t accept that.”
While Solution Blue offers the ability to split the larvae output into oil and dry protein, its initial market is whole dried larvae meal, which delivers full fat, nutrient-dense protein to growing animals. This reliably high-quality insect meal has already earned Solution Blue a supply partnership with BuggyBlend for its pet food products.
Investors needed to shake out the bugs in a scaled pilot plant
In a nascent industry where most players are still in the R&D phase, taking that leap to scaled production and commercialisation can be a challenge. While Mick is confident that his tech solution addresses the key challenges to this emerging industry, he’s mindful of not scaling too quickly.
“Our next step is simple. Although we're 100% confident in our prototype, and we’re already getting better results at less cost than anyone else, we want to get the absolute maximum production per square metre. So, we’ve got a bigger pilot plant planned onsite here [in Cowra] to shake out those last few bugs – so to speak.”
Solution Blue needs around $250,000 to get that larger pilot plant up and running. And they’ve already lined up a local manufacturing partner, with construction pencilled in for early-2022.
“The pilot plant will be capable of producing one tonne per day of dry protein, which is currently selling at around $3,000 per tonne,” said Mick. “So, the figures stack up. We’re in a really good position to move forward with our pet food supply, and capture market share in the lucrative aquaculture feed market. We just need the right partner to help us.”
Learn more about this commercial opportunity here.