Insect Technology

Insect Technology enters a new phase

Building a new business in a developing market takes time and a fair amount of resilience. The journey can be bumpy and comes with a learning curve. But with resilience and good management, results will follow. Nearly nine years since the formation of Bühler’s Insect Technology initiative, the business is now celebrating two major milestones: a new contract to realize its second industrial scale insect plant and the opening of the Insect Technology Center in Uzwil, Switzerland, planned for February 2022. In this interview, Andreas Baumann, Head of Market Segment Insect Technology at Bühler, shares the challenges and victories of this journey.

  

Andreas, your team has just signed a new contract with the company Agronutris to build an insect plant in France. Can you give us some insights on that new project?

 

ANDREAS BAUMANN: The new project with Agronutris, a French biotechnology company that specializes in rearing and transforming insects into proteins, is a big milestone for us. It confirms our goal of establishing ourselves as a key solution provider for the insect industry and increasing the inclusion of insect proteins in animal feed, thereby contributing to more sustainable feed supply chains. We are honored to work with Agronutris’ team and bring together all our skills, expertise, and technology to drive their success. We will deliver a full-scope system to Agronutris. This includes feedstock preparation to provide safe, palatable, and nourishing feed to the larvae in a timely manner, a fully-automated larvae growth system with sophisticated climate control, the processing line to efficiently transform the grown larvae into protein meal and lipids with consistent quality, as well as the frass (excrement) handling system for a secure off-take of the rearing residues. In addition, we will be responsible for the entire automation and the timely project execution. The latter includes engineering, procurement, manufacturing, supply, installation, and commissioning. The 16,000 square meter insect plant in Rethel, France, will be ready to operate in 2023. When operating at full capacity, the facility will process up to 70,000 tons of organic residues and produce high-quality protein for the aquaculture and pet food markets.

 

Agronutris is a start-up, right? Over the last few years, dozens of start-ups have come on the scene. How have you been addressing the needs of this specific group?

After their fundraising and the team expansion, I would consider Agronutris a scale-up, which is the next phase of a start-up. But when Bühler started working with them, they were indeed a start-up. Normally, if you are a start-up and want to work towards the execution of an insect plant project, there are many aspects to be covered. You need to build the organization, work on the business case, and secure financing for the project. This is the business development part. Then you have the operational aspects. You need to find the correct feedstock to rear the larvae. You will need to make sure you have good genetic material to start with. You will need to work with the insects to build the whole operational know-how. We at Bühler, with our expertise and technology, can help these organizations to go through this process smoothly.

Andreas Baumann, Head of Market Segment Insect Technology at Bühler Andreas Baumann, Head of Market Segment Insect Technology at Bühler
Insects are a source of protein for food and feed, and are fed on waste, helping to address the huge problem of food waste.

Andreas Baumann, Head of Market Segment Insect Technology at Bühler

This sounds as if there are many aspects to be covered. How can Bühler support them?

We have been working with a wide variety of customers, who have different expectations. Over the last years, we have developed a customer journey with a customized approach. This means that before we propose anything, we listen to the needs of each client and be flexible. We must consider their specific pain points, experience in this sector, the phase in which they are regarding business development, and growth plans. In some cases, there is the need to prepare a feasibility or an engineering study. In other cases, clients approach us with proper tender documents, based on which we make our offer. Throughout the years we have identified key success criteria for such an endeavor. With that in mind, we can, for example, help customers to select the optimal feed mix recipes based on local availabilities and prices or connect our clients to potential breed suppliers. We can also give input on the facility construction and support in the permitting process. Furthermore, we have specific services to support customers in marketing their products. We also discovered that the Bühler brand helps to give our clients credibility to their potential investors. For us, the main goal is to propose a solution that will work and be profitable for them.

 

What about the feed industry? How can your team help the already established feed industry to advance towards the insect market?

Insects provide good opportunities as a natural and sustainable ingredient of animal feed. Besides the pure nutritional composition, insect-based ingredients have functional benefits. In recent times, many pet food products containing insects have been launched, highlighting their hypoallergenic and/or anti-inflammatory functionalities. In aqua feed applications, the inclusion of insect-based protein meal resulted in healthier animals, which triggered a better feed conversion rate. Moreover, the application of insect lipids in piglet diets leads to better weight gain, which helps to optimize growing time. This shows that there are already some very promising applications. But I am convinced there is more to come.

 

Can feed producers become insect farmers?

Of course. Many feed producers have the challenge that considerable amounts of their protein sources need to be imported. Insects can be grown everywhere on locally available organic residues. This means that a feed producer can become more independent regarding the availability of global protein sources. In addition, investment in an insect plant will drive more innovation and sustainability into the organization. 

 

Jessica Wild mixes the exact amount of feed substrate for the larvae. Jessica Wild mixes the exact amount of feed substrate for the larvae.

There is more big news: the opening of the Insect Technology Center in Uzwil. 

Yes! The Insect Technology Center will be officially inaugurated in February 2022. At this facility, we have the right infrastructure and expertise in one location to extend our services. In this center, we will conduct larvae growth trials with various feed-stock, develop product samples to support the sales activities of our customers, evaluate breed solutions, and run customer training. Another benefit is that our rearing units that perform growth trials are mobile, which enables us to send them to other locations, making them available to our customers worldwide. At the Center, we will also continue running our own tests, thereby constantly improving our technology and services for the insect market.

 

The Insect Technology Center in Uzwil will open in February 2022. The Insect Technology Center in Uzwil will open in February 2022.

 

If we look back, it has been a long journey since the inception of the Insect Technology business at Bühler. Could you give us an overview of this journey?

The insect technology history at Bühler is composed of three main acts. The first act was the internal work to establish an entity that can approach potential clients. This act started in 2013 when our leadership in Uzwil initiated a program in Corporate Technology about alternative proteins, and insects were part of that. By then, we had begun to develop the first studies to evaluate insects as an alternative source of protein and the potential role of Bühler in the insect sector. In 2014, China also started to express high interest in the entire insect market. Together – in an intensive exchange – we developed the insect opportunity further. A while later, we created an internal start-up to approach the market. 

Act two took place from 2017 to 2020, when Bühler supported Protix through a joint venture to build its 14,000 square meter insect protein facility. In 2017, we embarked on a deep research program with ETH Zurich to establish rearing and processing technologies that are in line with animal welfare standards. The opening of the world’s first fully automated industrial black soldier fly plant in Bergen Op Zoom in the Netherlands in 2019 was a key milestone for the entire insect industry. The Protix facility has reached its full processing capacity in 2020, which marked the successful completion of the joint venture between Bühler and Protix. Thereafter the two companies continue their own growth journeys.

 

And in 2021 you entered a new phase – act three of this story.

Yes. It is a new phase. Over the last years we have learned a lot, gained maturity, and filed nine patents to protect our solutions. With these proven technologies in the portfolio, the next natural step was to leverage our core competencies, which in our case is to serve the different customers in this industry with the most effective and reliable solutions. The new plant for Agronutris is already an important project in this phase.

 

Just how do insects contribute to a more sustainable future and to Bühler’s sustainability strategy?

To feed the 10 billion people who are expected to live on our planet by 2050 about 250 million metric tons of additional protein will be necessary annually. This represents an increase of 50 percent compared to today. This challenge must be addressed with more sustainable production of existing sources of protein as well as alternative sources for direct human and animal consumption.

Edible insects can play a key role: They are an important source of protein while being environmentally friendly. Bühler is committed to ambitious targets that will help mitigate climate change and build a more sustainable food system. Therefore, insects offer a unique opportunity. They are a source of protein for food and feed, and are fed on waste, helping to address the huge problem of food waste. Their frass can be used as a fertilizer. That is why insect proteins are an important pillar in the Bühler strategy to become the leader in sustainable proteins.

 

What is the “next big thing” that’s in store for the insect business?

Today we are only at the beginning of this inspiring endeavor. There are so many more opportunities out there where we can show our skills and help the industry to further develop. There are also other insect species, such as mealworms for human consumption. We have great technology for that as well. Then there are increasing requests for building larger insect facilities. Meanwhile, there is still a lot of room for optimization. We at Bühler keep working tirelessly on that. We want to make it better and more sustainable. We have been putting a lot of effort into tracking the data, maximizing output, reducing costs, and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. And we are devoted to supporting the industry to really reach its full potential.

 

Today we are only at the beginning of this inspiring endeavor. There are so many more opportunities where we can help the industry to further develop.

Andreas Baumann, Head of Market Segment Insect Technology at Bühler

 

What are your plans for 2022?

We aim to deliver Agronutris’ new plant in the most efficient way, keeping the time schedule, and ensuring the project runs smoothly and safely. We also want to bring our new Insect Technology Center up to full speed. In addition, there is a lot to be done with other requests and new contracts. I believe it will be a busy year as this industry sector gains speed. And we are energized to go through that journey together with our customers.

 

Without people there is no business. How has this adventure been for the Insect Technology team that have driven this project?

We are a team of 14 experts who have been working for some years as a more independent start-up within Bühler. As of 2021, we have integrated ourselves into the larger operation under Bühler’s Value Nutrition business area. With this move, we retain the flexibility and customized approach needed for this dynamic industry but have the great support of the rest of the organization, most importantly with colleagues from other engineering departments. We are happy that we are now part of the Bühler Group and can leverage that entire know-how and experience in favor of our customers.

Jessica Wild checks the larval weight gain and the structure and temperature of the feed. Jessica Wild checks the larval weight gain and the structure and temperature of the feed.
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