In just a few days on 11 October, Brussels will be home to the INNOVEIT Summit, the culmination of the EIT’s flagship event series, which has been happening in the past month all over Europe. In the past decade, the EIT has nurtured Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem, and in Brussels, the achievements of our Innovation Communities, start-ups and individual stakeholders will be on full display.
We will not just talk about innovation, but also show what EIT-supported ventures have been doing to tackle the most pressing global challenges facing our continent today. To that end, one of the panellists at the INNOVEIT Summit is going to be Antoine Hubert, CEO of Ÿnsect, one of the EIT’s first unicorns. (No, not the mythical creature, a unicorn in finance refers to a privately owned start-up valued at over USD 1 billion.)
Ÿnsect is not only financially successful, but what they do is outright cool: they grow insects as food for plants, animals and even humans, thus mitigating the global food system’s harmful effect on our planet, providing nutritious protein-rich ingredients for all living organisms, while staying financially sustainable. We were lucky enough to meet Antoine for an interview, where we asked him about everything insect-related, their fruitful relationship with the EIT and what he expects from the INNOVEIT Summit.
EIT: You are the CEO of Ÿnsect. How would you explain what you do to an industry outsider?
Antoine Hubert: At Ÿnsect, we are basically farming insects in our vertical farms. And we process them into premium ingredients to reinvent the food chain from the soil to the plate. So, we are feeding plants, we are feeding farm animals, we are feeding pets, and humans; the full food chain with new and sustainable ingredients — healthy and natural.
EIT: In your book “For Planet, People & Profit”, you tell the story of how the idea of Ÿnsect emerged out of a deep concern for the environment. Why is the farming and consumption of insects good for the environment? And why is it an inevitable next step in the feeding of humanity?
Antoine Hubert: We set up the company with my co-founders about 11 years ago now. And we were indeed already convinced at the time that insects would be part of the new food chain in new sustainable smart grids, just like the energy sector.
There is no single solution. It’s the diversity of solutions that matters. Insects are indeed totally inevitable in the growth for more sustainable ingredients, with others like algae, fungi, plant-based proteins, reduction of food-waste, so we are part of the overall solution.
"It’s a good solution for climate, for biodiversity on land and in water, and for water itself."
And why are they interesting? Speaking of proteins, you can replace meat or milk in human food, make mincemeat and different meat alternatives with 40-50 times less greenhouse gas emissions than beef for instance but with the same level of digestibility as milk. So, you have a very good nutrient product and a very sustainable one.
You can also use the oil you get from our insects to replace palm oil, which is very important to reducing deforestation. Same, we can also use insect protein to use less soy protein meal in animal feed, thus also reducing deforestation.
We can also replace fish meal which is a major product of the fishing industry. 25% of the fishing industry is fishing fish meal; we can replace them to make fishing sustainable — that’s another angle on biodiversity.
With regards to water use, insects use up to 40 times less water than pigs and 20 times less than chicken, so there’s an important impact there.
So, it’s a good solution for climate, for biodiversity on land and in water, and for water itself. So, there is a lot we can explain in detail, but a lot has already been proven through lifecycle assessments in the past few years.
EIT: You first started producing insect-based food for plants and animals. Now you also have products for human consumption. However, in western societies, there is a human aversion to eating insects. How can this aversion be overcome? And what communication strategies is Ÿnsect implementing to market its products to humans?
Antoine Hubert: That’s a very good point and I think it’s indeed now communication and marketing which are the main limitations to developing the products. In the past decade, we have done a lot of research on acceptance, working on product development, which are now well accepted by people. What you find in Africa or in Asia on the street markets will never work in Europe or North America.
"It is time to promote this further, to use and rely more on influencers, chefs, and stars, like our investor Robert Downey Jr, who is helping in the US and more globally to promote our products."
You need to work with the ingredients to eventually develop a product that you recognize and that you find on the shelves every day. So again, the mincemeat you find in burgers, meatballs could be your falafels in other cuisines, it could be pasta, cereal like muesli and cereal bars, or energy drinks. We already do ingredients that go in all these applications today.
We’re already seeing customers in Europe. So, it’s already there on the market. The products are good, the feedback is good on the taste, and scientifically it’s as sustainable as plants in terms of carbon footprint or water footprint but as good in terms of nutrition and digestibility as milk which is the gold standard concerning proteins.
We have a lot of good scientific evidence, so it is time to promote this further, to use and rely more on influencers, chefs, and stars, like our investor Robert Downey Jr, who is helping in the US and more globally to promote our products. We’ve basically got this to resolve plus increasing the production capacity and doing more work on the markets that will eventually bring the product to the shelves. And then people will speak about it, and it will turn into a positive snowball effect.
So, it’s both about increasing production capacities and having the support of influencers and ambassadors and keep doing scientific work and finding new elements. Recently, we found we can drastically reduce cholesterol content in the livers of mice in pre-clinical trials compared to milk. So, the more we have these kinds of elements and claims, the more we can develop, the more we will show the nutrient quality, the health benefits, and sustainability of our products.
And if the people like it and they find it tasty when they eat it, it’s a very good outcome for us and for the whole sector.
EIT: How do you see the future of insect consumption by humans?
Antoine Hubert: Today, it’s still limited, but it has been there forever. I mean, before agriculture, humans have been eating insects as foragers for tens of thousands of years before we started farming ten thousand years ago, so it’s nothing new. Even in farming, we have been farming silkworms for a millennium, too, so it’s not new. It’s that modern agriculture of the past 200 years has forgotten insects.
Insects are the core of biodiversity, the basis of the food chain, and you see insects disappearing in the fields, because of pesticides. You see way less birds now in our countryside and you see the overall ecosystem is very impacted as a result. So just having a diversity of insects come into the food chain will help all food industries, though, again, it’s not a miracle solution; it’s a part, a contribution to the solution. Other protein and nutrient alternatives, like algae and fungi, are critical.
Basically, diversity is one of the big solutions to having good personal health and planetary health. Again, back before we evolved to our current form about 2 million years ago, we were about 95% foragers, and the diversity of our food was much bigger before we had the more advanced farming of the past 200 years. We’ve now only got like 10 main ingredients we eat: cereals, fruit and vegetables, and a few meats. We need to increase diversity and go back to what used to exist everywhere. Invertebrates like insects are big on diversity, big in nature, and this is of critical value and a clear path for the sector to grow.
"We are highly confident that the next decade will be a big one for Ÿnsect, after ten years of building the ecosystem and proving that it could work and be efficient."
We have a growing sector at the European level of the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), which is now gathering most of the companies, universities, and suppliers. The sector is growing in billions in value over the next few years in Europe and beyond. It’s booming everywhere so it’s really promising.
Customers use the products. Universities develop new research, new knowledge, and train new people to come and join our industries. Investors are investing more and more in the sector from the private and public side.
It’s overall positive and we are highly confident that the next decade will be a big one for Ÿnsect, after ten years of building the ecosystem and proving that it could work and be efficient.
EIT: You sell insect food. What is your favourite insect food to eat?
Antoine Hubert: That is a good question, it’s hard to say. But I really love the last generation of our ingredients for mincemeat. That means that our customers finally use it for producing burgers.
I’ve tasted many of them, and they are good. It’s high quality. You cannot taste that it’s coming from insects. So, it’s very nice burgers and it’s already happening in the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark and we’re looking to expand all over Europe.
EIT: And so, are these products already on the market?
Antoine Hubert: Yes, they are already on the market. But it’s already the third generation and indeed a new generation of products is coming out, which is exciting, and we have new meatballs and falafels that are really very delicious, and we look forward to seeing them more on the shelves.
EIT: And where can these products be purchased?
Antoine Hubert: From different retailers and e-commerce platforms in Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands. You can ask Contact Us on our website and our team can give you information on where you can find them.
EIT: Now let’s turn to some EIT-related questions. Ÿnsect joined EIT Climate-KIC’s accelerator programme in 2015. How did this help with finding customers, partners, or investors? And how did it further develop your venture?
Antoine Hubert: I remember it well. It was in 2015. We went to Spain to an EIT event, and it was already one of the first times we were meeting significant and meaningful investors.
"With the EIT, we could start to connect with the full European ecosystem of venture capital and that was super interesting."
The main contribution of the EIT for us was meeting investors, because when you’re building a company, the first thing is to connect to universities to develop the knowledge, and then quickly find financial support, because as a deep tech you need to invest a lot of money before earning significant cash yourself to auto-finance your own model. So, investors are critical in the path and development of companies like us, deep tech start-ups. And the EIT network and community was helpful in connecting us to different investors on the European level.
Earlier, we were starting to know the French ecosystem well, and with the EIT, we could start to connect with the full European ecosystem of venture capital and that was super interesting. And we could create a very good relationship that was fostered afterwards, leading to further investment over a couple of years from other European investors. Today, we have investors not just from France but from Belgium, from Italy, from Switzerland, from England, from the Netherlands, so many different countries from the European Union and geographic Europe.
EIT: Do you consider Ÿnsect to be a deep tech start-up?
Antoine Hubert: Yeah, definitely, we are a deep tech start-up. For us, we are really a deep tech start-up, because we develop very disruptive innovations on three pillars. One is the hardware, how we develop vertical farms and deep automations. Second is the software: we are really driven on data science and AI to predict the population of insects. And of course, third is the biology: deep physiology and genetics development there.
It’s a combination of the three pillars together that make the specificity of our model. So, it’s not only deep tech hardware or deep tech software or deep tech biology, it’s the combination of the three. Next are the specificities of what we do and why we also have a large quantity of patents, about 350 patents filed so far and most of them internationally, which also highlights the level of innovation and intellectual property we have in the company.
EIT: How important is intellectual property protection in your field?
Antoine Hubert: It’s critical. We were one of the first in the sector and we had from the beginning a big focus on IP, because we could see our earlier counterparts, like in the algae sector, and the ones who were successful were the ones with a good IP portfolio. And so, we focused our research team and our engineering in the early days to develop innovation and bring about patents quickly but also efficiently and make sure the patentability stays over time.
"Having these kinds of patents also builds protection that inspires confidence and trust in investors."
It’s easy to file a patent. It’s hard to file a patent that will last 20 years. So, we have developed a great IP committee: we have our IP lawyer, our IP advisor, and our own team of engineering people, research people, and legal people altogether.
We have something very strong now in terms of filing, following our development internationally, and having some claims on other patents concerning important developments. So, we are building something very strong, which is critical again to convince investors to bring significant levels of funding, to develop assets and infrastructure like vertical farms, and having these kinds of patents also builds protection that inspires confidence and trust in investors.
EIT: Do you also concentrate on trademarks?
Antoine Hubert: Yes, we do. So, there is the trademark around the name, on how we use it for our different products, on our different sites, our different activities, and, yeah, different branding and names that are being developed. And there’s more to come with different markets and segments we’re addressing which are completely different like plant fertilizers, farm animals, pets, humans.
That means different words, different branding, and more points that should be developed for proper marketing. But yes, it’s part of the development of the company, developing proper brands and trademarks.
EIT: What are you looking forward to during the INNOVEIT Summit in Brussels?
Antoine Hubert: I think it’s the opportunity to meet different European stakeholders once again. After two years of COVID, events are just restarting and are still very limited. We’ve had to stay within the team a lot.
So, I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with the different people I know in the investment community as well as the other founders and CEOs, because it’s always good to share best practices and experiences of what has been successful and what didn’t work, too. And it’s also just going to meet new people we don’t know and to be among the universities, among the world of science and innovation, so we’re really looking forward to this event in Brussels, definitely.
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