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Season 2: Next Gen Proteins

The curated panel of industry fellows that discuss how to future-proof traditional markets

In Season 2, recognized world-class Researchers, Scientists, Faculty Members, Senior Executives, Experts, Chefs, Investors and Entrepreneurs from around the globe, engage in strategic exchange of views and share startling intel on viable transformative innovation in Agriculture, Food and Beverage, zooming in the next gen proteins space.

Virtual Coffee: S2:E9 | Episode title: Joint efforts for a better future.
On this week's episode of Virtual Coffee, hosted and moderated by Tommaso di Bartolo, panelists Alejandro Ortega, CEO and co-founder at Sibö, whose purpose is to find new and efficient biomaterials to create healthier food and sustainable solutions for our planet, Maija Itkonen, CEO and co-founder at Gold&Green, one of the creators of pulled oats, the Finnish healthy, delicious plant based, purposeful innovation, and Sarah Schlafly, co-founder and CEO of Mighty Cricket, a company that is highly committed to building a cleaner protein industry to sustain the world, discussed key aspects in the next gen proteins space.
Podcast transcription

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited to offer you a reading alternative with increasing convenience, of our guest speakers' conversation with Tommaso, this episode’s moderator. For more information on the people and ideas discussed in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. Additionally, for more on sustainable transformative innovation in FoodTech, please register for the upcoming live streaming episodes of Season 2 on Corpor8.

Key points: 

  • Education is the key aspect for bringing new adopters to next gen proteins
  • Crickets: it is essential to separate the animal from the meat
  • It is time to move next gen proteins from the specialties section to the mainstream aisle
  • The next gen proteins industry must work together to build the future 

Tommaso: Hello, everybody. Thanks for joining us today. On this episode, we’ll be zooming in on a huge and increasing discussion of the consumer sector: the next gen proteins space. 

The importance of design and tech from the start

Tommaso: Maija, what does it really mean to be a purpose driven and design centric tech company in the realm of next gen proteins?

Maija: This is one of our biggest findings in the beginning, that we really wanted to bring the design approach and the research approach in the center of what you're doing. Because if you think about it regularly in the food business, research is something that happens very early. It happens several years before anything is actually manufactured. It may be done by a Research Institute or university or something like that. And then design on the other hand, is most often just a package or the campaign and kind of little bit about that concept. But we really wanted to bring these two in the very center. So we actually have our own high tech research team. 

Then we also focus everything that we do on the design thinking and really seeing this food item not just like something that you packaged nicely, but it's actually like the whole solution. What are we eating? And why are we doing that? What implications does it have and what motivations do people have? Kind of like flipping a little bit upside down. And for us, actually, this was the one of the main motivations to really start this whole company. If I believe that the research and the design are the important things, we can really put those things in the very center. 

And to be a purpose driven company means that it's really inbuilt that we tried to make this world a bit better place and try to excel in everything that we do and try not to go too short route but put all of our effort into actually making something that we truly believe in.

Tommaso: Maija, you started the company five years ago and now basically you went through a path and the company has been 100% acquired already. So when did you start within this process? Because as a startup focusing a lot on r&d, it's also a challenge, especially when you don't know when you start monetizing. How did you double down on r&d? How did you basically allocate the right resource at the right time?

Maija: You have to start so early that the company is never even considered at that point. Because it already started by the PhD studies of our founders so our people had been studying this topic for years before we even considered the company. I also believe that's the beauty of this research, that you actually finally find a context for, like all of the long demanding research that you have been doing for years. And then you wrap it into something that is going to be concrete. It also requires to be quite brave and quite just jumping into something unknown, that you actually start a company with totally new tech, because it's already enough that you have a new company, but then you also have a new tech. There's no school board that you can find answers for. So yeah, it really has been a journey.

It's not easy to stand in between vegans and meat lovers 

Tommaso: Sarah, alternative protein is in big demand, consumers are requesting more and more of a variety of products and a variety of actually alternative protein sources, there are all kinds of flavors. Why did you choose to push at crickets?

Sarah: So I got into edible insects and when I realized that it's kind of the gap between the omnivore, the meat lover and the vegetarian/vegan. Crickets are this fuzzy middle ground that vegetarians and vegans are kind of interested in, and the nutritional demands and the umami flavors of the meat lovers. So I chose it because I realized that insects require so few inputs compared to conventional proteins and even compared to soy, because of the amount of land usage required for soy protein versus crickets.

"If I really scale this industry, then I can make this protein source, not only a highly sustainable, nutritious source of protein, but also highly equitable." 

Because if we sell the industry, we can really drive down the cost of edible insects. And so I just became on this quest to get more Americans into eating insects.

Tommaso: Have you been in the industry of cricket before? What was the initial spark, when you said "Wow, yeah, that's exactly what I want to do"?

Sarah: So my background is in nutrition and cooking. I started out in accounting of all things and then I realized that I needed to have a more creative outlet. So I started in nutrition cooking school where I landed the culinary arts with a nutrition education. And I'm very passionate about lowering obesity rates in the US and obesity is tied. So when I started teaching people with lower income levels, the hardest protein to find in the grocery stores at a cheaper cost that it is still healthy is protein. 

I came across relevant information and data. I realized that as the world continues to grow exponentially through 2050, we'll have a serious protein shortage. So something needs to change. I was looking around at major players in the industry and who's really driving a change. I realized that it's really up to my generation and Generation Z to make these changes, because the incumbent brands that are producing chicken-mass and beef-mass, they're not incentivized to make these changes.

 After doing a little bit of corporate marketing for a national food brand, I went back into the startup world and decided to start pushing crickets as clean and equitable in future equitable protein sources. I would say right now the industry is very niche. Definitely. So we place a premium price on products.

Overcoming resistance in the industry

Tommaso: Alejandro, as we are just hearing right now different sources and now we have crickets on the market and still, especially here in the Western world, we need to get used to consuming that. How do you think that this fits into the other alternative and plant based proteins? You know, insect based versus versus alternative plant based proteins? 

Alejandro: It's like a challenge I get from a visual consumer who wants an excuse to resist. Basically, the rationale of insects is one of the best ways that you can use. And they want to get an excuse not to consume it, but the truth is that, there are basically two main challenges.

One is, the lack of education that you can see just for people to adopt it. And the other side is completely opposite, is basically to the instinct of what do I like, what do I want to eat on a daily basis. And that's pretty much what drives the consumer behavior in the supermarkets during the pandemics, during anything that you can see. So I think the approach has to be on both sides. 

Unfortunately, we have been focusing too much into education that at the end of the day, most of the people don't want to hear what they already know sometimes. And that's a big challenge for all of us that we are trying to do things we purpose, that we are trying things that are going to solve the biggest problems in the world. 

And then, how do we make it accessible from a tasty standpoint, or an easy tool to adopt for the final consumer? So what I said is, basically, what we have to do is have people understand that they don't have to see the insect as we don't show them the cow when they were eating meat. So when I said that people are like, "Oh, yeah, it's true. Nobody is showing me a cow when I'm eating a stake. I'm just seeing the steak." That's kind of what the most successful companies are doing right now in this area. You can see that in different new trends of indie gastronomy, from sushi to other materials that weren't common at that point. And that is a major advantage. Because the taste at the end of the day is going to be great. 



Direct efforts to educate

Tommaso: Sarah, on the topic of educating the market versus costs and being a startup, what are your thoughts on this?

Sarah: So I educate the educators and then they can educate the audience. For here in St. Louis, we have a science center and I worked with them to build a cart on an exhibit on entomophagy, the practice of eating insects. And now when people come through, they talk about this and they mention the logo brand. So those are people who are talking to people about nutrition. 

Also, the majority of consumers just care about taste and presentation. So we eat first with our eyes. And then we second eat with the aroma. If there's any smell of something, some odor or something that's off with it, then we get off put. And then finally, it needs to taste amazing so that they forget all about the insect. And that's exactly what we're focusing on here at Mighty Cricket. 

Maija: It is not just that you might think that insect is something called like a little bit further on the line, but also for the plant proteins, you really do need this education. And my three points for the education would be that. First of all, it's important that people can keep some of the routines. When they want to make the lasagna, it is just the same lasagna, nobody's forcing you to quit lasagna, but it's just what you put into the lasagna that might change. The process and the tastes and all of that should remain the same as it could. And the other thing is that, like not requiring two big steps. But if there's just like small little things that you know, like maybe one meal a week or something like that, even that should be fine. So don't expect to make big leaps. And finally, I would say that, for us, at least it has proven to be really important to have the right food service partners. Just as an example, we work with Taco Bell in three countries at the moment. So when you just have an amazing taco, it is such like an amazing taco. It's not like it's a freaky thing or is a special diet. Having these things take time and it's small steps.

Increasing demand

Tommaso: Maija, how could we stimulate an increasing consumption of next gen protein products around the world? What are your thoughts on this?

Maija: My personal view is certainly that there just needs to be more competition and there needs to be better products. And, of course, one of the most important things is that these cannot be special diet products. We have to get things like a more in the more normal usage and I'm here to flexitarian diet is really helping a great deal. Because it is allowing regular guys to just pick something that used to be a special diet. And you don't have to feel that, you know, like, you're so free that you're just eating this meat free option today, but it's just any protein and you can just freely pick it.

"Because when everybody does a little bit it's so much more efficient compared to just one guy doing a whole shift." 

I really do believe that this whole category of dinner proteins is going to be changing a lot. So there simply needs to be more variety, better products. And nobody has a similar taste, so we all have like individual flavor profiles. So there needs to be as many product types as there are consumers. And the better products we have the more consumers we would have addicted to them.

Tommaso: Alejandro, anything to add from a marketing perspective? What are your thoughts? How can we increase the demand?

Alejandro: I think the demand is there. I see a lot of people that want to try recipes around Latin America and in Europe. The final thing is, we need to be closer to the consumer. We need that part of the education and the consumer to be linked to each other. To be closer to a consumer also means, "here it is, try it", and send some fries. Sometimes it just takes a first time consumer to trust the product for free, and then the consumer is going to be able to start buying it from the supermarket and other places.

And that is another part of the challenge: some supermarkets are not able to sell this type of product. And that is a big challenge because it is the part of accessibility that we were talking about. Or we sometimes tend to make it just too boring or educate too much. And we lose the consumers attention.

But I think what we need to really drive it is a flag to combine all the companies collaborate on a bigger scale. And that is just from the marketing perspective to pass a flag about just like plant based and insect based, we need to combine and work together to educate the consumer but also to change the regulations to make it easier to sell it. Finally we'll increase capacity, but that is going to happen over time.

Higher challenges for insect proteins in comparison to plant-based 

Tommaso: What would you say are the main challenges? When you think of bringing an insect based protein to mark compared maybe to plant-based proteins? What are the main challenges there?

Alejandro: Well, I think one of those is that plants have been used in different ways already in the industry. And that's the one of the challenges with insects. And the other part is, the key factor that people don't know what insects taste like, they say, "Well, I don't know what they taste like." But what does a cricket taste like it's going to depend on whatever your experiences are, where are you going to buy it from, what is the feeding of the insect. Those things are part of the, for the lack of a better word, I will use in place education, basically to be next to the consumers who are there to try everything. 

Something that we have been doing is working with the farmers. The farmers actually changed all the consumer behavior, because they are the primary consumer that we get, they grow it, they understand it, and then they pass on to the next generation and that's how it has been working with every culture in the world. So something that we do is not only to work with farmers for them to grow insects, but also to work with them for them to understand better danger and pass that on continuously. I think that is one of the best ways I can think of to create more awareness.

"The farmers actually changed all the consumer behavior, because they are the primary consumer that we get, they grow it, they understand it, and then they pass on to the next generation and that's how it has been working with every culture in the world."

Tommaso: Sarah, do you want to double down on this? Any thoughts from experiences you want to share? What are your thoughts on the challenges to become as popular as plant based?

Sarah: Well, one way to make it go mainstream is to make it accessible to the consumer by moving it from like this specialty foods aisle to the mainstream aisles with the rest of the meat. I believe it was beyond meat, that when their burger went from the vegan special diets section, into the mainstream meat case, their sales really took off. So we have to get grocery stores on board to present these as mainstream products and not niche products. 

Another way to do it is through restaurants route, the fast casual route. Another thing that would really help is if the media stops writing about insects with an image of a very scary pile of bugs, but rather puts delicious looking plated dishes in their articles. So the media likes to draw eyeballs, fear factor, is a great way to click on those articles, but it doesn't help the industry at all. It's not helping our environment. And then the Mighty Cricket approach is we keep our crickets powdered. So consumers never again see an antenna or lay, they're only gonna be working with flour.

Tommaso: Do you believe that we are moving towards an equity competency model for sustainable food systems in any way? What are your thoughts?

Sarah: So that's why I got on board with mighty cricket because I wanted to bring in an equitable, clean protein source to the market. And right now, with the market being niche for both insect based products, but also as Maija pointed out, it's still niche for plant based proteins. However, when you look at the economics of it, the industries scale, it's going to be much cheaper to produce, you're taking advantage of economies of scale. And then as Alejandro was talking about, you're taking advantage of knowledge being passed down from generation to generation. So there's going to be equipment that's going to be built to solve an inefficient problem on a cricket farm, and that is going to drive down the costs. 

I think by getting early adaptors on board, they're really the ones who are making a mighty impact for the rest of the world. Because by their support, we're able to continue these innovations. So that one day, maybe it's in 10 years or 20 years, we can make this a highly accessible form of clean protein.

Alejandro: I think one of the greatest challenges is that we try to see the future to solve these challenges thinking like the challenges that we once saw with plant based, where we needed to get more machines and automatize a lot of the things. From my experience and being from Costa Rica, something that we understood was that we do need to look into our past, there are some systems of production that have worked for the Latin American area. Like coffee, for example, where you need to collect it manually, you need to dry it, you need to do a lot of things that are very similar to crickets or any other type of insects. And then you have to use a lot of land and a lot of different places. 

So in order to cut the cost and also engage with the community we need to change the basis of the production system. And I encourage a lot of other companies to use this type of production like, not only have their own centralized facilities, but also work with other companies in other places not to use so many in space. That is going to allow the price to go down. We have already cut up our price by a third of what we started with. We started with U$60 per kilo a year ago, and we already are at a third of that. 

Yuck factor and pet food

Tommaso: From our Zoom audience, I see here, (inaudible). Thanks for your question. How much education do you think you need to provide consumers to overcome the yuck factor with insect protein? Would it be easier to introduce insect protein in the pet food industry? Who would like to go with that?

Sarah: I think as we pointed out earlier, if we just presented as a delicious brownie with a delicious clean protein brownie, that's gonna take significantly less barrier to trying it than if we were presenting it as an ultra healthy superfood of dried crickets. So it's all about presentation and then after they try it, then perhaps they can read more about the education part of it. 

The other thing that Alejandro touches on is, it's really great to be right there in front of the consumer giving away free samples. So that's a 101 task to do that, but online there are other ways to decrease that barrier to try. So for Mighty Cricket we have 100% satisfaction guarantee. If you don't like the product, we'll give you your full refund and shipping.

Tommaso: The thought that also Adele package the question with was about pet food and maybe making it part of pet food. Have you guys come across something like it or I'm confident that r&d teams are thinking about that or have maybe considered any experiences you would like to share here on that end?

Alejandro: We have got a lot of investors interested in opening our line for that, since we are more into the raw material side of it, it would be easier for us to do that. And what we usually say is that when you think about food, and where is it coming from, and you already have any key factor, when you think that your food is coming from the same place that your dog's food is coming from, then you're going to have a more difficult factor there. I think it is easier and there are a lot of companies that are doing it, but the presentation of that is going to be completely different. And for the same company at this stage to do both, is a bigger challenge. You're going to need to do a lot of marketing to separate the brands and to separate everything. 

Maija: Is it actually even beneficial that so often the insect protein is put in the same basket as the vegan proteins?

Sarah: There is a market for that. But I think that we need to change the name cricket and make it something real or something like how beef isn't cow, it's beef, and pork is not pig. But if we have a different name, it's real meat. I think that would do wonders for the industry.

A cruelty free world in the horizon

Tommaso: WeHow does the insect in food concept address the animal cruelty concern?

Sarah: I've worked with several entomologists here in St. Louis about that and the way that crickets specifically are raised, there aren't any cricket farms. They have plenty of space to live and hop around with happy lives. The way they're harvested is the room is chilled, so they go into the state of torpor, which is kind of like hibernation and then they perish in that state. And that's the exact same thing that happens in the wild. So it exactly mimics their end of life experience in the wild making a very humane way to raise this type of meat. Unlike the slaughterhouses that are cows, pigs and chickens experience.

Tommaso: A question from the audience... Could insect protein be used to replace fully or partially the pea protein in formulated meat products?

Alejandro: From our perspective that we are more into wood ingredients and raw materials and all of that, that's something that we have been considering that we don't have to be fully just veggie or plant based or insect based. You can be a combination, just like any other product on the market. And sometimes there are combinations of the materials just to make it better, more accessible, just like preparing any type of recipe. Like when you're making brownies, you're not using just chocolate, right? So that's what we think up and we aren't kind of separating components out of these so that could be added to those separate formulations.

So to answer the short, yes, it can be done, but it has to be something that is easy to incorporate or buy the equipment tractors and other companies and is more about the how, then if. But yes, it is completely possible and would be an easier way or a lot of consumers to get on board.

Tommaso: I see the topic around insects driving more and more curiosity today. Again from (inaudible). Thanks for the question. Have you considered the allergy issue with insect protein in food so other GM foods are based on insects? 

Sarah: So that's a big education piece that we have to make consumers aware of that crickets may trigger a crustacean shellfish allergen. And that's something that a restaurant here in St. Louis that was featuring Mighty Cricket didn't realize and they were marking as you their shelf fish-free facility. So once they found that out, they had a poor product because it was an issue. That is one allergen that I think it is between 2 and 10% of the US population has. So the one thing that some of my consumers really appreciate about crickets is that it is dairy free, gluten free, soy free, peanut free. And so there are all these other allergens that may be triggered by some other non meat based foods that crickets can fill the niche of. 

So it's just finding the right market fit and most consumers are able to consume it. We definitely highlight that on our packaging because we don't want any consumer to have an allergic reaction from our product.

Inspiration resources

Tommaso: I have an inspirational question for our panelists, which is around innovation. To be more specific, why don't we share with our audience what kind of source of inspiration, a book, a podcast, people, companies, what inspires you? What is it that you follow that we would like to share with our audience so that they can also maybe learn from that specific source?

Maija: I think this is another answer that you may have expected but I will still say it. Because honestly, one of the things that actually useful means a lot is, surprise, surprise, negativity. When somebody is complaining about something, there's always something that is causing it. So when you hear somebody is negative about something, you see people are upset or they're disappointed, whatsoever. Of course, regarding, you know what, around the area that you're working at, you have to start digging deeper than what is actually causing that. And most of it you actually find something that "Aha! here's something that nobody was actually thinking about before." So don't just take the negativity, but just try to scratch, scratch, scratch, before you find out what was actually causing this.

Tommaso: I love it. That's basically a source of opportunity on an ongoing basis, right. Recognize negativity as an opportunity. Awesome. 

Alejandro: My grandma died almost two years and a half ago and she led me all the inspiration I needed in my life basically to chase the change that I wanted to see in the world. And also she advised me to look where usually people don't look, to the most humble people. And that's something I would have been doing, working with farmers and very humble people. And they have the best stories, the best motivation, the most experienced words, and the most wise words. So I think that at the end of the day, what inspires me and every time that I go on tour, and I learn more about these people and the incredible energy I get, is amazing.

Tommaso: And if you combine that inspiration and energy right that's when the purpose motivates you to fulfill for more and more purpose. 

Sarah: From a sweet serial standpoint, I found our global pandemic very inspiring to see all of the changes that have come as a result of it. And then from an energetic standpoint, there's this group that used to meet in person here in St. Louis. And they have groups in Tokyo and Australia, some other several other parts of the world, but it is called Venture Cafe. And now they hold them virtually, but you basically connect with innovators, thinkers, not necessarily entrepreneurs, but all sorts of different people who like to think differently. And every time I go there, I get that sense of inspiration and renewed sort of energy that I can tackle difficult challenges and think differently.

Tommaso: So surround yourself by people that think differently regardless if it's online or offline and also see every crisis as a challenge. And speaking of inspiration, I learned to craft over the last 20 years of me doing here and there, startups and investing in startups in collaborating with global corporations, to craft a quote. Which I call now a quote of mine because they're really crafted it on my own, but it took me and maturity time to mature this quote, which goes like this: "Never forget where you come from. It keeps you humble, but where you come from cannot limit you where you want to go."

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this Podcast as well as in its transcript are those of the participant guest speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Corpor8 or its partners and sponsors. In the same way, the participant speakers do not endorse any products, services, brands, practices, professionals or views other than what they specifically and directly expressed by verbalizing at the time the episode was recorded. In addition, transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio file (podcast) before ever quoting in print.





Marie Brueser, PhD linkedin-color

Thought For Food Community Manager


Josh Galt linkedin-color

Market development - insects as food, feed, upcycling, cosmetics


Sarah Schafly linkedin-color

Co-Founder and CEO of Mighty Cricket



Hector Jimenez linkedin-color

Co-Founder and CEO of Nutrinsectos

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