Insectta, a Singapore startup, is utilizing bugs to show trash into treasure

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But she is no ordinary farmer and these are no ordinary animals.

Chua and her partner Phua Jun Wei founded the startup Insectta in 2017. You are fighting Singapore’s food waste crisis with the help of an unusual ally: the black soldier fly larva.

“The concept behind Insectta is that nothing is wasted,” said Chua. “Waste can be rethought as a resource if we change the way we think about our production methods and how we deal with waste.”

In 2020, Singapore generated 665,000 tons of food waste – only 19% of which was recycled.

Chua said the company was feeding black soldiers’ fly maggots up to eight tons of food waste per month, including by-products from soybean factories and breweries such as okara and spent grains.

Insectta can then instantly dry the maggots into animal feed and convert the insects’ excrement into agricultural fertilizer.

While there are many companies that use insects for waste disposal, including Goterra, Better Origin, and AgriProtein, Insectta extracts more than agricultural products from black soldier flies. With funds from the Trendlines Agrifood Fund and government grants, Insectta procures high-quality biomaterials from the by-products of these larvae.

“During research and development, we found that there are many valuable biomaterials that can be extracted from these flies that already have market value,” Chua told CNN Business. The startup hopes its biomaterials can revolutionize the growing insect-based product industry and change the way we look at waste.

The larvae can eat up to four times their body weight on leftovers every day.

Pests for biomaterials

As the maggots grow into adults, they form a cocoon that emerges as an adult fly about 10 to 14 days later. Insectta has developed a proprietary technology to extract biomaterials from the exoskeleton that they leave behind.

This startup creates

One of these biomaterials is chitosan, an antimicrobial substance with antioxidant properties that is sometimes used in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. Ultimately, Insectta wants to produce 500 kilograms of chitosan per day and is now working with the Singapore-based Spa Esprit Group to use their chitosan in their moisturizers.

Insectta is also working with face mask brand Vi-Mask, which is hoping to use black soldier fly chitosan to create an antimicrobial layer in their products.

Vi-Mask currently uses chitosan made from crab shells in the lining of its face masks. The company says switching to insect-based chitosan is a greener move as the Insectta chitosan is sourced more sustainably.

A more sustainable source

According to Thomas Hahn, researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB in Germany, cancer shells are currently one of the main sources of chitosan.

Hahn studied insect-based chitosan production with the chemical engineer and biologist Susanne Zibek. According to Zibek, chitosan could replace synthetic thickeners and preservatives in cosmetics. The first products made with Insectta chitosan are currently in development.  According to Chua, the startup is now looking for further collaborations in the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industry.Chitosan extraction from shellfish requires chemical processes and large amounts of water. Chua said Insectta’s extraction techniques involve fewer chemicals, such as sodium hydroxide, than traditional extraction methods, making it a more sustainable alternative.

Zibek said the insect biomaterials market will grow as companies try to reduce their environmental footprint.

“Consumer awareness is changing and people want sustainable products,” she added. “We can support this by replacing synthetic products with chitosan.”

Overcoming the “gross factor”

To expand the market for its black soldier fly materials, Insectta needs to tackle the stigma against insects.

“When people think of maggots, the first thing they think about is that it is gross and harmful to people,” Chua said. “By putting benefit first, we can change people’s ‘gross factor’.”

Chua says black soldier flies don't bite and grow very quickly, which makes the insects ideal for urban farming.There is an ongoing scientific debate about insect awareness. But Phua said raising black soldier flies is more humane and sustainable than raising farm animals because insects require less water, energy and space to grow.

However, instead of running its own farms, Insectta plans to sell eggs to local black soldier fly farms and collect the exoskeletons produced by those farms in order to then extract the biomaterial.

“We don’t just want insects to feed the world,” added Phua, “we want insects to power the world.”