Insects are often seen as pests, but many species can provide new sources of food, materials, and even ways to clean up plastic waste. Here are 10 companies in this space that we think are worth watching.
Many people think of insects simply as pests that eat crops and carry diseases such as malaria. While this is true in some cases, insects have also been an inspiration to scientists for many years. Biotechs and researchers are now applying this knowledge to create new and sustainable food sources for both humans and animals, as well as fertilizers to grow other foods.
The unique biology and chemistry found in insects has inspired the creation of packaging materials, bioplastics, glue, and other biomaterials. Some scientists have even found moth larvae that eat plastic and other, more early-stage research, is looking at ways to repurpose spider venom to treat pain or create insecticides for use on plants.
The number of biotech companies working in the insect or ‘yellow’ biotechnology space is constantly increasing. Here are 10 firms we think are worth paying attention to.
Headquarters: Madrid, Spain
Madrid-based Algenex uses insects and insect cells to produce proteins needed to develop drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics. José Escribano founded the company in 2005 and is now CSO.
The company has two main products: CrisBio and TopBac. The former, validated by the EMA last year, uses chrysalises of the cabbage looper moth Trichoplusia ni as living bioreactors to produce medicinal proteins. Living insects can regulate their own temperature and oxygen levels, making them easier than cells to manufacture at scale. The insects are infected with a modified virus, harmless to humans, known as a baculovirus. Prior to infection, the virus is genetically engineered to ensure production of the desired protein. The chrysalises can then produce enough protein to extract in less than a week.
The other product, TopBac, is a DNA sequence that contains instructions necessary to express certain genes in cells. It can be used to improve both the productivity and quality of the proteins produced by the insect cells.
The company has already produced more than 200 types of medicinal proteins used for human and animal diagnostics and therapeutics. Funded by Columbus Venture Partners, Chamberí Ventures, and Vita Advisory, the company raised a €8.75M Series B round in 2020 and a €4M Series A financing in 2019.
Headquarters: Paris, France
Ÿnsect was founded in 2011 in Paris by a group of scientists and environmental activists. The company uses insects to produce high-protein products for animal and fish food, as well as the fertilizer industry, in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
The company has created technology that allows vertical production of the yellow mealworm beetle Tenebrio molitor. In 2019, Ÿnsect raised €110M in Series C funding — the largest-ever amount for agriculture technology outside of the USA — to fund the construction of the world’s largest automated insect farm. This was extended to €343M in 2020, bringing its total funding to approximately €391M. Last year, the company acquired Dutch mealworm breeding company Protifarm to expand its reach across Europe.
In January 2021, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that mealworms are safe for human consumption, a positive development for Ÿnsect’s mission to enter the human food market.
Last month, Ÿnsect announced the launch of Ÿnfabre, an industrial program dedicated to the genetics of these insects. The initiative is designed to bring expertise from different fields together to develop improved phenotyping and genotyping tools, as well as more efficient industrial processes.
Headquarters: Abingdon, UK
A spin-off from the University of Oxford founded in 2002, Oxitec genetically engineers mosquitoes with a self-limiting gene to help control diseases such as malaria and dengue. By introducing a gene that kills the female offspring of mosquitoes, the company has claimed massive success in reducing local populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes in locations including Brazil, India, and Panama.
Since its founding, Oxitec has diversified and is applying similar technology to pest insects that attack crops such as the diamondback moth, a massive problem for vegetable farmers, and others such as the soybean looper and the fall armyworm. According to the company, the advantage of this technology is that, unlike chemical insecticides, it does not kill harmless insects like bees and other pollinators.
Oxitec was acquired by US-based Intrexon Corporation in 2015, acting as a separate subsidiary. In 2020, Intrexon sold off Oxitec and other non-healthcare assets to another US company, Third Security.
Headquarters: Dongen, The Netherlands
Protix was founded by Kees Aarts and Tarique Arsiwalla in 2009. The company uses a combination of high-tech control systems, artificial intelligence, breeding programs, and robotics to produce lipids, proteins, and purée from larvae of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens). It also plans to expand to crickets, locusts, and mealworms in the future.
The company opened its first industrial-scale factory in 2019 in Bergen op Zoom and has a number of different animal food products on the market used to make nutritious food for pets, chickens, and fish. The firm also produces a fertilizer from the byproducts of its industrial process.
Protix started a collaboration with the animal breeding specialist Hendrix Genetics in 2018 and recently announced that they have successfully bred black soldier flies with bigger larvae that will increase yield in their insect farms.
Last month, Protix attracted a €50M investment from BNP Paribas, Monaco Asset Management, and the Luxembourg-based European Circular Bioeconomy Fund. The company has now accrued over €120M in total funding and plans to expand internationally.
Headquarters: Salamanca, Spain
Tebrio, previously known as MealFood Europe, was founded by Adriana Casillas and Sabas de Diego in 2014. Similar to Ÿnsect, Tebrio focuses on transforming the T. molitor mealworm beetle into different ingredients for a wide variety of uses.
Tebrio has three main product streams: sustainable fish, pet, and animal feed; biofertilizer for plants that also acts as an insect repellant; and chitosan extracted from the insects to make biodegradable plastic that can dissolve in water. Chitosan has many other uses; for example, it can be used for water treatment, as a base for coagulants, or for medical uses as an antibacterial component of dressings and bandages.
In 2020, the company closed a Series A funding round co-led by Caixa Capital Risc and the Spanish Centre for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI). While the total amount of the round was undisclosed, Tebrio announced the cash would allow the firm to develop a €50M insect breeding project.
Headquarters: Karmei Yosef, Israel
Smart Resilin is an Israeli biotech, set up in 2017, that is harnessing the power of resilin in its products. Resilin is a rubber-like protein found in the outer skin of most insects that helps them jump large distances and fly by allowing their wings to beat.
The company was spun out of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by a team including materials scientist and serial entrepreneur Professor Oded Shoseyov, now CSO of the company. The researchers behind the company succeeded in identifying the genetics of resilin production and engineered bacteria to produce the protein.
Experiments have shown that resilin can be very useful in industry. For example, as an addition to glue, resilin improves elasticity and fatigue resistance. The company also plans to use it for other applications such as manufacturing training shoes. Resilin is also biodegradable, sustainable, and compostable, making it attractive for consumers.
Headquarters: Meath, Ireland
Hexafly is another company on the list that focuses on the black soldier fly (H. illucens). The company feeds its insects waste materials from breweries so the farm is totally waste-free. Founded by Alvan Hunt and John Lynam, Hexafly is based in Meath, Ireland and runs the country’s only vertical insect farm.
The company makes animal and fish food with their products from proteins and oils extracted from the flies, as well as dried grubs. The team also makes ‘frass’, a natural fertilizer for plants that can double up as a pesticide, for example, by reducing the impact of aphids.
The company received €2.2M seed funding in 2018 and has since then set up a pilot plant and received €3M in Series A funding.
Headquarters: Jarfalla, Sweden
Norbite, was founded in 2020 by Nathalie Berezina, previously Ÿnsect CTO/CSO. The firm was founded based on observations of the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella) that showed caterpillars of this species are capable of eating plastic.
While the initial observations of the plastic-munching caterpillars occurred accidentally, they have now been confirmed. Greater wax moth larvae can consume around 80% of plastics including polyethylene and polystyrene, which have a similar chemical formulation to the wax they normally consume.
While it is still early days for Norbite, the company hopes to build a plant capable of processing 30,000 tons of plastic within five years. Many industrial biotechs find scaling up a challenge and Norbite will need to overcome major technical and economic obstacles to breed these insects on a wide scale and make its plastic degradation proposal an affordable reality.
Headquarters: Kongens Lyngby, Denmark
BioPhero was founded in 2016 by Irina Borodina as a biotechnology spin-out from the Technical University of Denmark. The company uses yeast fermentation technology to produce sustainable and safe insecticide replacements with the same makeup as insect pheromones. Applying pheromones to crops can mask the pheromones that female insects use to attract males, stopping them from mating.
The company currently targets four main pests with its pheromones, the cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), the diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella), rice stem borers (Chilo suppressalis and Scirpophaga incertulas), and the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda).
In March last year, BioPhero announced a €15.6M Series A funding round led by DCVC Bio with participation from FMC Ventures, as well as existing investors Syngenta Group Ventures and Novo Holdings.
Headquarters: Limburg, The Netherlands
Sibö was named after a Costa Rican deity who taught people to work together with nature. It is still at the seed funding stage and was founded last year in the Netherlands by Costa Ricans Daniela Arias and Alejandro Ortega.
Sibö is focused on the development and supply of insect-based food ingredients and water-soluble proteins from crickets and yellow mealworms.
The company will carry out technological processing of the insects in the Netherlands at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Limburg. The insect farming itself will take place in Costa Rica to ensure a fair deal for farmers in the developing country.
Sibö’s technology, named Entowise, allows fine separation of nutritional components such as protein, fats, and cytosine from powdered insects. The technology is precise enough that it could be used to extract vitamins such as B12 from insects.
Cover image via Elena Resko