Bright Idea: Working for Chicken Feed

Are insect larvae the saviors of meat production?

Left to forage for themselves, chickens and fish will feast on bugs, not on the standard agricultural standbys of grain, soybean meal and fish meal.

If the people who dine on chicken and fish want what they consume to be healthful, then, wouldn’t they prefer that the food their dinner was raised on also be more wholesome?

That question encapsulates the idea behind Beta Hatch, a two-year-old startup intent upon “building better bugs” as organic, high-protein animal feed. Beta Hatch is the creation of Virginia Emery, an entomologist who first saw bugs as a source of direct-to-human nourishment. But sensing tepid consumer acceptance of insects on the dinner plate, she shifted to bugs — specifically, Tenebrio molitor, or mealworms, the larval stage of darkling beetles — as feed for chickens and fish.

Beta Hatch operates a farm inside a 7,000-square-foot space in SeaTac, where mealworms enjoy an organic diet sourced from local farmers and suppliers.

Counting Emery, Beta Hatch has five full-time employees and a couple of part-timers. Research grants, angel investment and community-sourced capital provided $1 million in financing last year. Most of the bug production goes into breeding more bugs, although Beta Hatch does have one commercial product available: mealworm manure, otherwise known as frass, an organic fertilizer. Beta Hatch sells it on; Emery is pursuing other retail outlets.                     

The company’s focus involves getting insects, which are already efficient at converting their own food to protein, to grow faster, and scaling up production to commercial levels at a cost that’s within the range of commodity feeds.

Emery’s near-term goal: a 50,000- to 70,000-square-foot warehouse turning out a ton of mealworms a day. “There’s incredible demand,” she says, “but capacity is limited.”

A longer-range goal has Beta Hatch developing a market for insect exoskeletons as a feedstock for bioplastics and pharmaceuticals. 

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Longtime friends Kate Isler and Susan Gates encourage consumers to shop with purpose