Remember when eating bugs still had some shock value? "We've come a long way in just the past three years, now everybody has heard about the topic of eating insects," says Katharina Unger, the founder of Hong Kong-based startup Livin Farms.
From cricket power bars in the U.S. to microalgae-based biscuits in Japan, the edible-insect movement certainly appears to be gaining traction. There's even a World Edible Insect Day.
As a result, Unger thinks now is the time to bring the world's first desktop Hive for edible insects to market. Her aim is to enable consumers to grow healthy and sustainable food from a small space in their homes.
In recent years, a growing number of experts have been extolling the benefits of entomophagy–the term for dining on insects. And this 'entopreneur' and her partner, Julia Kaisinger, have piles of data to support their case.
"We're pumping 80% of the world's antibiotics into livestock production, and about one-third of our croplands are being used to feed those animals," Unger said. "That was a really a devastating discovery."
Moreover, edible insects are already a multi-million dollar sector in nearby Thailand, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Two years ago, the agency published a report on the country's bug-eating industry, concluding that "insects are extremely rich in protein, vitamins and minerals."
In fact, the "food of choice" for many Thai people can often cost more than chicken, beef or pork due to the high demand from consumers there.
The FAO also points out that "insects consumed as human food have far less negative impact on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, than conventional livestock."
Across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, people have been known to eat over 1,900 species of bugs, but one of the main concerns is that they usually harvest them from the wild. There's no way of knowing where the insects have been and what they've consumed.
Unger's design allows consumers to use their own vegetable scraps to grow up to 500 grams of mealworms each week. It relies on a system of sensors and heat to regulate the insects' growth.
With another 49 days to go, Livin Farms is already well over halfway to reaching their goal of $100,000 in funding through a Kickstarter campaign. They expect to begin deliveries in November of next year.
Unger has been developing her Hive as part of the HAX accelerator for hardware startups in Shenzhen. HAX is owned by the $250 million venture capital firm SOSV that was founded by Sean O'Sullivan, who is probably best known for developing street address maps for PCs and for coining the term "cloud computing."
HAX General Partner Benjamin Joffe calls Shenzhen the Silicon Valley for hardware. By developing their prototypes in China's manufacturing hub, Livin Farms and the other 29 startups selected by HAX this year have been able to drastically reduce their development time and costs.
"Surrounded by all the mentors, there was a wide array of expertise flowing into our project." Unger said. "They're really visionary."
And her partner Kaisinger pointed to another benefit in terms of exploring a potential market on their doorstep. "Chinese people have been eating bugs for years! It's already one of the top places in the world for growing insects."