Harnessing the power of insects
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
There’s more to the black soldier fly than meets the eye.
At only 16-millimetres long, adults have no mouths, their only purpose is to reproduce. But as the saying goes: it’s what’s on the inside that matters most.
Just ask Jon Duschinsky, CEO and co-founder of Oreka Solutions, who says black soldier fly larvae is a superfood in disguise, packed full of lauric acid and anti-microbial peptides which, when used as a feed additive for animals, encourages a rich gut microbiome and a healthier animal down the line.
Started in 2015 by four founders, Oreka breeds, grows, harvests, and processes black soldier flies under one roof at its Cambridge facility.
Inside, eggs from breeding rooms spend seven days quadrupling in size in a stew of vegetarian food stock, until being transferred to a growing room for 21 days to voraciously feed on a cocktail of vegetarian food stock (with vegetables sourced from Di Pietro’s), brewers grain, yeast and a “secret sauce,” before being harvested for processing.
Some larva are allowed to pupate, becoming the next parents. The rest move onto the final stage to be ground up as an additive for animal feed.
But it doesn’t end there. The dried exoskeletons of dead adult black soldier flies are used in the biomedical field. And bug “pee” and “poo” is collected and used as an organic fertilizer.
Oreka’s feed additive, which Duschinksy says promotes growth, strength and allows for less antibiotic use, is mainly used by a growing aquaculture industry challenged by high mortality rates in farmed fish, but trials are also being run with poultry, swine and animals with plant-based diets.
Oreka’s beginning was largely happenstance.
It was 2014, and Duschinksy was speaking at a conference in Australia on “purpose-driven business,” the backbone of Oreka today. Another speaker, Jason Drew, of Agroprotein, spoke about black soldier flies. Like most, Duschinksy had never heard of the insect before.
He was attracted to using food waste — the major component of the fly larva’s diet — to do something that would support more balance on the planet.
“Human beings have spent the last hundred-thousand years spending billions, trillions of dollars trying to kill insects,” Duschinksy said, going on to say, “If we put insects back into the food chain, we’re going to deal with a lot of the problems we’ve created for ourselves in the last 50 years.”
He brought the idea home, and though it sounded far-fetched even to him, uncharted territory isn’t something new for Duschinksy, it’s actually kind of his thing.
When Duschinksy’s first question was, “But can I even breed one?” he needed a team with expertise in biology and engineering to get an answer. As luck would have it — and Duschinksy emphasizes it was luck — he happened to know just the people.
Bob Walberg (“the bug whisperer”) knew how to think like an insect, says Duschinksy, and Shahram Heidari, became the brains behind engineering the operation. Another early founder is no longer in the picture.
Four years later, Duschinksy has developed a massive respect for the fly.
“I sort of have this weird bond with the insects,” he said.
It proves true as he walked around a newly built breeding room, bathed in pink light, he seemed to coo at the insects.
The breeding room is really where it all begins. Duschinksy’s youngest daughter hand-picked the first group of larva that would go on to pupate and form today’s massive colony.
“It’s the Barry White for bugs,” he said of the room, “The wine is on the table, the candles are there, the music is playing softly in the background.”
While he jokes “Barry White” for bugs isn’t quite the same for humans, the fly’s environment is optimized to encourage mating, right up to the humidity level and frequency spectrum of light.
In the last year alone, Oreka has grown to 12 staff and has trials ongoing throughout North America, with an eye on Asia. Earlier this year, the company secured $1.5-million from investors and an additional $1.5-million is in the works.
With no end in sight, Duschinksy wants to have a database pinpointing exactly what an insect’s genome is, what it has eaten, and how well it grew; the goal being to license out their model, replicating what’s happening here.
“It takes one hell of a village to build a new industry,” Duschinksy said, but he sees no reason why it wouldn’t grow. The feedback and interest has been exciting.
“I think today we’re in a space where we have a duty and a responsibility not to [mess] it up,” Duschinksy said. “If we can get this right, we could grow 20 to 30 per cent more food in this country without doing anything.”