With backing from Hollywood, French startup Ÿnsect plans to bring edible insects to America

October 12, 2020, 2:54 PM UTC

With the pandemic changing age-old consumer habits, there might be one more taboo headed for extinction: Edible insects. After decades of squeamishness, we might finally be ready to allow creepy-crawlies into our food supply chain.

Bugs, it seems, are having a moment. Last week (just a day before a fly gained global fame during the Vice-Presidential debate) the French insect-farming startup Ÿnsect announced it had raised $372 million, hugely ramping up the niche industry, and accelerating the company’s plans for large-scale production in the U.S. The investments even had a touch of Hollywood stardom: Robert Downey Jr.’s eco-focused FootPrint Coalition invested $224 million in debt and equity into the startup.

“I dig it,” Downey said on the fund’s site, announcing his investment in the company with the inevitable insect pun. “Ÿnsect’s process produces no waste and complies with the U.N.’s sustainability goals.”

Indeed, the dire squeeze on the world’s land and oceans makes a strong case for farming insects. About 26% of the Earth’s arable land is used to graze animals, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, and at least one-third of all the crops grown are devoted to manufacturing animal feed, a $500-billion-a year industry, which relies on staples like soybeans and corn, which are far lower in protein than simple insects, and far more expensive to grow. The oceans fare no better: About 22 million tons of fish caught in the wild in 2018 were ground up for fish meal, rather than served to humans, according to FAO statistics.

Even so, it has taken years for Ÿnsect to win over the industry. “Three years ago, we were more pushing and advocating our technology,” says CEO and cofounder Antoine Hubert, who launched the company in 2011. The shift appeared to begin with the pandemic, as the world languished through months of lockdown, sending global supply chains into disarray. “In the past few months, more companies are coming to us,” Hubert says. “Agricultural companies want to aggregate their waste.”

High in protein

The contrast with Big Ag could hardly be starker. Ÿnsect breeds the larvae of the Tenebrio Molitor beetle inside a vertical factory, which Hubert opened in 2016, in a modest-sized industrial building in Dole, a town in eastern France near the Swiss border. When Fortune visited the factory in 2018, we watched conveyor belts with trays containing millions of squirming mealworms, all fed with agricultural waste collected from the area’s farms. From that, Ÿnsect produces high-protein pet food and livestock feed—all without using a single acre of land or hauling fish from the ocean. Ÿnsect believes it will take time for we humans (at least in Western countries) to feel comfortable eating insects themselves. But until we do, bugs are likely to become a growing, key part of the meat, chicken and fish we eat.

Antoine Hubert, cofounder and CEO of Ynsect, in 2018 with a handful of mealworm beetle larvae, fresh off the production line.
Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie

Hubert says Ÿnsect has signed about $105 million worth of contracts with feed and fertilizer companies. He claims the company has raised a total of about $425 million in investments, more than the funding of all his insect-farming startup competitors combined, including Canada’s Enterra. But big money is flowing in from established players as well. In January, NYSE-listed Darling Ingredients acquired a 100% stake in the Ohio-based EnviroFlight. They’re all eyeing a big market for high-protein insect-based feed—and, eventually, food-—products.

For this latest round, Ÿnsect’s lead investor was Asatnor Ventures in Belgium. There have also been investments from French banks, the deeptech fund Supernova in France, the Armat Group in Luxembourg, plus Hong Kong’s Happiness Capital.

For Hubert, an agricultural scientist, the success has been a long time coming. He spent years researching insects as a source of protein. Back in the late 2000s, he began showing school children how to raise worm farms in boxes, by feeding them organic waste like banana peels. Realizing he could do the same on a large scale, he found a farmer who was breeding insects for fish bait, and recruited him to help launch Ÿnsect.

Hubert is now building a far bigger factory, which is set to open a year from now in French President Emmanuel Macron’s hometown of Amiens. The company is also scouting for a location to open a U.S. plant, perhaps as soon as 2022. Hubert says it is likely to be a joint venture with a Big Ag company, several of which are already in private discussions with Ÿnsect. “It will be easier for us to rely on them for permitting, subcontracting for building, and so on,” Hubert says. 

Hubert says he plans to start selling insect-based pet food in the U.S. before next summer, after completing trials with the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In fact, insect-farming faces complicated regulatory hurdles in both the European Union and the U.S. In Europe, farmed insects fall under the same regulations as other farm animals, and it has taken Hubert years to be cleared for selling his fish-meal products. Next will come poultry and livestock, and finally humans; he expects to have E.U. clearance for human consumption some time next year. In the U.S. too, he has spent nearly two years working to get permission to sell pet food, which he believes is close.

“Just the beginning”

That is just the start. As shareholders press agricultural companies to cut their carbon emissions, several have begun considering how to recycle the mammoth amounts of byproducts and waste generated by large-scale production. “There is a lot more consciousness among investors about Earth issues,” says food entrepreneur Nicolas Bernadi in San Francisco, who sits on Ÿnsect’s board. “I am convinced this is just the beginning,” 

Bernadi says he foresees huge growth in the U.S., where the market is wide open. As the agricultural industry begins focusing on insects, there will likely be plenty of competitors, but Ÿnsect’s head start gives it a marked advantage. “The learning curve is long,” Bernadi says. “You are talking about farming species that no one really knows.” What is more, he says, Ÿnsect’s appeal could grow as companies focus more on sustainability. “Investors will want to put their money where there is a good effect on the planet,” he says.

That good effect seems indisputable, according to the data.

Right now, the world is able to feed itself. But to keep pace with population growth, agriculture will need to shift drastically, and quickly, especially as floods and wildfires are destroying crops with greater frequency. The FAO’s prediction is grim. “There is enough cropland to feed 9 billion in 2050 if the 40% of all crops produced today for feeding animals were used directly for human consumption,” it says. “This is crucial in the context of climate change.” 

With available land squeezed, there might soon be no better way to feed all the world’s farm animals, than farming insects in huge quantities–all indoors. That is something movie stars can dig.

April 7, 2020: This article has been updated to include the names of Ÿnsect’s non-U.S. investors.