How These Men Might Solve Hunger Using Fruit Flies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because that annoying infestation of fruit flies could help end world hunger.
By Merav Savir
It looks like rice. If Eran Gronich weren’t telling me otherwise, I’d be inclined to boil it up and serve it as a side dish. Only it’s not rice, it’s larvae — “the immature, wingless and often vermiform feeding form that hatches from the egg of an insect,” according to Merriam-Webster. Hungry yet? Well, if Gronich, co-founder of Flying SpArk, a company billing itself as “the future of food,” succeeds in his mission, what I’m looking at will be the base for a protein powder used in any number of food products feeding an undernourished world.
Gronich, 44, says he became “fascinated” with insect protein consumption while searching for a new startup concept (he sold his first company, StarShow, in 2013). Knowing he’d need to partner with a scientific mind, he contacted Yoram Yerushalmi, 51, an entomologist who specializes in insect physiology. Only Yerushalmi wasn’t fully on board: “At first I just rejected the whole thing. I didn’t think it would get anywhere,” he says. “And I still am very realistic [and] understand that it will take a long time, if at all.”
The concept is hardly revolutionary — Gronich tells OZY there are about 150 companies working with insects — but Flying SpArk is the first to use common fruit flies. Yerushalmi turned to them because he says they are “the most resilient” of any insect and have a short life cycle, meaning you can farm them faster.
To get their supply, Flying SpArk partnered with a factory in northern Israel that provided weekly shipments of fruit fly eggs. To make the powder, the team places the eggs on trays on top of fruit, which they feed on. After a day the eggs hatch into larvae, and five days later the larvae “purge their guts,” according to Yerushalmi, ridding themselves of waste from their food. Then the larvae crawl out of the fruit and jump from the trays to a water tank below (they can stay dormant in the water for up to 24 hours without physiological damage). To process the larvae, they get boiled, milled and put in a centrifuge to separate the liquid parts from the solids (the trick to removing any odor). The solids are then dried in an oven and milled again to create the protein powder.
There are many hurdles ahead, starting with what Gronich calls the “yuck factor.”
According to Gronich, the protein from the larvae is rich in calcium, iron and magnesium, making it more healthful than proteins derived from other insects. What’s more, their product has no additives or cholesterol, and they don’t generate greenhouse gas pollution because they don’t release any methane gas. They say they use less than 1 percent of the water and land that traditional farming practices consume and 100 percent of the larvae is used (even the liquids can be used for oil).
Gronich, who was born in a Tel Aviv suburb and studied marketing and finance, launched a series of startups, most tech-focused, but aside from StarShow and Flying SpArk, none survived. He’d never considered food tech until Flying SpArk started to take shape. And in 2015, when Yerushalmi came on board, the pair was working out of his kitchen. Soon, though, the company moved to the Kitchen FoodTech Hub, an Israeli incubator run by the Strauss Group, giving their five-member team access to greater resources and industry connections.
This past summer, Flying SpArk was one of 10 companies selected for the IKEA Bootcamp, a three-month program run by the Swedish furniture giant supporting startups trying to make a positive impact on the planet and society. Yerushalmi and Gronich recently passed the first phase: proving their product is sustainable and has nutritional value. Next they will work with IKEA to design products using their protein.
They know there are many hurdles ahead, starting with what Gronich calls the “yuck factor” — the not-surprising response to an insect-based dish. But the fact that their protein powder is completely odorless is an advantage, and Gronich says they anticipate any negative perception will come from the food industry more than consumers. People sampling a pasta product made from their powder, for instance, “won’t feel that [they] are eating fruit fly protein.”
While finishing the Bootcamp, they’re also focused on building a factory in Ashdod, Israel, with the capacity to produce 100 tons of protein powder a year (their current yield is several kilos a day). The project will cost $3.5 million, and they are talking to potential investors — if all goes according to plan, construction will be finished next fall.
Their end goal, however, is much bigger. Gronich aims to produce 10,000 tons of powder a year by 2028 and dreams of building factories around the world — “small production facilities that can be sustainable for a village in Africa as well as a huge factory in Canada.” Admittedly the dream is distant, and one that Yerushalmi says will be difficult and costly to achieve. He believes the protein powder isn’t enough to support a business and says they will need to expand to other larvae-based products. But even if it takes years to refine their offering, raise money, purchase equipment and hire staff, they are convinced Flying SpArk can help combat a looming food crisis.
Ask Anne Poulsen, of the World Food Programme, and she’ll say the crisis isn’t looming — it’s already here. “The number of people who are chronically undernourished in the world has increased,” she tells OZY. “There are 815 million who are undernourished in the world; that is up from 777 million in 2015.” It’s the first time in a decade that the figure has risen, and Poulsen points to the spread of conflicts as the primary reason for the upward tick.
To meet its target date of 2030 for eradicating world hunger, WFP will study companies like Flying SpArk. “We are always looking for … innovation and innovative solutions to these challenges,” says Poulsen, “because business as usual is not an option.”
Food for thought the next time you notice your fruit bowl has attracted some uninvited guests.
- Merav Savir, OZY Author Contact Merav Savir