As a student at Brown University, Gabi Lewis was the kind of health nut who made his own protein bars from scratch. His roommate, Greg Sewitz, got interested in entomophagy—eating insects, if you didn’t go to Brown—and on a lark, the pair tossed 2,000 dried crickets in a Vitamix with some dried fruit and raw cacao. They handed out their creations after parties and sold them at the campus farmers market. “We were doing it for our drunken friends,” Lewis says.
People liked the bars, and when Lewis, 23, and Sewitz, 22, graduated last May, they started researching what it would take to ramp up production. They raised $55,000 on Kickstarter for their company, Exo, and worked with cricket farms, which traditionally cater to pet stores and bait shops, to raise insects for human consumption. They found a manufacturer to do the cooking and packing, and improbably, persuaded a former head of research at the Fat Duck, a U.K. restaurant with three stars from Michelin, to help improve their recipes. (The chef, Kyle Connaughton, now owns a stake in the company.) They plan to sell the bars for $2.99.
It all sounds like a parody of the millennial generation: Two recent college grads follow an interest in sustainable cuisine and launch a startup around the idea of eating insects. Lewis and Sewitz are serious enough to have attracted investors. Tomorrow, they’ll begin residence at AccelFoods, a New York accelerator for food startups that invested in Exo, where they’ll work on building a market for protein bars made with cricket powder. The accelerator invests between $18,000 and $50,000 in its companies and declined to say how much it invested in Exo.
“We’re looking at this as a six-month MBA,” says Sewitz. “The mechanics of operating a food company, how you distribute products, when’s the best time to go national—that’s the stuff we’re excited to get.”
Humans have probably always eaten insects, says Lewis, who hails from Glasgow, Scotland. The bible blesses the consumption of crickets, he says (Leviticus: “yet these may you eat of every flying creeping thing that goes on all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap with on the earth”). More recently, high-end chefs and nutrition enthusiasts have become interested in eating creepers and crawlers, giving rise to a small cohort of bugtrepreneurs.
It takes about 35 crickets to make enough flour for one Exo bar, though you can’t taste the insects. Lewis and Sewitz are hoping that the novelty of eating crickets will help Exo stand out in a crowded category. Most protein bars are either glorified candy or taste bad, Lewis says. Exo’s selling proposition is that its 65-gram bars contain 12 grams of protein and follow the recipe of a renowned chef.
If the bars take off, Lewis and Sewitz would like to expand into other verticals. At scale, crickets are a cheaper source of protein than cattle, they say, and far more sustainable. Says Sewitz: “One of the moonshot ideas we have is to use all the poop the crickets produce, which is a lot, to fertilize plants and then feed the plants back to them.”
For now, Exo’s crickets feed on organic grain. The company recently ordered about 60,000 protein bars—about a third of which is going to Kickstarter backers—and plans to aim early marketing efforts at members of CrossFit gyms. Exo’s unusual ingredient should make it popular with another nascent trend: the growing number of Americans who seek to mimic eating (and sleeping) habits of Paleolithic humans. “Crickets are about as paleo as a food source can get,” Lewis says.