Hi Kai Ning, could you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Hi, I am the co-founder of Insectta, the first urban insect farm and biotech company in Singapore upcycling food waste into animal feed and biomaterials using the black soldier fly (BSF).
The BSF larvae feeds on food waste and is widely used in turning food waste into animal feed. However, animal feed has a lower economical value and this limits the industry growth. We aim to develop technology in extracting high-value biomaterials such as melanin, probiotics, chitosan and other high value supplements for the animal feed industry from BSF. As such, I believe we would be able to unlock the business potential and help this industry to grow!
What sparked your interest in starting your own business and to be involved in the food waste management industry?
I would say it is a combination of my upbringing, luck, as well as hard work in exploring different opportunities. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, I am instilled with the courage of charting my own path. Also, there is always a practice of reducing and upcycling waste in my family from my grandfather who worked as a Karang Guni man.
Apart from my upbringing, it is also my interest in sustainability as well as my hobby in gardening which eventually led me to discover BSF. I am driven to introduce this industry to Singapore which aligns with the ‘30 by 30’ goal set by the Singapore Food Agency to produce 30% of our nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030.
Are there any challenges faced while you started this journey?
I would say the biggest challenge was to shift the public mindsets into accepting the products derived from insects as we are typically disgusted by their presence. Also, there was no legislation in place and we had to work with the then Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore to create a legal framework from scratch. It took us eight months just to build the farm!
How Insectta is helping to reduce food waste in Singapore?
Insectta collects pre-consumer food waste from the food manufacturers. This includes okara and spent grains from the beer making process which are unavoidable in the manufacturing process. As our biomaterials are for pharmaceutical and cosmetic use, it is important that all the food waste is traceable to ensure our products are safe to use. Recognizing the importance of increasing awareness towards this industry, we also organize workshops and farm tours at our urban farm located at Jalan Penjara. I am very proud that Insectta has helped the Singapore communities to better understand BSF within these three years.
We understand Insectta has a proprietary technology that extracts biomaterials from BSF. Would you like to tell us more about these exciting biomaterials and what can they be used for?
Our journey in exploring biomaterials extraction from BSF started a year ago. We currently have a team of 5 working in the lab led by our co-founder Jun Wei.
Chitosan, a compound refined from chitin, is used in cosmetics, bandages, supplements, and disinfectants. The main source of chitosan is shellfish but the extraction method is very polluting. On the other hand, sourcing from BSF is environmentally friendly while the chitosan extracted has a similar performance to those derived using the traditional method.
Melanin is used as an organic semiconductor in healthcare research and it has shown promising results. The use of melanin is expected to grow in the future but the downside is its high cost of production. We are working to solve this problem and our patent technology is able to extract Melanin in a more efficient way.
Any advice you can give to aspiring eco-entrepreneurs?
My advice is to know where your strength lies and what your limitations are. Graduating with a degree in English Linguistics, I am very happy to see more young people without a STEM background joining this industry. We should recognise that the soft skills learnt can be applicable in many areas. Finally, follow your passion. You will face many failures throughout the journey and it is important to keep yourself upbeat!