IN JULY 2020, Sean Tan founded Insect Feed Technologies (IFT) and kickstarted operations in a pilot research centre at CleanTech Park in Jurong, Singapore, to carry out its first research and development (R&D) project, optimising the production cycle of insects.
As Tan discovered how insects played an important role in the natural food production system, he and his team started to develop and pioneer the technology to rear and breed the Black Soldier Fly (BSF), for animal and plant nutrition.
In doing so, IFT created a new alternative to fishmeal, vegetable oils and chemical fertilisers used in fish horticulture, animal feed and farming, respectively.
Speaking to The Malaysian Reserve (TMR), the IFT CEO shared his journey in the “buzzing” industry and how IFT is contributing to a sustainable food ecosystem.
Since its inception, the company has diverted more than 40 tonnes of food waste from landfills to feed the BSFs, thus contributing positively against food wastage.
Wishing to do something meaningful and give back to the community, Tan said his team addressed the issue of food waste by incorporating it as feed for the BSF larvae (BSFL).
“Through an in-house proprietary treatment, the team translates BSFL into a sustainable and healthier alternative for animal feed, and replaces chemical fertilisers for plants,” he explained.
The BSFs are black with a shiny outer coat appearance and they have a short lifespan, typically remain only for a few days as an adult.
The flies are also positively associated as they are not considered pests and do not bite or carry diseases. Plus, they feed on a variety of organic matter, ranging from fruit to vegetables.
Comparatively, houseflies are grey and dull in appearance and they are renowned for their unsanitary habits, spreading diseases such as E. coli and salmonella because they commonly feed on decaying matter or faeces.
Tan further shared that traditionally, farmers rely on chemical fertilisers for their plant growth, but they do not realise the toxic effects in the long run.
“Our insect-based organic frass fertiliser is a much safer and holistic alternative, while providing the essential nutrients, targeting both soil regeneration and plant development.
“Our BSFL replace unsustainable and inorganic manufactured feed in the food ecosystem, and act as a source of high energy,” he explained.
According to Tan, Malaysia has a persistent issue of growth stunt, where one in every five children is believed to be inflicted with this condition, linked to malnutrition, especially in rural areas.
“By using our BSFL as protein feed for their animals, like chicken or aquaculture, this protein-rich feed makes them a valuable source of nutrition that provides essential amino acids and fatty acids.
“This reduces digestive issues in their animals and increases growth and performance. Overall, with healthier and more nutritious impacts for animals and plants, it will in turn provide better nourishment for humans,” he explained.
Furthermore, IFT products meet the strictest hygiene and traceability standards under the Singapore Food Agency, and the company is endorsed by the National Parks Board Singapore and Animal Veterinary Service to export larvae into the European Union (EU), Australia and Malaysia.
“For our dried larvae, because it only takes a few days for them to grow to full potential, we are able to nurture them efficiently and convert them into our products,” Tan shared.
He said it is crucial that industry players create more public awareness on the benefits of alternative protein sources and offer consistent quality products and affordable prices for BFS protein.
Additionally, he shared that IFT’s dried larvae contain at least 50% protein and 31% fat and that its larvae products do not contain preservatives, colouring and are genetically-modified organisms- (GMO) free.
Its frass fertiliser benefits both soil and plants, compared to traditional fertilisers which target plants.
Moreover, Tan said the fertiliser enriches soil and helps with regeneration and it has biostimulant properties to aid in plant development and growth.
Further explaining on how each of IFT products is applied for food production and pharmaceuticals, among others, he said mostly, its products are for commercial use or business-to-business (B2B).
As for its BetterFly X1 Frass fertiliser, it is used commercially for agriculture and distributed by orchards or plant sellers, whereas, its Inxec Feed whole-dried BSFL is used for commercial feeding for chickens and livestock, and distributed by pet food distributors.
Pet food manufacturers also utilise IFT’s Inxec Feed protein meal BSFL and Inxec Feed oil BSFL for their products.
Meanwhile, IFT’s products for end-consumers or business-to-consumer (B2C) include BetterFly X1 Frass fertiliser (used by urban farmers, plant enthusiasts or gardeners) and Inxec Feed whole-dried BSFL (used for a portion of pet meals or treats for birds, hamsters and chinchillas).
The start-up is currently being supported by the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (Mranti), which has provided IFT with market research and analysis in the insect protein production industry.
Tan noted that Nutrition Technologies Sdn Bhd, Protenga and Inseact are companies in the region that produce similar products as IFT.
Tan said IFT has a proprietary enzymatic waste pre-treatment technology to pre-treat additional streams of waste, like agri-waste, which sets it apart from other start-ups.
“We invest in insect biotechnologies such as zootechnical and entomological research,” he added.
To date, IFT has raised at least S$1 million (RM3.34 million) in terms of direct investments and it has received at least S$1.5 million in terms of grants.
For the past few months, IFT has been working on exporting its products through partnerships in Canada, EU, Australia, US and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It has received many notable awards and recognition such as being Top 12 Finalist at the UAE FoodTech Challenge 2023; Spirit-of-Enterprise-Evorich Sustainability Award 2022; Worlds Summit Young Leader 2022; Singapore-Pavilion Partner for the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27); National Environment Agency Singapore Food Resource Valorisation Award 2021; and President’s Social Enterprise Start-up Award 2021 (Singapore).
So far, the company has worked with leading institutions such as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) Singapore, Singapore National Environment Agency, Singapore Food Agency and Singapore National Parks, among others.
Tan said IFT is looking to expand production to Malaysia, starting with acquiring a 20,000 sq m factory in Johor Baru, in May, with a capacity to process 20 tonnes of food waste daily. The factory will be expanded to 40,000 sq m by year-end.
“We are prepared to translate the description and ingredients into the local language in order to make the products more accessible for the customers,” he disclosed.
Tan said his team is also looking for entrepreneurs who are interested in setting up their own BSF facility and he is willing to collaborate with Malaysian pet food manufacturers and pet food distributors.