Bugsolutely is a Thai startup that produces what we could call a super-food. Pasta with 21.7% of protein. The secret? It’s cricket pasta!
My first days in Asia. The first stop is Thailand and more specifically its capital, Bangkok. Here I wrote about what I did and how to survive in this massive city that won’t let you be indifferent.
There I met the first start-up of the week that we will interview in Asia. Such a special milestone needed an interesting and innovative start-up and we found it.
Cricket pasta??? Yes. I had the same face that you have right now when I first heard about this concept. A mix of disgust, curiosity and disbelief. So let’s get to know more about this interesting startup.
Who’s behind Bugsolutely and its super-food?
Pasta and Italy are two concepts that usually go together. In this case, it couldn’t be different. The founder of Bugsolutely is Massimo Reverberi, a 50 years old Italian from Milan.
He studied in Milan too, where he obtained a degree in Business Management. After 3 years in a major advertising agency, he co-founded Prima Pagina, a marketing agency in Milan with a turnover of more than 5 million € per year.
At the end of 2012 he sold his company shares and left Italy looking for new businesses opportunities in South East Asia, mainly in Thailand.
“With the crisis it was very difficult to do business in Italy, the good years were gone and it’d take some time until they came back. Moreover, I felt that I wanted a change and to try different things.”
Before he came up with the idea, he travelled for two years in Thailand while doing small projects along the way.
The first year he collaborated with a friend in an import-export activity and the second year he did a business plan that didn’t come through.
Where does the idea of the Cricket Pasta come from?
The third year he was in Thailand, the opportunity showed up.
A friend of his asked him to do some research about the properties of crickets for medical applications. Not like food itself, although he saw it clearly.
“Anyone that discovers the possibility of making food with insects, remains amazed. Their nutritional properties are incredible and they are a much more sustainable source of proteins than any other mammal or bird.”
Here are some infographics with specific data of the different environmental impacts of each source of proteins.
Water (in litres) and feed (in grams) necessary to get 1 kg of proteins from each animal source
Arable lands (in square meters) necessary to get 1 kg of proteins from each animal source
Greenhouse gases emissions (in grams) for each kg of proteins from each animal source
The numbers talk for themselves. Especially shocking is the difference in greenhouse gases emission and water consumption.
“It’s interesting how we have forgotten this option in western countries. Especially when you think that there are actually more people in the world eating insects that those not eating them.
We eat snails, algae, any part of pork and any kind of mollusc. However, we are surprised about the fact of eating insects.
Once you overcome the psychological barrier, it becomes the same as any other food. I think it’s more the fear to the taste and appearance, although snails aren’t especially cute either.
People imagine an extreme experience but when you try it and confirm that even though the taste is different, it’s not anything traumatic, prejudices just fly away.
In China, they have been able to overcome the issues with cheese and ham, so I’m sure we’ll be able to do the same with insects in western countries.”
At this point, Massimo was completely convinced of the benefits of eating bugs. However, he was also aware that the product would not succeed in western countries unless it was presented in a nicer and more attractive way.
That’s how he decided that the best solution was to produce pasta made of cricket flour. The insects would be camouflaged in an accepted and widely used product in western countries, the main market for the cricket flour.
Here you can watch a very interesting video that explains why insects are the next generation of food.
How is starting-up in Thailand for a foreigner?
“Asia is a completely different world when it comes to starting-up, it can’t be compared to America or Europe. Everything works in a different way, the process’ logics, people’s personalities and also bureaucratic mechanisms.
Also, each area within Asia has its special features. In regions like Latin America, for instance, this doesn’t happen. Although it is a very big region, their logics work in a similar way in every country.
Thailand is a very special case, because it has never been colonised by a western country.
Let’s take Myanmar for example; although it is also a special country full of peculiarities, their laws are based on British ones, which create a more familiar environment for western people. Same thing happens in Vietnam and Cambodia, where laws are based on French ones.
Commercial transactions are the only reason why Thailand has been in contact with foreign countries. The result of that is an important influence from Chinese culture, some Indian communities and big investments from Japan. However, in my experience, Thai people still have their own way of doing things.”
I had always heard that a local partner was needed when starting-up in Thailand. Moreover, foreigners weren’t allowed to own more than a 49% of a Thai company.
Nonetheless, Massimo owns 100% of Bugsolutely. I asked him the reason.
“There are 3 cases in which this rule is not applied:
The first one is related to the business category. Some categories can automatically be controlled by foreigners. Others have to apply for it, but it is possible to get as well.
The second case is import/export companies like mine. I manufacture the product in Thailand, but it’s not sold here. That’s why I can own 100% of the company.
Finally, the third case is being a US citizen. Thailand had a special agreement with the US because of the Vietnam War, which allowed them to start a business without Thai partners.
Although theoretically the agreement is over, in practice it is still applied. However, it looks like sooner or later US citizens will end up having the same status as the rest of us foreigners.”
How do you get from the idea to the final product, the Cricket Pasta?
Massimo came up with the idea at the beginning of 2015 and the product was ready in 2016.
The process basically consisted of selecting suppliers for the wheat flour, the cricket flour and a company that could process the product and make the pasta.
“The wheat flour comes from Australia. It’s more expensive than the one coming from, for example China, but the security health standards for food safety are similar to those in America and Europe, so I went for this one. When talking about food we can’t take any risk with the security to the final costumer.
Apart from this supplier, the rest of them are from Thailand. Package suppliers, processing of the pasta and cricket flour. Thailand is the biggest edible insects’ producer in the world, so this is the perfect place to produce cricket pasta.”
I asked Massimo about the reaction of the suppliers regarding his proposal of producing cricket pasta and he assured me that they weren’t surprised at all and were happy to try the experiment.
“About problems and mistakes during the production process, I would say that there was nothing catastrophic in highlight. The usual problems you might have in emerging economies: slow and inefficient bureaucracy and shortage of skilled people.
But in general everything flowed properly. The challenge starts now; it’s time to sell the product.
The entry into supermarkets isn’t easy. Not only for us, I’m in touch with more people in the insects based food sector and they are struggling too.
The market is still very small, we are talking about a few million dollars per year. However, all the players of the market are hopeful. Once people discover the nutritional properties of the insects and that it’s the animal protein more sustainable to produce, people start opening their minds.“
Massimo told me that there are a couple of companies producing cookies, one in Canada and the other one in California, and there’s another in the latter producing chips. In Europe some startups are popping-up and pointing to this market too.
“In general, the market lacks the variety of products, there are just 4-5 types of products based on insects. Especially in the United States the final prices are pretty high, which is a barrier to bring these products to the mass market.”
Not only is the small size of the market a problem, there are other challenges along the way.
“From the potential market of Bugsolutely, Europe is half of it and until the middle of 2018 it won’t be accessible for legal reasons.
In October 2015 the European Parliament voted in favour of a new regulation that would lead to the allowance of edible insects in the region, but it will take time. Some European countries have already approved similar regulations to allow the consumption of edible insects.”
Here I give you an interesting article that Massimo wrote about the legal situation of the consumption of insects in several countries.
Currently there are 3 people working in Bugsolutely and mainly dedicated to marketing tasks. Their principal actions are through social media and content creation in online media.
About the selling channel for Cricket Pasta, Massimo has it clear.
“We are already selling online, but we don’t think this is the appropriate channel. People are not interested in paying $5.90 per product and up to $12 for shipping costs. This is an ideal product to be in the supermarkets so that distribution costs are reduced and final prices are reasonable.
We don’t know yet the final price for supermarkets, it will depend on the amount produced and sold, but it could be $3-4 a package. We have to consider that cricket flour is expensive. In Thailand it costs $16-26 a kilogram.”
At the end of 2016 they saw the first signs that there was a real demand for their product.
“We shipped some products to small clients in Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. I’m very happy for those first sells but distributors are struggling to sell the product. They asked for small batches, hundreds of packages. Due to fixed costs of shipping, the final price of the product is high.”
How does the future look for Bugsolutely?
“The future looks exciting.
We have to enter supermarkets, that’s the priority.
We have the United States and United Kingdom as target markets; we are already looking for distributors there. When the legal issues are solved in EU, we’ll land there too.
Nowadays, we get 4.000 people visiting our site monthly, mainly from the US and UK, so we are convinced that there’s interest in our product.”
Apart from entering supermarkets, Bugsolutely has another important task ahead.
“So far it’s been all self-funded. I’ve spent so far around 50.000€.
Now we are looking for investors but we are in a very special situation. We aren’t an interesting case for business angels since they tend to invest in ideas and early stage start-ups, and we already have the product.
On the other hand, venture capitals look for start-ups that although might not be profitable, at least have a strong user’s base or interesting revenues, which isn’t our situation either.
Moreover with the $30.000-50.000 that can be provided by a business angel we couldn’t make a difference. The amount we need is from a venture capital which could give us easily $500.000 if we demonstrate that there’s a market or we already have an agreement with some distributors.”
Although there are many challenges ahead, Massimo remains very confident and with a very positive attitude to face the future.
I did a little bit of research about forecasts of the edible insect market and the numbers are optimistic.
According to an analysis from GMI, the global revenues coming from insect based food will reach $522 million in 2023.
Arcluster, another market research company, foresees even larger global revenues, $1.5 billion in 2021.
The support of several governments from EU, Switzerland and South Korea, along with the support of International institutions like FAO (very interesting info here), are some of the reasons behind these promising numbers.
Tips for other entrepreneurs?
Although Massimo gave me a piece of advice for starting-up in Thailand, it’s definitely useful for any country.
“We don’t sell in Thailand, so for Bugsolutely is different, but if your market is going to be in Thailand, developing personal connections is critical. Here businesses are always personal and about the relationship.”
With this tip we finished the interview.
Before leaving, Massimo gave me a Cricket Pasta package and encouraged me to try it and tell him about the experience.
Some weeks later and with some other friends, we cooked it.
Aubergines, tomato, mushrooms and cheese. The pasta was ready to try!
The verdict… It’s very good! In appearance it looks like integral pasta and the taste, although it was different to the normal one, it is veeery pleasant. Definitely not an extreme experience.
So get rid of prejudices and when you find cricket pasta in your usual supermarket don’t think twice and try it. Your body and the earth will thank you!
That is all for now! Next week we will still be in Thailand. If you don’t want to miss the jewel we are going to show you, drop your email below!