By Ariana Marini
The first time Laura D’Asaro came face-to-deep-fried-face with an edible insect was on the streets of Tanzania during a study abroad program. She stumbled upon a native Tanzanian woman selling caterpillars fried in vegetable oil out of a basket. Before she could consider too deeply where eating insects fit into the spectrum of her off and on again vegetarianism, she bought one, put it into her mouth, and bit down.
“My first thought was, ‘this tastes like lobster’,” she says. “Which actually makes sense, I found out, because insects and crustaceans are both arthropods. They’re in the same family.”
This moment was the inception of Six Foods, a startup that creates foods from insects.
After D’Asaro left Africa, she just couldn’t get that lobster tasting fried caterpillar out of her mind. She began heavily researching eating insects, or entomophagy.
“Eighty percent of countries, two and a half billion people eat insects regularly,” she says. “The more research I did, the more excited I got because it turned out that all the reasons I was vegetarian didn’t apply to eating insects.”
Raising livestock can be inhumane with poor living conditions and the use of antibiotics. “But with insects, you can raise them and harvest them humanely,” D’Asaro says. “Insects already naturally live in pretty close quarters. They live and grow very easily and perfectly happily. Then some insects are cold blooded. When it gets cold, they naturally just go to sleep. If you put them in a freezer, they naturally just go to sleep and don’t wake up from it.”
D’Asaro’s vegetarianism is driven by the idea that she does not want to pay anyone to do anything she would not do herself. “If you give me a knife or a gun and were like, ‘go kill that cow’, I couldn’t,” she says. “It wouldn’t be because I was grossed out, but ultimately because I don’t think the life of the cow is worth me eating a hamburger.” She feels differently about insects, but not all vegetarians do. In fact, not even D’Asaro’s vegetarian mom. “I don’t think my mom will ever eat insects,” D’Asaro says.
Spreading the Word
Amazed with what she was reading, D’Asaro sent an article about entomophagy to Rose Wang, a friend and former freshman year roommate. The pair had graduated at Harvard together in 2013. Many Americans might find themselves confused, perhaps even concerned, if they opened up an email from a friend containing an article about the benefits of eating bugs. Wang was not. She had recently been dared to eat a fried scorpion during a study abroad program in China. She thought it tasted like shrimp.
Raised until the age of five in Chongquing, a region of Southwestern China, she was no stranger to eating weird things. “I ate all sorts of stuff on the insides of animals,” Wangs says. “Frogs were pretty common. I definitely had insects before while growing up, but I can’t remember what they were. Lots of weird seafood.”
Wang spent the rest of her childhood in Nashville, Tenn. In high school, she became passionate about civic engagement and worked at the Nashville mayor’s office. “But I think I always struggled with ‘then how do I work outside of the bureaucracy?’” she says. “How can I have a voice when I think policies are very hierarchal and there’s a lot of red tape?’ So, when I came to Harvard I actually got really interested in business because I realized that with business decisions, the pace with how things happen happen at a much faster rate. It was something that really fascinated me coming from the other side of policy.”
She started exploring the business world through on campus positions and outside internships. On campus, she was a manager of Harvard Cleaners and the managing director of Harvard Shop, which sells Harvard gear and t-shirts. Later, she took a merchandising internship at Abercombie & Fitch, a business development internship at Hungry Fish Media, and, most recently, an associate product management internship at Microsoft.
All the while, Wang found herself struggling with the idea of making a business that has a larger mission, but still operates as a for profit entity.
That is, until she landed in Six Foods.
Interested in entomophagy, the pair purchased live insects online. The cardboard box that says “Live Animals” on the sides arrives on their doorstep filled with mesh and punctured with air holes. The sound of crickets rubbing their wings is audible without opening the box. Once you open the box, it’s not uncommon to find the crickets hopping out and all over the place.
“We learned pretty quickly to put them in the freezer right away,” D’Asaro says.
Eventually, she started ordering them already dead. “They come similarly the way you buy shrimp, like in a plastic bag nicely sealed.”
D’Asaro and Wang would experiment with different insects, frying and adding them as a protein to their favorite meals. The recent college graduates were learning to cook along the way. “Once we were at the grocery store and I was like ‘Rose, go grab some onions,’” D’Asaro says. “She comes back looking sheepish and she says to me ‘Which ones are the onions and which ones are the garlic again?’”
While they were both ambition and adventurous enough to try various insects in various forms, they learned quickly that it wouldn’t be easy getting other Westerners accustomed to the idea.
“Sometimes the look and the texture of something is what people had a hard time getting behind,” D’Asaro says. She found out just how adverse entomophagy could be to Westerners during one of Wang’s birthday parties. D’Asaro had been ordering and eating insects for months, so she didn’t think twice about bringing live crickets to the bash.
“One of her friends fell out of his chair. He was so scared of the live crickets,” she says. “So we had to figure out how could we put these crickets into a form that’s acceptable for American populations.”
Despite her friend’s reaction, Wang soon understood that the pair was on to something. She decided making entomophagy mainstream was a goal more worthy of her time than the full-time position she was offered at Microsoft. Wang turned Microsoft down and dove into the startup with D’Asaro. They decided to call it Six Foods because “six legs are better than four”.
D’Asaro and Wang collaborated with Meryl Natow, a former visual and environmental studies major at Harvard who’ve they’d worked with before. Natow is currently a full-time student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, but she works part-time remotely to make Six Foods designs for its packaging.
They became a part of the Harvard innovation Lab (Harvard i-Lab), a resource for Harvard students and alumni interested in entrepreneurship to cultivate their business ventures.
D’Asaro and Wang experimented with grinding insects into meats so that it looked like ground beef. They made meal worm tacos and cricket fried rice. Purely by accident, the pair found out how people responded to eating insects in this new form.
They made about 50 meal worm tacos for a competition at the Harvard i-Lab and left them in a community refrigerator. “We came back half an hour later to get our tacos to bring to the judges, but there were only five left because people had eaten them not knowing that they were insects and had liked them and came back for more,” D’Asaro says.
D’Asaro was set on making food with insect meat. “I really wanted to do a food cart,” she says. Wang did not agree. “How is that scalable?” she asked. For Wang, it wasn’t going to happen.
“We fought a lot about that and whether to do it or not, but ultimately when you fight for long enough, there’s not much you can do but try to figure out an objective way,” D’Asaro says. “So we started making tacos and fresh food and seeing how people reacted and ultimately did decide that we probably weren’t quite ready for that.”
There is no business major at Harvard, so Wang majored in psychology. “It actually has so much relevance to what I’m doing now, but I was always really fascinated with how people thought, what motivated those thoughts, how people’s feelings interact with their thoughts. These were all big questions that I had,” she says. “A lot of what I studied in psychology was a big part of introducing insects to the Western world because it’s all about ‘okay, so people feel a certain way and think a certain way, how do we then shift the status quo into something different? How do we do it in a way that’s to the culture of Americans versus if we were introducing it in China or something?’”
Wang argues that the solution they came up with is twofold. The first is the literal form the insect is presented in. “People were kind of freaked out when they could see what they were eating which is absolutely not American culture if you think about chicken nuggets or hot dogs,” she says.“That’s how we landed on cricket flour.” To make cricket flour, crickets are cleaned, dried, and then finely milled. The resulting flavor will taste somewhat nutty.
The second part of the solution lays in the approach they have toward their business and their audience. “Yes, we have this larger mission, but it’s also kind of funny, like, yeah we’re getting people to eat insects and it’s this little creature that has been in our backyard longer than we’ve had backyards and we’ve totally ignored it,” she says. “We don’t want it to be super serious. I think we take people through our journey because when we first discovered it, it was kind of funny.”
Cookies or Chips?
The business hasn’t always been funny for the pair, though. “Having a startup is like being married with kids,” says Wang. “When Laura and I started, we were friends but you don’t get to know your friends as well as you do when you have a startup together.”
Despite their close friendship, their differences have caused a number of awful arguments and disagreements. “We have fought a lot,” says D’Asaro. “I’ve cried. We’re very different people. We come from very different backgrounds. Often we don’t think the same way. I think it’s taken about a year for us to feel like we’re really on the same team. I mean a few times we considered calling it quits, maybe not super seriously.”
One of the largest arguments the pair got into that resulted in tears was an age old question for any snacker: cookies or chips?
D’Asaro had made up her mind that cookies made with cricket flour were the right approach. They’re delicious and easy to make. Wang, on the other hand, believed the best product was chips made with cricket flour. To her, chips had a better market potential and a longer shelf life.
“We got into this huge argument,” says Wang. “I was not open to listening to her at all, but that was totally wrong of me. We talked about how I tend to be more dismissive and she tends to be more defensive so you can’t have a real conversation that way.”
After a series of screaming matches and tears over whether cookies or chips were the right product, D’Asaro and Wang decided that if they were going to continue pursuing this venture they had to decide why they were involved in it in the first place.
“What are our values at the end of the day? Do they align? If they do, then all the other issues like fighting over the color scheme, stuff like that, that could be worked out as long as our values are the same,” says Wang. “We’re both in it for the bigger mission and we very much respect each other and respect the business. Our first priority is making sure that Six Foods does well and that we’re doing it in a way that we feel good about in terms about us being transparent and honest.”
The Six Foods team ended up launching their company with cricket chips they call “Chirps”. They worked with a local Boston chef to develop their recipe. Eventually, they moved from the chef to a food pilot plant where they perfected their formula on an industrial level. Chirps baked with beans, rice, and cricket flour. Flavors range from aged cheddar to sea salt to hickory barbecue.
Now that the Harvard grads had a mission, product, and humorous marketing strategy, it was time to raise funds.
To raise money for ingredients costs, production, and packaging, the Six Foods team created a Kickstarter campaign last April in hopes of raising $30,000. They connected with film major friends from college to write the script and shoot their Kickstarter video. The theme behind the video was to make eating insects look fun while also highlighting points about sustainability and health benefits.
Along with raising the money they’d need to get Chirps into production, the Kickstarter campaign was a test to figure out if the public would be willing to actively choose to have bugs in their food. They reached their goal in three days.
By May, Six Foods had raised $70,559.
“We have one of the most successful food Kickstarters,” D’Asaro says.
Where They Are Now
The Kickstarter money along with funds from Angel investors put Chirps into production. Chirps are currently sold online directly from their website, but the Six Foods team plans to launch in stores around Cambridge by February.
They have limited media coverage while perfecting their products, but they’ve been setting up taste testing tables at events to get the public sampling their snacks and learning about their brand.
There have been hiccups along the way. “The chips are delayed in terms of manufacturing because during our first huge run the dough ended up sticking to the machines which is totally normal,” Wang says. “In food, it takes a couple runs. We were just hoping ours wouldn’t. Our chips have more moisture than other chips because most chips are made out of corn or potato and ours are very bean heavy which is more wet.” The difference between a successful manufacturing run and 150 pounds of ruined cricket chips can be caused by just one percent too much water.
Most recently, the Six Foods team decided the holidays were the perfect time to launch the sale of cricket cookies, so people can send their loved ones baked goods filled with bugs.
“The Chocolate Chirp Cookies are fantastic fresh, but it’s not something that has a three month shelf life,” D’Asaro says. “You don’t want to eat a freshly baked cookie three months later. It’s a little harder to sell in stores [than Chirp chips]. We’re doing it online to see the response.”
The Future of Six Foods
“We see this as a scale. We have to start somewhere. We want to start having crickets on the ingredients list,” D’Asaro says. “Getting people used to associating the word crickets with food which is a big challenge.”
The Six Foods team doesn’t plan to stop at just snacks.
“This is just the beginning. You have a chip then maybe you have a dip then you kind of move it along towards real meat,” D’Asaro says. “Our big vision is that you could go to a restaurant or a store and you could have a choice between buying a beef burger, a chicken burger, or what would be called an entoburger which would be like an insect burger. We see this as a movement. A movement towards more sustainable protein. A movement towards eating insects. Cricket flour and Chirps are just the first step.”