It is estimated that two billion people around the world consume insects as part of their diet, but in many Western countries, including the U.S., eating insects is viewed with disgust. Looking to shift the conversation around entomophagy, in 2013, the United Nations issued a report on edible insects proselytizing their importance as a food source. As the global population continues to swell, our food system is under tremendous stress as it tries to scale to support the 9 billion people that are expected by 2050. As such, it has become a global imperative to look at untapped food sources like insects.
Inspired by the U.N.'s report, Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, co-founders of Exo, who at the time were seniors at Brown University, ordered 2000 live crickets and began experimenting with cricket flour and developing a protein bar recipe utilizing it. Soon after, they began selling their bars on campus, at local farmer's markets and gyms and found that they were met with great fanfare, and thus a company was born.
Exo has come a long way from its origins in campus housing, and today the company closed $4 million in Series A funding led by AccelFoods, a venture capital firm focused on food and beverage companies. The round also includes Collaborative Fund, self-help guru Tim Ferriss, Start Garden, the musician Nas and endurance athlete Amelia Boone. This brings the company's total financing to $5.6 million.
Sewitz credits the company's ability to attract an eclectic group of investors to its roots in social good. In addition to promoting global food security, crickets are also more environmentally friendly than other sources of protein, producing 100 times less greenhouse gases than cows. "We have been able to create a community where even if food and health and wellness are not their primary fields, they just understand what we are doing is so innovative and cool. Rarely, do you find an idea that is just net positive."
In the years since the U.N. report, several companies have entered the market looking to make insects appetizing including Bitty Foods, which counts celeb chef Tyler Florence as its culinary director and cricket chip maker Six Foods. For its part, Exo believes the key to consumer adoption is all in the delivery. It worked with Kyle Connaughton, a three Michelin star chef, formerly of The Fat Duck in London, to develop an ingredient-driven recipe with natural sources like honey, nuts and fruit. "We thought the protein bar form factor went a long way of getting people over the hurdle to at least take a first bite and realize that there was no distinct cricket taste," said Sewitz.
Currently, Exo bars are sold direct to consumers and can also be found in limited supermarkets like Whole Foods and Wegmans. With this latest round of funding, the company plans to scale production and expand its retail footprint, but it is being selective about its partners. "It [retail] is not our main sales strategy, so we have the luxury of picking partners who will support us in the process and help with what could be a potential issue of educating consumers about the benefits of edible bugs and Exo's products," said Sewitz
There is still a lot of consumer education to be had in the market, but Sewitz believes the day will come when the concept of eating insects is no longer a fringe idea. "I think it is going to be a continuation of this trend line from a radical and niche idea to a mainstream and alternative protein. We have come a long way in the last few years."