It is the rare entrepreneurial journey that begins with a visit to the leading authority on the subject of disgust.

But Haley Russell wanted to start a food company using crickets as a protein source, and needed to understand how willing people might be to eat them. So in 2017, she sought out Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an MBA student. Rozin has written extensively on food aversions, and, Russell says, "unsurprisingly he had a high level of interest in edible insects and human responses to them."

Unfortunately, his research suggested that American consumers weren't yet ready for food made from bugs. When Russell built a small cricket farm in her family's Maryland home and tried baking with them, her samplings with friends and family supported that view. One family member, however, had a different reaction: Wren, an 8-year-old goldendoodle. "She is a picky eater, the kind of dog who will leave food in her dish," Russell says. "We gave her a sample and she loved it." 

Russell pivoted the idea to cricket protein-based pet food, and Chippin was born. Now the two-person company sells several varieties of dog treats that mix crickets with flavors such as peanut butter and apple in stores and through its website. The startup, which launched the products in late November and has sold several thousand units, doesn't release revenue figures. But it plans to expand into the larger $30 billion pet food industry, most likely starting with cats. "You can think of us, eventually, as the Beyond Meat of pet food," says Russell, speaking shortly after that company's hugely successful IPO.

Market research at the dog park

It was Russell's brother who first talked about the emergence of cricket-based startups one night while she was home on break. Several companies are pursuing the human market, including the protein bar business Exo, Shark Tank contestant Chirps, and Lithic Foods, makers of cricket-based pastas and other products. The family dinner table was a natural place for such discussions: Russell's mother is a vegetarian who raised her children on the seminal politics-of-eating book Diet for a Small Planet. As an undergraduate, Russell had minored in global health studies and later worked at a cold-press juice startup and at Uber Eats. Listening to her brother, she thought that crickets just might be the next superfood.

The healthiest dog food is human-grade, high protein, and by-product-free, Russell learned. But such products are typically meat-based, which translates to nonsustainable (because of water use and methane emissions). An alternative protein, she reckoned, would appeal to environmentally conscious pet owners.

Russell enlisted Laura Colagrande, her Milan-born roommate who was studying architecture and product design at Penn. The co-founders ordered cricket protein powder--dried, pulverized bugs--and began baking dog treats in their apartment kitchen. They experimented with different formats like jerky, and with ingredients like carrot, spinach, ginger, and broccoli. Ultimately they settled on simple circular snacks in two flavors: peanut butter, cricket and pumpkin; and apple, cricket, and flaxseed. (A barbecue version called Hickory Cricket just debuted.)

Throughout the development process, owners' reactions were top-of-mind. "When you open a bag of Chippin snacks, they smell nice. They look nice. They don't stain your hands," Russell says. Next the partners hit the local dog park with sample bags and passed out treats to a Wharton pet owners' group. "I would walk around Philly delivering bags to my classmates and have them send me back videos of the dogs trying them," Russell says. Colagrande began work on packaging. They set up production in a local catering company.

In April 2018, after Chippin won $55,000 in a Penn product design competition, the founders began scaling up production, switching to a manufacturer and co-packer outside Chicago. For bulk supplies of the powder, they contracted with a Canadian cricket farm. A lot of cricket protein is sold for animal feed but Chippin's is human grade, made for sprinkling on smoothies, salads, or other foods. 

They also launched sales, targeting boutique pet stores in Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Colagrande moved to California to open the Los Angeles market. The company's roughly two dozen retail locations include such non-obvious suspects as Velo Café and District Hardware and Bike, both in D.C. The founders expect to sell through a variety of bars, restaurants, gyms, and other venues where, increasingly, patrons bring their dogs.

Delighting the Dogs of WeWork

Of course people also bring dogs to their offices--including those at pet-friendly WeWork. Chippin throws events at those co-working spaces, "where pet parents can come together, get to know each other, and discover a new product," Colagrande says. The events take place after work and, yes, they are called Yappy Hours.

Ian Tarnas, community lead at a WeWork in Culver City, California, reached out to Chippin after learning about it from an East Coast counterpart. He says Chippin is a good match for WeWork, which last year announced a no-meat policy for company events and prohibited employees from expensing meals that include meat. In addition to hosting Yappy Hours, the Culver City facility has a Chippin stand where members get free snacks and will soon add bags of the product to its in-house market. Members "love it," Tarnas says. "They want to see more sustainable snacks for dogs."

Some lifestyle brands are partnering with Chippin as well. Recently the beauty company ORLY hosted a Yappy Hour at its West Hollywood location. And two national gym chains are interested in offering the product, Colagrande says.

Chippin snacks are priced between $9.95 and $11.95 per bag, which is about midrange for the premium pet food space. Since its launch in November Chippin, now headquartered in Takoma Park, Maryland, has sold several thousand units--80 percent of them from its website. Russell expects e-commerce will remain the company's primary channel. The founders have gotten $45,000 from Rough Draft Ventures and First Round Capital Dorm Room Fund, and continue to raise funding. So far they have been running the business without any full-time employees, instead enlisting help from some interns and online influencers.

Russell and Colagrande understand that crickets give their story an interesting hook. But as they position the business, they're careful that the dog-bites-bug angle doesn't overpower the larger message about animal health and environmental impact. "Crickets are amazing. But people should really be looking at this like a sustainable protein, not as something you maybe try once" for novelty's sake, Colagrande says. "Cricket protein is just where it starts."