You never forget your first insect. Laura D'Asaro was studying abroad in Tanzania when she ate hers--a caterpillar, the flavor of which she likened to lobster. Meanwhile, her Harvard classmate Rose Wang was munching on scorpions during a trip to Beijing.
"People there were eating them like we would eat Doritos," D'Asaro said of her culinary experiences abroad. "It's hard to be grossed out."
D'Asaro and Wang bonded over their newfound love of "amuse-bugs" when they returned to Harvard, and an idea began buzzing around their heads: Why not introduce American palates to the nutritious benefits of bugs? The two bought all the mealworms and crickets available at the local Petco--it was the only store in the area that sold bugs at the time--fried them up for a feast, and invited their friends. (Crickets, D'Asaro contends, taste like shrimp.) Their taste test gave them powerful insight into what their pals would and wouldn't eat--what D'Asaro calls "ooey-gooey" bugs and insects with legs reliably freaked people out. They took both out of the equation when they launched Chirps, which sells protein-rich chips and protein powder made from ground-up crickets, in 2013 with classmate Meryl Breidbart.
A successful Kickstarter got them off the ground in 2014, with more than $70,000 of funding, but other investors seemed... oh, the hell with it, repelled. Additionally, the team were fresh out of college and had zero experience running a company.
"Investors wouldn't touch us with a 10-foot pole," says D'Asaro. "They usually invest in something where you're solving a need, or there is a market, and we were creating a market for this."
Progress was slow in those early years, and co-founders used the time to perfect their recipe: they replaced black beans with corn, which gave the chips a lighter color. Then, in 2017, the founders appeared on Shark Tank, and Mark Cuban invested $100,000 for 15 percent of the company; the publicity helped land Chirps in Kroger and Vitamin Shoppe. The company launched another Kickstarter in late 2018 and raised more than $40,000 to launch their cricket protein powder, which can be mixed into shakes or smoothies. Chirps products are now in more than 1,200 stores, and the founders say revenue has doubled
While the founders credit Shark Tank with much of their success, they also suggest American's dietary standards are indeed changing--a claim backed up by Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst for market research firm NPD Group. In December, Seifer noted in Inc. that overarching food trends focused on protein and low sugar (read: Paleo and Keto diets) are sending consumers to new protein-heavy snack options. They're also seeking minimally processed foods that are simultaneously better for the environment.
As Chirps uses insect proteins--and not animal proteins--its impact on the environment is minimal by comparison, says D'Asaro. "We have people spending millions on how to make plants taste like animals," she says. "Insects are an amazing solution that are minimally processed and don't have the environmental impact of meat."
As for competition, D'Asaro says the insect-based food business is currently a nascent field with about 100 companies selling products. Still, sighs D'Asaro, "as the bug company, you're always the weird one." Arguably, Chirps courts rep: "EAT BUGS "is emblazoned on each bag, so stores like Spencer's stock Chirps around Halloween, presumably as a gag. But that's just unfair, adds D'Asaro. Everyone knows that summer is the real high season for bugs.