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This Singapore agritech startup is breeding flies to combat global warming

The agritech company cultivates Black Soldier Flies that, unlike crops used in feed such as corn and soy, do not require high investments into land, food, or water.

Photovoltaics in a desert solar power farm in the Negev desert, Israel. Source: Shutterstock. Photovoltaics in a desert solar power farm in the Negev desert, Israel. Source: Shutterstock.

Calls for cost-effective agritech solutions are growing in Southeast Asia.

In a report released by PwC, Rabobank, and Temasek, it stated that the agriculture industry may be unable to keep up with Asia’s rapid urbanization.

At the same time, global warming and a worldwide pandemic has increased food insecurity.

Singapore, a country that imports over 90 per cent of its food supply, faces considerable risks.

Protenga, an agritech firm based in Singapore, is rising to meet the demand. The startup aims to act as a low-cost, sustainable solution for the global food production system.

It builds Smart Insect Farms, which produce insect protein used as feed or fertilizer for farming.

“It’s like any other farming you can think of—but with insects as the livestock,” explained, Leo Wein, CEO and founder of Protenga.

“Like anywhere in the world, we need to think about the food that our food eats,” he added in an interview with Vulcan Post.

Protenga’s new cash crop: insects

The startup was started in Germany as a summer pilot project in a friend’s backyard garage.

Leo had never planned on leading an insect-based agritech startup. The idea came, he says, through his co-founder who is a biologist in training.

Leo, who was working in Singapore as a data specialist at the time, imported the idea to Southeast Asia. The jump from hunting for digital bugs to real-life insects was quite a leap.

At that point, Leo was leading product development and software engineering for Singaporean-based firms. That includes working at companies like Hatch and The Engage.

Image Credit: Protenga / LinkedIn via Vulcan Post

The agritech company cultivates Black Soldier Flies, the ideal insect protein, says Leo.

“Their lifecycle is short, they grow well intensively and don’t require much food or water. They don’t transmit any known diseases, and are not pests to crops.”

The flies can also be raised on food waste, which is both sustainable and cost-effective.

“Food waste are usually sold for cheap, or have no value at all,” Leo explains. “Insects capture otherwise lost nutrients into insect biomass as feed and fertilizer.”

Unlike crops used in feed, like corn or soy, Protenga’s insects do not require high investments into land, food, or water.

Insect protein also reduces reduces overfishing. Fish eat other fish, Leo explains, and insects are a far more sustainable alternative to seafood.

Building High-Tech Insect Biospheres

Where other insect companies are building a single, mega-facility and scaling it up, Protenga follows a value chain model adapted for insect production.

The agritech deploys Smart Insect Farms, built in a modular, decentralized system close to waste biomass sources. A Smart Insect Farm is designed for 20 to 60 tons of feedstock intake daily.

Mechanized and fully automated farms are in development, supported by software, breeding, and processing services.

The idea of sustainable and cost-effective insect farms has caught on.

Protenga’s first commercial farming site was opened in 2019 and the startup closed its first seed funding in July 2020.

USD 1.6 million was raised from UK agritech firm Roslin Technologies and Enterprise Singapore’s SEEDS Capital.

Roslin Technologies is affiliated with the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, known for creating Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal.

The deal will involve building a bespoke genetic nucleus facility built near its Edinburgh headquarters. The laboratory will apply breeding technology to develop improved insect breeds.

Protenga is also collaborating with experts in NUS in its research into insect biology. The startup is setting up an R&D farm in nearby Johor to build its customer base, technology, and prototypes.

Rolling out insect farms across SEA in 2021

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Protenga is appreciative that insect farming is being recognized and supported by local governments, says Leo.

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“We can tackle more food wastes, make a direct impact to the environment, and create a more scalable and sustainable farming approach for Southeast Asia.”

The agritech startup is ready to take on Southeast Asia and Smart Insect Farms will be rolled out across the region in 2021.

Could This Be The Future Of Farming?

While Singapore’s farming industry may be minuscule, Protenga’s products are still important to Singapore’s industry and sustainability goals, Leo explains.

“Responsibility for sustainability includes the consumption of the food we eat—and the source of the feed we feed our food.”

“Agrifood is a massive global opportunity and challenge. Insects provide a fascinating and largely untapped opportunity… We are excited and proud to be at the forefront of this movement.”

The agriculture industry has been looking for alternative options to unsustainable farming practices for decades.

The use of insect protein as sustainable feed would be a good alternative as it is cost-efficient and sustainable. Flies can be raised on food waste and also do not require high investments into land or water.

This article was originally published in Vulcan Post.