P | P | P feat. AgriGrub

We caught up with Joe Halstead, Founder and Managing Director of AgriGrub as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. AgriGrub feed food waste to Black Soldier Fly larvae to ultimately produce pet and livestock feed. The larvae waste is itself used as a plant fertiliser. AgriGrub provide a sustainable solution to food waste, transforming waste into a high-value product.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Hi Joe, nice to meet you! Please could you introduce yourself and what AgriGrub do!

Joe: Hi, nice to meet you too. I am Joe Halstead, and I am the Managing Director at AgriGrub. At AgriGrub, our core aim is to fight the climate crisis by reducing the carbon emissions associated with organic waste management. The way in which we do this is feeding food waste to a species of insect called Black Soldier Fly larvae. We process the grubs into protein suitable for pets and livestock feed. The manure from the larvae is also used as an organic fertiliser.

What stage are you at currently?

Joe: We started in 2018 and spun-out of an R&D insect company. We spent a few years altering our process from an R&D system to one that is commercially scalable. We are currently scaling up from our old site, which could process 500kg of waste a day, to a new site that will be able to process 10 tonnes of waste a day by June, and 20 tonnes of waste a day by the end of the year.

That is such a significant scale-up! Why do you use Black Soldier Flies over other species of insect?

Joe: Black Soldier Flies are probably the most grown species of insect in the world. There are a number of things that make Black Soldier Flies particularly well-suited to agriculture. The key thing is that as adults, the flies don’t feed at all. Due to this, the larvae get fat and large to sustain them through the adult life stage. We harvest the larvae before they spend all those resources, so they are particularly fat and protein rich at this point. On top of that, this species eats such a wide range of wastes whereas other insect species may not. Finally, Black Soldier Flies are a tropical species and so can be grown at high temperatures with a quick lifecycle. For example, mealworms have a 6-month total lifecycle whilst Black Soldier Flies have a full life cycle of 6-weeks. For us, it is 2 weeks from egg hatching to harvest ready larvae!

That is so quick! Plus, that growth cycle is natural, without the need for genetic modification. Could you share the AgriGrub origin story?

Joe: Sure. Back in 2015 I co-founded another Black Soldier Fly company called Entomics (now Better Origin). Entomics were the first company in the UK to grow Black Soldier Fly larvae and I headed up the team responsible for setting up and establishing a growing system. I have a background in Biology. In 2018, Better Origin wanted to focus on being a technology developer for the industry, but my team and I decided to apply our growing knowledge in a commercial setting. We spun-out of Better Origin and established AgriGrub. Early on we were funded by some R&D grants from the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative which helped us take an R&D system and make it commercially scalable. We have been supported by a growth fund grant and by WRAP to scale-up production.

What size is your team?

Joe: There are 7 in total, 5 of which are full-time.

Could you share some challenges around growing your team, and any tips to businesses you think will share the same issues?

Joe: Yes, I have faced issues around building the team. I was lucky with our two most-recent hires. One was completing a PhD on Black Soldier Fly larvae and approached me! The other I had previously worked with for a different insect company. We had a role open, but we didn’t find anyone who we felt was fully aligned with our team. The strategy we have chosen to take now is to start looking way sooner. Three months to fill a role wasn’t enough time, and we instead need to be looking 6-9 months ahead. We are trying to be specific about where we look, such as agricultural colleges or specific university courses, rather than just posting an advert on Indeed.

When you are a small team, you need to maintain that ethos and focus on the big picture of why you are doing what you do!

Joe: Exactly. Later, it’ll be fine but at this early stage, we need everyone to be aligned on, and motivated by, our mission.  

What has been your approach to implementing product market fit, or sales cycles?

Joe: I am not a salesman, and we are a very technical team. Insect protein is currently imported to the UK, the majority of which being from China. We have contacted a few very large distributors and they are very interested because we produce the same product in the UK. This has put us in a great position, the challenge now is scaling our production.

What is the return like for waste vs end product?

Joe: At our new site, we will have a waste intake of 20 tons a day but that ultimately produces 30 tons of dry product a month.

Which industries are you looking to supply?

Joe: We are currently focusing on the pet food sector. There is also set to be a legislative change to allow the feeding of processed insect proteins to poultry in the next few years. The aquaculture sector had a legal change to allow feeding of insect protein in 2017, but the quantities required are huge and the market for feed is currently controlled by four big feed formulators. It is really challenging to infiltrate the aquaculture market because of this. Additionally, other UK Black Soldier Fly businesses have focused on targeting the aquaculture feed market, so we want to segregate our own markets.

That makes sense. Could you share some barriers you overcame when creating and developing AgriGrub?

Joe: There are so many! Initially, there were challenges accessing customers and getting into conversations with the right people to establish if there was the market for the product.

There are also a lot of technical challenges. We were very good at growing the grubs but the drying process and learning which machinery to use has been a steep learning curve.

Finally, there have been and continue to be regulatory and legislative challenges. It is a totally new sector so there is no standard guidance given.

Do you have any top tips regarding seeking investment?

Joe: A key piece of advice is don’t take investment unless you really need it because your valuation will always be more in the future, and you’ll get a better deal. This goes hand in hand with my approach with investors, which is start the conversation early. You want to be working together for as long as possible so they can see just how quickly the business is developing and growing. This gives them a sense of how you can grow post-investment.

Thank you for your time, Joe!

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