Ask most Americans today what they think of eating bugs and nine out of ten times you'll get the same response: Yuck.
Derek McCarty and Josh Campbell, cofounders of a startup called Human Improvement (HI for short) that makes cricket-based protein powder, believe that will change. Americans may not be excited by the idea of eating insects now, but consumer habits are adapting rapidly, and there's no reason why people couldn't embrace bugs as part of their diet in the near future.
McCarty points to rapid attitude shifts towards cannabis (McCarty and Campbell were executives at cannabis startup Dosist prior to HI) in recent years and think a similar shift could be coming for crickets. In cannabis, “you’re seeing a massive of stigma shift that I’ve never seen having anything in that space, at that scale, and that speed,” said McCarty.
How do you get a similar stigma shift with insects? According to McCarty, much of it will have to do with marketing.
“I’m always amazed that marketing is driving people to make bad decisions,” said McCarty. “Being ethical and responsible people, shouldn’t we be driving people to make good decisions with marketing?”
Part of that marketing and messaging has a lot to do with how the product looks. HI’s sleek and colorful packaging is a departure from the typical big tubs of protein powder found on store shelves in the health and wellness aisle. And while the packaging doesn’t scream crickets, the founders also wanted to be very clear about the ingredients list on the food label.
According to Campbell, all of this was intentional.
He notes the HI’s packaging “jumps off the shelf” and is designed to “steal [market]share from underperforming products” currently out there. Speaking of reactions to the product, he adds that the company has received everything from, “Oh my goodness, someone’s finally got it right” to “You guys have got to be crazy, no one’s ever going to buy this” and everything in between. “We’re far more impressed with the positive response we’ve had,” says Campbell.
But still, why did two executives who spent their lives at companies like Starbucks and the fast-growing cannabis space decide on crickets?
According to Campbell, the idea came in spring of 2019 when he was working with an innovation lab and looking at other alt proteins. Around that time, he started looking for the most nutrient-dense protein out there that also had a good environmental footprint.
The answer he got back: “We’ve known for thousands of years, it’s insects.”
And now, HI’s protein powder can be found in numerous grocery stores and through Amazon and the company’s website. The company has also managed to bring the product to market without raising any venture funding.
“So we’ve kept it very lean from the start, unlike a lot of companies we see in the space that go and raise millions of dollars of venture financing, have huge teams and beautiful offices,” said Campbell. “We said, ‘Let’s make sure we’ve got a product that consumers love, first and foremost, and then once we’ve got that, then let’s invest behind and build that.’ So we’ve been very diligent about our process to date.”
- Research guides to emerging food tech sectors
- Full video archive of Spoon events
- Food Tech insider surveys
- Q&A sessions with food tech innovators
- Weekly Food Tech Intelligence Briefing