Tebrio: Insects as a protein source of the future | Business

Boxes specially designed for the rearing of the mealworm on the production line in Tebrio.
Boxes specially designed for the rearing of the mealworm on the production line in Tebrio.Tebrio

Adriana Casillas and Sabas de Diego observed in 2014 that there were many gaps in the agri-food value chain. “In 2035 we will have a deficit of 200 million tons of protein and we are only taking advantage of higher chain animals. It doesn’t make any sense, ”says Casillas. The need to find new raw materials to solve this lack prompted her to found, together with her partner, the company Tebrio, a pioneer in Spain in the breeding and transformation of the tenebrio molitor, also known as the mealworm. This insect is a high source of protein and, after being processed, offers a wide range of applications: animal feed, fertilizers and cosmetics, among others.

Sabas de Diego is a chemical engineer who has worked for fifteen years in the pig industry before taking the step to entrepreneurship. Casillas, meanwhile, has a degree in contemporary classical music and confesses that the consequences of climate change on natural resources have been one of her biggest concerns since she was a child. Driven by this interest, in 2012 she decided to reinvent herself and did a master’s degree in food business management.

To launch the activity, the two founding partners invested around 8,000 euros through a personal loan from the bank. In their career they have had the support of the Center for Industrial Technological Development, the Ministry of Science and Innovation, Caixa Capital Risc – CriteriaCaixa’s venture capital manager – and other private investors. All the machinery they use to breed and transform the insect at the Salamanca headquarters has been designed by them. For this reason, it took them six years to develop the technology they have, which they combine with resources from Industry 4.0 and artificial intelligence to manufacture the raw material on a large scale. In fact, industrial production has started in the last year.

The company, in which about twenty employees work, including engineers, biologists, biochemists and doctors, plans to close 2021 with revenues of 700,000 euros. However, it clarifies that it is not yet making a profit, since it continues to invest to perfect its industrial techniques.

The choice of the mealworm is due to two main reasons. First of all, its biological structure. Within the tenebrio molitor there is a protein that can be extracted at 76% and that has a digestibility percentage of 99%. Also, this bug is easy to handle on an industrial level. “An animal that crawls is much better than one that flies. For example, the black soldier fly has its applications in the protein extraction market, but we did not quite frame this insect for high-quality products ”, explains Casillas.

In Tebrio, a part of the worms is destined for extraction and another for reproduction. The life cycle of the insect lasts approximately six months: it begins in a small egg and then turns into a larva that is growing. It is in this phase that protein and lipids are extracted. According to the founder, the fat extracted from the mealworm is very rich in unsaturated acids – good for the human body – so it could be compared to olive oil or sunflower oil.

On the other hand, caterpillars that have not gone through the extraction phase first transform into a pupa and later into a beetle. The excrement of both the larvae and the coleoptera is industrially processed and gives rise to a fertilizer that guarantees the protection of the plant against pests. In addition to animal feed (including fish, birds, pigs and pets), the industrial transformation of tenebrio molitor has applications in cosmetics. Chitin is extracted from this insect, which, due to its moisturizing properties, is an ingredient used in skin cleansing and hair care products, among others.

Insects for human consumption

The European Union gave the green light a few months ago to the use of the mealworm for human consumption. However, the CEO of Tebrio emphasizes that its sale in the market is not as simple as it seems. Any company that wants to market it has to send a dossier to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which, after verifying that the product is healthy, submits it to the European Commission for approval. Furthermore, according to Casillas, currently in Europe it is somewhat anecdotal that people can eat an insect: “We have a culture that has always made us think that insects were unhealthy, unlike Asia or Latin America. Here the way in which this trade will work will be within the foods that have to do with a functional diet, that is, those that help the athlete to obtain a better performance, such as shakes and energy bars ”.

Until the consumption of insects in the food industry spreads, the Salamanca company is working on the construction of an 80,000-square-meter biotechnological complex that will allow it to bring about 100,000 tons of product to the market per year. For this project, which is expected to be ready in 2023, Tebrio will invest around 50 million euros.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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