It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there, especially in natural food.
Last month, Aspire Food Group, a cricket farmer and insect protein ingredient supplier for food products, announced that it had acquired cricket-based protein bar Exo. Considered one of the best-known brands in the fairly new market for edible insects, Exo gives the supply company a recognizable addition.
“We always knew that vertical integration made a lot of sense for the industry, as it would allow for even greater quality on raw materials, better pricing, and faster product development,” Exo co-founder Greg Sewitz, who is aiding Aspire during the transition, said. “The timing felt right with Aspire to take both companies to the next level.”
The acquisition also pushes Aspire into a new growth phase: It now needs to scurry to build out a bigger cricket farming facility to meet the demands of all current customers along with the new brand.
Under the terms of the acquisition, Exo has become Aspire’s consumer-facing brand, and Aspire’s Aketta line of protein bites, crispy crickets and granola, which launched in late 2016, will be rebranded as Exo products. Exo’s protein bars, meanwhile, will exclusively use cricket protein from Aspire’s “robot” cricket farming supply.
Traditional cricket farming practices — think bins maintained by hand with no data tracking — require more employees and have a greater potential for food safety issues. But Aspire says its automated cricket farming method allows the company to standardize farming practices and costs and ensure a higher quality of safety and quality for the edible insects they produce.
Currently, Aspire’s 25,000-square-foot farm can raise more than 22 million crickets in a month — that translates to roughly 30,000-35,000 pounds of cricket protein powder annually — but that total output has already been spoken for over the next two years with current customers, excluding Exo. Aspire cofounder and CEO Mohammed Ashour said they are in the process of growing our capacity to meet that excess demand, especially since Exo has more demand for powder than Aketta, both in terms of what’s needed to actually manufacture the bars and in how many bars they’re selling.
“You have to make sure you manage expectations properly in your industry so there are no disappointments and so you’re able to build that excess capacity and meet more need over time,” Ashour said.
Though Aspire is focusing on Exo for its consumer-facing brand, the term Aketta will still play a crucial role in the company’s future.
“With Aketta there were always two purposes,” Ashour said. “The first purpose was to be the actual, front-facing brand of the company, which is now being served by Exo. But the second purpose is to actually be a branded ingredient.”
The company is hoping the word will become synonymous with cricket quality, Ashour said, adding “Just as you have a word to refer to a specific cut of meat from a cow — beef — there didn’t seem to be a single term on the market that helps consumers identify how to speak about cricket protein that is clean and edible in a way that distinguishes it from the broader category that is insect protein.”
The company is looking to raise money to build capacity to up to seven million pounds of cricket protein per year using a variety of funds and government grants.
While the expansion, when complete, would create a major jump in production, Ashour said he thinks the demand will be there. Insect protein is a small but growing market in the U.S., expected to exceed $50 million within the next five years, according to a report from Global Market Insights.
As for the future of Exo specifically, Ashour said Aspire will continue to leverage Exo’s digital capacities — e-commerce has historically been Exo’s top retail channel — to learn more about customers.
Exo rebranded last summer to better evoke an emotional connection that consumers who want to eat crickets, often “weekend warrior” or CrossFit types. Previously, the brand had banned all imagery associated with bugs on its packaging, but the newer bars have a stylized, illustrated cricket.
The acquirer might backtrack, however. Ashour said while adventurous eaters and the extreme sports communities will always be core consumers and that Aspire wants to keep “the essence of some of the brand,” the company may eventually consider embracing a look that doesn’t only cater to this one consumer segment.
“In general, we all agree that the brand has gone to a greater state of maturity where it obviously knows who it is trying to talk to and who it is trying to attract — which is important — but at the same time, given the youthfulness of the industry overall, overcommitting to one specific consumer segment can also potentially miss the mark,” he said. “So we are extending the brand into our existing product line and making sure the brand’s appeal is a little more inclusive than it is now.”