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Katharina Unger is active in the alternative protein market with her start-up company Livin Farms. It is precisely the protein derived from mealworms that she’s aiming to make more readily available as food. Her mission: Feeding the World, while Saving the Planet.

“We’re going to have to adapt to climate change and introduce more sustainable food systems,” Unger says. “The CO2 emissions from one kilogram of protein from beef are 25 times higher than those from the same amount of protein from mealworms.”

A cow eats ten times as much in feed in order to produce one kilogram of meat. For mealworms, it is just 2.2 times that quantity of feed. A consequence of this is that beef production now accounts for a third of the world’s arable land – currently being used to grow grain for animal feed. Feed for the breeding of mealworms requires only 10 % of this area.

Protein from insects

Ungerer had already dealt with insect breeding as part of her Master’s thesis in industrial design. Back then, she designed a small machine for breeding insects within her own four walls at home. Later on, her profession led her to Hong Kong, where she designed headphones and car interiors. Not until a United Nations report published in 2013 was she spurred on to continue working on her Master’s project. The report featured a recommendation to use insects as food sources as they are healthy and sustainable. Her efforts enabled her to carry out projects in Hawaii, Africa and Malaysia. Upon returning to Hong Kong, she received funding from a South Chinese investor, which led to her founding Livin Farms in 2015.

Mehlwürmern, Protein, Insektenzucht, Livin Farms
Katharina Unger (2nd from left) with team (c) Livin Farms

Her company kept its headquarters in Hong Kong but founded a branch in Vienna in 2019. There, where rents are cheaper, she is working on the industrialization of insect farming – using mealworms. Her second line of business is the Mini Mealworm Farm, which is run via the Hong Kong site. Breeding insects yields two products for private households: proteins and fertilizer. The fertilizer – a dry powder – is a by-product that constitutes an ideal nutrient for plants. Since the mealworms are fed on plant-based kitchen waste, this forms a natural cycle. The harvested mealworms are frozen before they can be used in cooking.

An interview with Katharina Unger:

Which problem do you resolve and why is that important?

I would like to make significant improvements to the food system and integrate insect farming into the chain by utilizing residual materials and high-quality proteins. When it comes to recycling residual materials, we cooperate with food supply chains that have a lot of organic residual materials, such as old fruit and bread that can no longer be sold. We reduce food waste this way, which accounts for 8 % of global warming.

Leftover waste from bakeries (c) Livin Farms

The way in which pigs, chickens and cattle are bred has been known for thousands of years already. But hardly anything is known about breeding insects. We are endeavoring to breed insects on a large scale and are researching things like:

  • feed conversion;
  • which environmental conditions are required;
  • how to automate their management – so that breeding them becomes scalable.

Mealworms are frozen after harvest and processed into flour and fat. This flour has a high nutritional value and is often primarily used in animal feed.

When breeding insects – what has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

It is not the details that are difficult, but the interaction between all the various things that are involved. Insect farming only came into existence in 2012 and is still very novel. There are as yet no companies that utilize insects on a large scale. This makes it very difficult to attract and keep customers on a long-term basis. At the same time, production scale has not yet been established. We’re unable to talk to major customers yet.

We are researching both technology and niche areas in order to put products on the market. Developing products which involve processing insects requires a great deal of tact and sensitivity.

What have been your finest moments?

Our first products and happy customers. We made the Mini Mealworm Farm in China with blood, sweat and tears and then sold hundreds of them worldwide. It was nice to get feedback from customers who are better off with this in their lives.

How difficult was it to get funding?

Not that easy given the complex market. Many believe that insect farming will become more important in the future, but few are willing to put their money where their mouth is. But we already had an investor who brought in some equity.

How are the conditions of your Vienna location?

We are based in Vienna because of the more favorable rents. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world and it’s really hard to procure alternative agricultural land. Industrial farming also needs space for machinery. The market for proteins is in Europe and Asia. You’ve got to make savings here and there. We want to keep the Hong Kong site in order to stay strategically anchored there and we want to pursue the Asian market.

Where do you want to be with your company five years from now?

We want to establish ourselves as one of the most important and sustainable companies in the field of alternative protein. In order to accomplish this, we aim to breed high-quality proteins – as part of a sensible, sustainable system with partners whose raw materials we can process as animal feed.

What makes your innovation better/different from existing products?

Insects are particularly good at processing inferior raw materials effectively. In some scenarios, this makes them even more sustainable and efficient than plant-based proteins, as these also need good soil, a lot of space and fresh water, for one thing.

Mehlwürmern, Protein, Insektenzucht, Livin Farms
Umweltbilanz (c) Livin Farms

Are you hiring?

We are currently looking for a hard-working and highly motivated production employee.

Thank you for this interview.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read more of our IO articles in our series here.