A more sustainable food industry is desperately needed, because the demand for food is only increasing as the world population grows; a world food shortage is looming, according to the UN IPCC climate panel. Ortega: “People are too dependent on land to produce food. We are going to solve that problem – with insects.” In order to turn that dream into reality, Ortega and Arias emigrated from Costa Rica to the Dutch town of Geleen in 2020.
‘Sibö’ is a god from the Talamacan mythology of Costa Rica. “A hero who taught people which foods are safe to eat, how to grow them and how to set up the rules of a society by making use of natural resources,” says Ortega. The very reason they chose this name: the start-up wants to redefine the rules of the food industry by looking at natural resources that are abundant.
Insects: inexpensive piece of ‘meat’
It all started with a publication by Wageningen University and Research (WUR) which came to the conclusion that insects are the most reliable solution for a sustainable and sufficient food chain. For example, the nutritional value is comparable to that of ordinary meat, while much less feed is needed to cultivate them. Insects also emit as much as 100 times less greenhouse gas than pigs or cows. Moreover, insects multiply rapidly, which means that mass production is not an issue.
The land of insects
Ortega and Arias were still living in Costa Rica at the time, which, in addition to being the land of coffee, is also the land of insects. Together with the WUR, they started breeding insects with Costa Rican farmers. Eventually Sibö moved to the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Limburg last summer to develop the technology further.
This is not to say that they have stopped breeding insects in Costa Rica, but the agricultural part (CRIC) has been completely separated from the technical part (Entowise). Ortega: “We do not want to stop the agricultural program because we are now living in the Netherlands, but rather to expand it to other developing countries. We pay farmers a fair price and in the process facilitate our own sustainable and socially-ethical supply chain.”
Isolating protein, fats and cytosine
A mealworm on your plate is entertaining and exciting, but that is not what Sibö is focusing on. ” The use of insects in powder form is particularly interesting. Then you can use it in all sorts of ways, in bread, pasta and protein bars, for example,” Ortega explains.
Powdered cricket has been on the market for about ten years, but it is not a high-tech product. Sibö is working at the Chemelot Campus on a technology ( and the associated licenses) that can extract three nutrients from insect powder: protein, fats and cytosine.
This is a tricky process, because all of the materials tend to isolate under different conditions (for example, protein dissolves in water, fats in oil, and cytosine is basically insoluble). Ortega: “Then it comes down to the fact that if you apply one process, you end up losing the other two materials. We also tried it with different kinds of chemicals and through a physical process, using a printing press to separate the materials. Those didn’t work either.”
Meanwhile, in attempting to solve this issue, Sibö swapped his food perspective for a chemical one. In cooperation with the knowledge, technology and expertise at Brightlands, Sibö developed a technology (Entowise™) using green chemistry that makes it possible to separate all the nutrients of insects – fats, proteins and fibers – from each other. Without any harmful substances and in a sustainable way.
The technology makes it possible, for instance, to sell vitamin B12 this way, which is now only available from synthetic or animal-based sources.
In five years, Ortega hopes Sibö hopes to be working with the largest companies in the food industry and that worldwide, animal proteins and fats will have been replaced by insects. “Nestlé has already expressed interest and is closely following our developments. Also, I hope that in five years’ time we will also be selling products on the Asian market.”
The biggest obstacle toward those goals, however, are European laws and regulations. Research into the use of insects for human consumption is still in its infancy, Ortega notes. “We know of over two thousand insect species that are edible, but at the moment only the use of larvae of the mealworm beetle is allowed in powder form. The question is whether the European Union will keep up fast enough.”
Both founders left their lives in Costa Rica behind to work on their business in the Netherlands. “A lot hinges on it,” Ortega explains. “If we fail to make Sibö a success, we have to go back. That is always at the back of our minds. But, it also makes us even more motivated than we already were to turn it into a success.”
The Danish start-up Organic Plant Protein is also working on making the food chain more sustainable. You can read more about that here.