story by Ian Coutts.
Natasha Baziuk wants Gryllies, the startup she co-founded, to help the world by changing the way we eat – one cricket at a time. Baziuk, a 2015 engineering graduate from Queen’s was a member of the top team at that year’s Queen’s Innovation Connector Summer Initiative. She and her four teammates won $30,000 on the strength of the pitch they made to a panel of experts for a new product, Gryllies, a flour-like food ingredient made from dehydrated crickets.
Food security was a topic that Baziuk and her fellow team members felt deeply about – and with Earth soon to be home to 9 billion people, where we will find the food to feed them all is a pressing question. Insects may be the answer. “Crickets are densely packed with protein, they have minimal environmental impact, and they can be raised anywhere,” says Baziuk.
It sounds radical, but in fact the use of insects as a protein source is already catching on in Europe and the United States. “A lot of companies are using it as a substitute for all-purpose flour in cookies and energy bars,” she says. “They are normalizing eating insects, but,” she says, “they are not at all affecting meat intake.” The idea with Gryllies’ products is to get people to start substituting cricket for beef, chicken and the rest. “It is another way to get protein while alleviating the environmental and sustainability issues that come with meat.”
Although she now has two partners to help her with Gryllies, for much of the time since the summer, Baziuk has been carrying the company more or less on her own. The $30,000 that her group won for their pitch has been invaluable in helping Gryllies develop its product further, letting the startup rent a commercial kitchen for product development, paying for work on Gryllies carried out by food scientists at the Guelph Food Technology Centre, and covering some initial costs with their processor and packager, the Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre. The $15,000 they won recently in another pitch competition put on by the Queen’s Venture Network will also help them to keep developing Gryllies.
Baziuk and company aren’t far now from launching Gryllies. They plan to put it out there as an ecommerce venture to tap into all those people, especially in the United States, who are already using insects as a protein source. This potential audience is, says Baziuk, “millennials [those between the ages of 18 and 25] and Gen X moms, who are more health conscious than previous generations. From there they will expand to farmers’ markets and then to health food stores. Ultimately they hope, Gryllies will be carried by major food retailers. They are also interested in possible business-to-business opportunities. They are holding off on entering the market piecemeal, for the moment. “Insurance for a food company is very costly,” says Baziuk, “and we want to stay lean until we have real scale.”
Having the help of a wide range of local agencies created to help startups and entrepreneurs has made a difference to the Gryllies journey, Baziuk says.
“We are still in contact with Greg Bavington and the people at the Queen’s Innovation Connector,” she says. “We meet with them once a week, maybe more. We talk about who to connect with and what our next steps should be.”
“Innovation Park has been invaluable, too,” she says. “Office space is so expensive, and the fact that we get it for free really increased how long our funding would last.”
As well, “We can just go downstairs and talk to Launch Lab, who give us great mentorship and advice in terms of our marketing and packaging.” KEDCO, the Kingston Economic Development Corporation, has also been helpful, “in finding us different grants and funding programs.”
“Queen’s Office of Industry Partnerships is another group [who have helped us],” says Baziuk. “They connected us with our processing and distribution facility. We thought we would have to move to Toronto, but they connected us with the Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre in Colborne. Now we have a facility nearby. That is something we would never have been able to find on our own!” With all this support Gryllies is more than hopeful that they will be able to continue to move forward and have an impact on the way we eat and our environment – one cricket at a time.