#95 Pat Crowley, Founder and CEO of Chapul Farms
Pat Crowley is founder and CEO of Chapul Farms, building and scaling modular insect farms. His diverse career path has had a singular focus of ensuring the food and water availability to future generations, with previous positions as a climate modeler, hydrologist, and agronomist for state and federal agencies. He founded Chapul (the first edible cricket protein company in the US) in 2012 as a way to create a pull-through demand for the growth of the insect agriculture industry. This path led him to an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, securing an investment from Mark Cuban, into a brand that reached national distribution as the first of its kind. Addressing today’s growth needs of the industry, Chapul Farms’ mission is to increase biodiversity within agriculture, leveraging insects as a gateway to beneficial microbial ecosystems that are essential to regenerative farming, and most terrestrial ecosystems on the planet.
Pat has an M.S. in Watershed Hydrology from the University of Arizona and a B.A. in Psychology from Claremont McKenna College.
Bigger Than Us Episode 95
This transcription has been lightly edited for readability.
Host Raj Daniels
Pat, if you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?
Pat Crowley 02:37
I think one thing that’s interesting that is pertinent in some levels to what we’re doing now is I’ve worked as a whitewater rafting guide and in previous life and in one particular experience is through the Grand Canyon. I think that’s helped ground a lot of the perspective on some of the large scale vision of what we’re trying to do. In these river trips you cut through the layers of geology and history of life on this planet. So it helps get what we would call a geologic perspective of life on this planet and helps ground a lot of the the day to day trials and tribulations of project development.
Host Raj Daniels 03:23
So it’s interesting you say that because I had the opportunity to visit Zion National Park last October, and they had a river trek, which ended up to be I don’t know, 10, 14 miles, we were actually walking up the river and then back down the river through these geological formations. And I was having similar conversations with friends of mine just imagining how old these rock formations are. And when you get up close to some of these rocks and the size there is huge and just makes you like put things into perspective regarding your size. Not only here in the US, but when it comes to the world too, so I really appreciate you sharing that.
Pat Crowley 04:04
Yeah, absolutely. We started the company in Utah so I’m very familiar with with Southern Utah and in the landscape down there, it’s unparalleled. It’s like another planet. Beautiful area.
Host Raj Daniels 04:16
Also, I’d be remiss not to ask you regarding something interesting and Shark Tank.
Pat Crowley 04:21
Oh, that’s true. I was on Shark Tank, yeah.
Host Raj Daniels 04:26
Yeah, I love that. I love that how that was an afterthought to the Grand Canyon though.
Pat Crowley 04:31
They’re actually related. I was invited to come on Shark Tank, we applied in I was invited to come on it but they scheduled me for the airing at the same time I was doing the Grand Canyon trip and it was going to be the first trip I worked with my wife. We were both going to be in the Grand Canyon together such a magical place and I said, “oh, unfortunately, I can’t make it then.” And they were dumbfounded. “I don’t think you understand like, this is Shark Tank.” And I, in terms of “I don’t think you understand this is the Grand Canyon!” But ultimately they were able to change their day. We hung up the call and it was unfortunate and, the next day they called and said, “Hey, we were able to rearrange some things,” and thankfully, we can bring ya in. So I ended up finishing that trip and then within less than 24 hours, I went from 14 days, completely disconnected from any internet or, or Wi-Fi or TV or money and going directly into the studios to film in this concrete jungle with all these lights and cameras for Shark Tank. It was quite a one-eighty of universes.
Host Raj Daniels 05:47
So I think that it reflects on your priorities. It seems to have worked out. You were on Shark Tank for Chapul farms, which I want you to give an overview of here in a moment. But tell me about those priorities for a minute.
Pat Crowley 06:04
Yeah, I think the priority stemmed from a career path that I started before I started Chapul and Chapul Farms, and before any, any dream of Shark Tank, etc. And I became more interested in environmental sciences in essentially the trajectory of human impact on the planet. And so I went back to school to receive a Masters of Science in watershed hydrology, to help hone my skills and knowledge base for contributing to more sustainable life on this planet.
At the time I was viewing water as one of the most significant areas that I could contribute in. And so that was, my career path was looking out 50, 100 years of how we can benefit future generations having a more livable future. And it was through that lens of really water and agricultural consumption of water, the primary consumer of water on this planet that shifted my focus to the viability of insects and really the first company I started was Chapul, and we call it Chapul Foods at this point, and that was a consumer packaged product with cricket flour, the first introduction of a packaged product in the US that had insects as a form of protein. And it was really a marketing campaign for the viability of insect agriculture and wanted to create market demand and a pull-through demand for the development of a more sustainable supply chain.
At that time, I was viewing it just in terms of resources in versus resources out of water and land inputs versus caloric outputs. But now the layers of the onion as they peel off, the story becomes much more rich and the regenerative potential of insect agriculture and how it can be much more of a systems integrator, not just a simple linear input versus output, but how it can benefit life on this planet. And so, the pivot that we’ve done on Shark Tank was the energy bar company Chapul Foods with the cricket flour that we had created. And now we’re stepping into Chapul Farms where we’re building out the infrastructure for large insect agriculture to support several markets, not just the edible insect space, but also going into animal feeds and bioremediation of our country’s oil.
But now the layers of the onion as they peel off, the story becomes much more rich and the regenerative potential of insect agriculture and how it can be much more of a systems integrator, not just a simple linear input versus output, but how it can benefit life on this planet.
Host Raj Daniels 08:47
So you mentioned 50 to 100 year outlook. I don’t meet a lot of people who take that longer view on life and the the world. Where does that come from?
Pat Crowley 09:03
I was always I was brought up with parents that were Peace Corps volunteers and service to others was incorporated into my childhood, and a lot of the reading that I did growing up was a lot of anthropology and look to history. So looking back at our past, the longer view you take from behind us, I think helps with the forecasting your view into the future. And so I think that look into the past of where we’ve come from helps generate a longer-term perspective on where we’re headed.
And a lot of work in Arizona was actually my first job out of grad school and I worked for the Arizona Department of Water Resources. And we were charged with looking at, the long term supply of water in the second most arid state in the country, and I was fortunate enough to be able to work on some of the Native American reservations and glean some wisdom and some of their perspectives on that longer-term connection to the generations that you’ll never know. One of the projects I actually worked on was quantifying the agricultural water consumption of the Hopi Indian Reservation. And within the reservation is the longest continuously inhabited settlement in all of North America. And it’s been there for more than 800 years, this little community and so they have that perspective and you can tell and they share it with you sometimes if you take the time to listen, of seeing cultures come and go, they saw the Spanish come and go, they saw the Mormons come through the area and go and it’s just such harsh living conditions and harsh agricultural conditions that they were able to adapt in that area. And have benefitted from that long term perspective. So I think that’s certainly some of what helps drive the motivation for plodding through the challenges of short-sighted entrepreneurial and capital systems develop long term longer-term benefits to those that will come after us.
Host Raj Daniels 11:22
And can you tell me what that area is called?
Pat Crowley 11:28
Host Raj Daniels 11:33
Thank you for that, just for my own personal research.
Pat Crowley 11:35
Yeah. I mean, it was an incredible project that I worked on and their system of agriculture has adapted to that area and those conditions. It’s incredibly arid and extreme weather conditions, very hot and then very cold, and early frost and high winds. But the corn that they grow, their culture was adapted with it involved with it. And so they’re their ceremonial traditions are intricately woven into their style of agriculture. And it’s unlike any other form of agriculture I’d ever seen. And it again just had that longer-term vision that I’d like to help implement…or address some of the short-sighted trajectories that we’ve gone on for our mass global agricultural systems right
Host Raj Daniels 12:33
It sounds like they’ve developed a level of resiliency. And I think taking that view and coming back to Chapul Farms for a moment. You mentioned the cricket powder or the cricket bars on Shark Tank and then larger overview of Chapul Farms. Can you give me the broader vision for Chapul Farms?
Pat Crowley 12:52
In summary, currently, we’re building and scaling modular insect farms. The purpose of that, from a bigger perspective, is to do a 180-degree turn from the alarming trajectory of loss of biodiversity on this planet. So, how can we insert biology back into our food system to help reverse these trends of mass extinction and loss of biodiversity within our soils within our overall ecosystem, within the planet within? And then certainly within our agriculture, where we’re headed down this trajectory of loss of diversity of particular plants that were growing in agriculture, but also the species diversification within those limited plant supplies. And so, when we have four main species been trending towards fewer and fewer crops that we grow, and within those, we’re trending towards less and less genetic diversity as well and that’s very alarming, to say the least from overall sustainability as well as risk management for changes that are inevitable on this planet, whether they’re climate, political, etc.
Host Raj Daniels 14:10
So speaking of species, besides crickets, what other insects are you farming?
Pat Crowley 14:16
At this point, Chapul Farms, we’re focusing on black soldier fly. That is really one of the species carrying the torch right now for their regenerative potential. And one of the critical pieces of that is their availability of feedstocks or the feedstocks that are available to feed them. They can consume, essentially, inedible foods to humans, inedible plant material. So on this planet, our agriculture, we have an average harvest index of I think it’s like 50%. And so that means 50% of the plant material that we harvest, only half of that is edible.
And so what do we do with the other inedible? Some species have a higher demand for quality nutrition, but black soldier flyer, just incredible the wide range of plant materials that they consume, and so previously determine waste streams, if you will, that end up in a landfill can now be diverted into black soldier fly farms. And so that’s what we’re really targeting is what are the organic sources of material that are within our agricultural landscape right now that are going into landfills? And how can we divert that into black soldier fly farms and then recapitalize on all this energy and reintroduce it into the cyclical nature of nutrient cycling?
Host Raj Daniels 15:50
And what are some of the use cases for the black soldier flies?
Pat Crowley 15:54
Yeah, currently what we have approval in the United States for regulatory approval is poultry and aquaculture….so salmon and trout and so that’s what we’re focusing on. Pet food is in the pipeline as well, but currently, we’re focusing on poultry and aqua feed. And so just honing in on aquafeed. We’ve outlined very aggressive plans for aquaculture development in the United States. But at the same time, the large aqua feed players are saying there’s just not enough of a supply chain to support these aggressive development plans.
The industry is desperate for feed alternatives at this point and insects are really proving to be a very viable leading case for being an alternative to the primary inputs of fishmeal into aquaculture, and of course, fishmeal is, in the United States at least, 100% imported and has its own environmental impacts that you could dive into in terms of fish in versus fish out. It’s currently anywhere from four to five pounds of ocean-caught fish go into one pound of fish meal that then goes into feeding aquaculture. So we’re more focused on how can we recapitalize these agricultural waste streams, turn it in insect protein, and then have that support, aquaculture growth? Which is currently not only in the United States but globally, the fastest growing food production system on the planet.
Host Raj Daniels 17:33
And can you walk us through a life cycle or a farm cycle of a black soldier fly?
Pat Crowley 17:39
Sure, yeah. I always love this question because it always throws me for a loop of where to start. And I think that’s indicative of the circular nature of everything that we’re trying to do. And so, let’s just start at the egg stage. The black soldier fly lives in its fly state lives for about four days. And in that state, it doesn’t have a mouth. It doesn’t eat, multiply, all it does is lay eggs in and reproduce.
And so that’s one of the reasons why it’s considered a beneficial insect and is that they’re, they’re not subject to, spreading. They’re not a vector for viruses and other contaminants. And so essentially it lays its eggs within those four days. And so we take the eggs, and then we, we put them in a nursery and develop them to a neonate stage within a couple of days and then we take those neonates and we introduce them to the feed that they’ll be consuming for their next stages of development, which is their larva stage. And so as a larva stage they’ll consume these feeds anywhere from five to 15 days. And then we harvest the larva. And we separate them from the material in their manure, if you will, the technical term is frass. And, and then we let about 5% of those go to the fly state, and then they’ll lay eggs for the next generation.
So I think a key way to view insects is we’re essentially microbe farmers, and black soldier fly and the larva are just the superorganisms, the host to the entire ecosystem of beneficial microbes that have evolved together to play this critical role of bio composter on the planet. In nature, the black soldier fly, just native to the United States will lay its egg in the ground where biomass is falling to the ground and they processed that material and they play host to these beneficial microbes that then go into our soil and you have all these beneficial bacteria and fungi that fix nitrogen and continue to facilitate mineral uptake to plants. Just a central role and in natural ecosystems and so there’s no reason, and it’s, in fact, absurd that they’re not a part of our agricultural landscape when they have evolved to do this for millions of years.
And so that’s essentially what we are as microbe farmers but insects are the midwives for these microbes to rehabilitate our soil as well. And then on the larva side when the animals eat them, we’re also seeing incredible immunological benefits to the animals they eat them whether those are chickens or fish. Just like we’re uncovering with the human microbiome, you have a healthier gut microbiome, your immune system is healthier and you’re going to be less susceptible to disease.
So, for example, in chickens we’ve seen up to a 90% reduction in susceptibility to fowl typhoid when you introduce black soldier fly into the larva and it’s really incredible and groundbreaking science but at the same time it’s, well you feed a bird what it involved eating, insects, and it’s going to be healthier. So it’s both very elementary as well as on the cutting edge of what our understanding of the role of microbes on this planet is.
Host Raj Daniels 21:43
So you separate the larva from the frass. You take a percentage of the larva and then you grow them back into flies allow them to become flies again. Without giving away trade secrets, how does the larva become, let’s say aquaculture feed and second question, follow up, what do you do with the frass?
Pat Crowley 22:01
Yeah, I think the frass is one of the most exciting components of it. That goes right back into the soil. And so if we’re looking at a 14-day lifecycle, that plant biomass comes into our system, and then 14 liters, potentially is going right back into the soil. And there’s been studies showing that if you take that biomass and you put it through a black soldier fly farm, versus the next best-case scenario, aerobic composting, you’ll see up to a 70% reduction in carbon-based emissions by having it pass through a black soldier fly farm as opposed to composting because there’s essentially no methane production associated with the insect consumption of that material.
…you’ll see up to a 70% reduction in carbon-based emissions by having it pass through a black soldier fly farm as opposed to composting because there’s essentially no methane production associated with the insect consumption of that material.
So the frass goes right back into the soil. And then the larva itself there’s lots of different research projects happening now with the various forums that the larva takes and so one way is to simply just dry it out, reduce the moisture content, and then feed it directly as a dried larva to do poultry or even some cases aqua feed.
We have a farm and we actually work with an orphanage in Tanzania that they have a regenerative farm there that they raise black soldier fly on their food scraps and then they feed the flies once they’ve been dried out directly into the tilapia farm that they have on-site. And that dramatically increases the quantity of protein in their diet. Diving into more technical you can do more historically industry-standard methods of separating the protein and creating a protein meal and then separating the lipids and having a liquid oil as a product.
Essentially you can separate the larvae into three things protein, create a protein meal, the lipid oil, and then also chitin, the exoskeleton of the larva. And that’s an incredible biopolymer that can be used as a bioplastic in the future and it’s a really high value, pharmaceutical-grade product once you convert the chitin into chitosan. It goes into a jaw replacement, for example, and has really tremendous antifungal and antibacterial elements.
Host Raj Daniels 24:34
That really is amazing. For those of us that don’t have the opportunity to see a farm like this, can you paint a picture of like, how big is a farm like this? How many flies do you have? Or how much larvae are you able to grow?
Pat Crowley 24:48
There’s a wide range of estimates, but it’s anything from 500 to 1000 times more efficient in terms of land use versus protein compared to soy. There are projects happening in just a shipping container. And so you can have a system with trays that you put the feedstock in, and then the insects, and you can raise it in small scales that and it’s really fairly rudimentary mechanics.
Insect agriculture is thousands of years old, mostly in Southeast Asia. And it’s been very low tech if you will. And so as we scale these facilities, our goal is to address some of the largest culprits of organics going into landfills contributing significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. And so we would like to scale a solution around the magnitude of problems that are currently here. and so a large scale facility is, that’s why I said initially, modular. And so it’s just a really a system of trays where you’re growing these insects.
There is a temptation to really focus on the mechanization and the automation, of these farming systems. But we’ve taken more of a focus on developing the biology and really, how can we get out of their way? And how can we rather than control this life service and how can we optimize their life system? So how can we optimize the feed and the beneficial microbes that are contained within the insect? How can we help promote those? So an example is we found host-specific bacteria and fungi within the within that ecosystem of microbes, it’s contained in the larva, how can we isolate some of those and then apply them to the feedstock prior to them consuming and then increase the nutrient availability to the larvae, etc? But it’s all working within what nature has already provided us. It’s an exercise in the humility of getting out of the way of nature as opposed to trying to control it.
It’s an exercise in the humility of getting out of the way of nature as opposed to trying to control it.
Host Raj Daniels 27:13
I love the idea of getting out of the way of nature. I’m going to change direction here a little bit. The crux of our conversation is the “why” behind what you do. You mentioned your experience with the Native Americans and your background and your education also. But what drove you to start Chapul Farms? And what keeps you going? What’s the why behind what you do?
Pat Crowley 27:38
I mean, really, it was the benefit of future generations. I was very concerned of the path that we’ve laid. I was aware of the problems that we’ve created, and I just couldn’t sleep at night without contributing to solutions. As a water scientist, I know how fast our freshwater sources are being depleted. And I had to do something to address that.
And that’s what kind of led me into agriculture and that’s what at the time, working on in the public sector, I had a mounting frustration with the conservation efforts that I was doing, and the opposition that market forces were creating to conservation and conservation plans and strategies that we would develop and so that was one of the impetuses for starting Chapul and launching a company in the private sector was how do we create a market force for conservation and longer-term focus of the benefit of those that will come after us?
That was the motivation, was seeing what I can do with this time I have on the planet and how can I have the most impact? Because I think the more time you spend in the Grand Canyon looking at geology or looking up into the stars, the more insignificant you feel. But at the same time the sillier it seems to try and amass financial wealth on a planet that’s potentially dying. I think that’s essentially become a superpower of mine is trying to navigate these capital markets. How do we allocate mass financial wealth into the development of very beneficial projects, but not really having any personal desire for amassing it myself?
Host Raj Daniels 29:50
We’re all on temporary visas.
Pat Crowley 29:52
Host Raj Daniels 29:56
So what are some of the valuable lessons that you learned on your journey with Chapul Farms and doing what you’re doing.
Pat Crowley 30:10
Every day there’s new things being learned and that’s what really keeps me in it for all of the challenges and frustrations, just the development that happens in the fascination is endless. I mean, even from when we were introducing insect protein to many people for the first time, we were blowing people’s minds and we were met with a considerable amount of opposition. I always deem it as a funny looking face, and somebody kind of curls their upper lip at you and you ask them to try eating insects for the first time. That wears on you. People constantly say, “oh, that’s disgusting. Why would you ever do that? In the early days we would have that kind of opposition, but then maybe one out of every 10 would get the bigger picture vision of what we were doing, and they would say “thank you for what you’re doing. I sincerely appreciate what you’re doing.” And that’s, that really drove us.
I started Chapul eight years ago. And in that time, I’ve also become a father now, so I have two little ones. And now seeing their faces is really highlighted — it’s put a face to the future and that is is absolutely what drives me now not just for them but that their children and their children’s children and that’s what drives me far more than anything. I’m here for several more decades. I’m passionately going to work towards everything I can do to be progressing towards a livable future for them that has the basic necessities of food and water. Everything else is noise. But if our children can’t eat, can’t breathe and they can’t consume water, then everything else is just for naught.
Host Raj Daniels 32:19
Agreed. And since you mentioned the future, magic wand, 2025, what does the future hold for Chapul?
Pat Crowley 32:30
In terms of our development, currently, we’re working on some pretty large projects of converting some waste streams here in the United States into large infrastructure projects for raising insect larva, and then in going into aquafeed is the largest market that we’re entering right now. And poultry as well. And so our development will, in five years have optimistically, significantly increased. But also we would like to be, even from day one of the energy bar company, want to be a catalyst for the magnitude of change that’s required in terms of diverting our course of lack of biodiversity and so there are just inspiring projects all over whether that’s, you know, mycelium or algae and looking at the other kingdoms of life on this planet.
Sometimes I get frustrated with what seems like the trivial and binary discussion of plants versus animals when it really neglects the magnitude of impact that bacteria and fungi and the critical role that they play on life on this planet. Insects of course as well. We would like to be a catalyst for the development of many different life forms and systems integration and ecosystem services that are absolutely critical to life on this planet.
Host Raj Daniels 34:04
I love the vision, I’d be remiss not to ask you the name Chipul, where do they come from?
Pat Crowley 34:10
So I grew up in Arizona, and lots of time spent in Mexico as well. And the cultural border is less definitive than the political border. And so the name Chapul is of the Nawat language of the Aztec word, but also prominent in modern culture and Mexico to mean grasshopper. And so they chapulines currently and in the Oaxaca region of Mexico, it’s a delicacy. And then there’s anthropological evidence of the Aztecs, taking grasshoppers and drying them in the sun and then using stone tools to grind them down to a powder, and so it was a call out to them and their appreciation of some of that basic technology that we used for our process initially of taking insects and drying them out and then grinding them down to a powder for people to consume.
Host Raj Daniels 35:14
I like to shout out to them. And speaking of people curling their mouth at the idea of insects, I don’t know if you saw the video recently of our CEO Ben Hubbard, drinking your Chapul powder on LinkedIn.
Pat Crowley 35:25
Oh, no, I didn’t. I’ll have to check that out.
Host Raj Daniels 35:32
And he said he liked it. So there you go. Pat, if you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?
Pat Crowley 35:43
Yeah, I would just I would actually regurgitate some learnings. Let’s circle back to some lessons learned from the Hopi. They have an ancestral belief that the kachinas, previous generations reside in clouds, and in such an arid environment that they call the kachinas to come and give water and essentially life to this current generation. The way that they call them often is through laughter and dance. And so it’s critical that they are maintaining a positive attitude and laughing and dancing even in, and most critically in the most trying of circumstances in the harshness of droughts and in the face of famine and I think that is been helpful for me and in the face of significant changes and challenges that we face for inevitable massive changes to our climate and what that’s going to do for our civilizations.
It’s critical to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of such scary changes that are coming our way. And that would be one of my pieces of advice is to maintain a positive attitude and one of hope and a message of hope, no matter what you’re working on to exude that and everything that you’re doing if you’re focusing on a positive impact.
Host Raj Daniels 37:22
Well, I believe you said they’ve occupied that piece of land for 800 years. So the laughing and dancing seems to have contributed to their resiliency too.
Pat Crowley 37:32
I think so. Yeah. I think so. And the learnings that I’ve taken with me that certainly contributed to my resiliency and laughter, all those curled lips, as has helped me maintain my passion. I can only speak for myself but it certainly helped with my endurance through it all.
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