Alvan Hunt is a man on a mission.

The Ballaghaderreen native wants to start the next agricultural revolution by giving Ireland and the world a new sustainable source of protein for animal feed and fertiliser.

In a warehouse in Co Meath, Hunt is farming 70,000 insects to produce valuable insect oil, protein, chitin and fertiliser under the Hexafly banner. And this Sunday, Hexafly won the "best business idea" category at Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur (IBYE) competition, securing a €15,000 investment fund.

Insect oil competes with fish oil, a high-value commodity in the fish and animal feed market, while insect protein is seen as a high-quality protein source for animal feed.

Chitin, which forms part of each insect’s exoskeleton, is a high value biopolymer with uses in medicine, cosmetics and as a food additive.

Frass is a compound plant fertiliser produced by Hexafly that can also be sold as a liquid fertiliser.

The Hexafly pilot facility in Kells measures 2,000sq ft and is home to more than 70,000 adult flies, the livestock in Hunt’s insect farm.

The pilot facility is home to more than 70,000 adult flies, the livestock in Hunt’s insect farm

Each adult lays 500-800 eggs and, given the right conditions, will breed constantly.

The eggs are incubated until they mature into larvae, which are then fed on waste vegetation.

“The larvae eat the vegetable waste, breaking down the cellulose of husks in it,” explains Hunt. “They shed their skin as they grow, that’s the exoskeleton.”

Big targets

Hunt is joined in his work by university friends Hexafly co-founders John Lynam and Patrick McGarvey.

Meath man Lynam is described as the technical/mechanical genius of the trio, while McGarvey, from Donegal, is a scientist committed to creating a sustainable future. All three are aged 26.

They have some big target markets in mind; the EU aquaculture feed (fish food) market is worth €4.3bn, the global market for chitin is €56bn and the European plant fertiliser industry is worth €670m.

“We saw very little innovation in the agtech scene in terms of feed,” says Hunt. “The same feed sources have been used for decades; there has been very little change.”

The process of developing the insect farm has been a mix of biology, technology and engineering.

“We spent two years working out how to get these insects breeding. It took a lot of work but we have cracked it,” he explains.

Scaling up

Their current facility was funded through a €100,000 investment round but they are near the end of a second funding round which will see them raise €1m from investors.

Their plan is to increase in scale in a big way and they are currently scouting for a new premises of 25,000sq ft. This will enable Hexafly to house millions of insects, as well as the cages, incubations units and factory equipment necessary for the business.

The trio is keen to get the pilot project scaled up to a commercial level and has already met with global feed producers such as Nutreco in the Netherlands and aquaculture multinational Skretting.

The IBYE competition is run by the Local Enterprise Offices and supported by the Department of Jobs and Enterprise Ireland.

Hexafly is supported by the Meath Local Enterprise Office.

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