“Our goal isn’t to feed insects to people,” said Courtright, also president of the company now bursting the seams of a small office and testing facility at 303 N. Walnut St. “Our initiative in the Western World is to use insects as a key ingredient to feed our livestock,” particularly fish and poultry.
Courtright’s reference to the Western world leaves room for other places, like Kenya. Through a United Nations program, that country will send a scientist to train with EnviroFlight so that Kenyans, too, can use the techniques developed here to help under-gird their aquaculture or fish farming industry.
Business is good enough that Courtright is looking for a new location to expand his company’s research and development facilities by year’s end, an expansion likely to add a dozen jobs, raising EnviroFlight’s workforce to 20.
“We’re stuffed to the gills,” Courtright said, and need a bigger place, “because we’re getting ready to sign contracts.”
The fundamental idea of the venture is simple:
• To feed larvae grain used at breweries and ethanol plants and extra food waste like chicken nuggets and other plants;
• To harvest the protein- and fat-rich larvae at the end of their work for use in fish and poultry feed.
• To determine whether the processed grain or food waste they have been eating can be used in a so-called co-product, like fertilizer.
In a nugget factory, Courtright said, “one plant alone may have 28 million pounds of waste a year.”
If the fundamental idea of the business is relatively simple, Courtright has discovered since 2009 that harnessing the process can be like herding flies.
He said the soldier fly, what he calls the “transformational agent” for converting discarded foods into useful fats, oils and proteins, was a relatively logical choice.
“They’re non-pathogenic, native, already spread worldwide, and as a larvae it’s a voracious eater with good nutritional composition. Plus the larvae are relatively large and easy to sift” from their feed at production’s end.
As soon as he started work, however, Courtright discovered “the underlying (production) science was not there,” nor was the underlying entomology.
What there was, he added, ” would not scale into an industrial system,” he said.
“We had to throw out everything and start over. It took us seven different design iterations.”
Crucial to the production is optimizing the the life cycles of the insects themselves. That means creating ideal mating conditions in a climate controlled and music-filled greenhouse; transplanting the eggs into a nursery and growing them carefully until they can move into production; and then, at the end of their productive lives, preventing mass die-offs that can shut down production and spoil the product.”
All that had to be pulled off in a process that did not give off an objectionable smell.
“That was not easy,” Courtright said.
“We’re in our second season of selling a formulated sinking pellet for freshwater prawns,” Courtright said. “We’ve had phenomenal results and are cheaper than the major brand.”
That’s crucial, he said, because “the biggest impediment to expanding aquaculture is the price of feed.”
The company is now doing a test on feed it has developed for farm-raised yellow perch, trout and tilapia. Another natural market, he said, will be poultry feed.
Courtright said EnviroFlight provides food for the Cincinnati, San Antonio and Indianapolis zoos and sells some of its product to Timberline pet food.
A plus of the process is that, in some instances, it can produce multiple products, as when the larvae are fed spent brewers grains.
Courtright said the larvae extract the leftover nutrient and dry it in the process.
The larvae emerge from the process made of 43 percent protein and 45 percent fat, are cooked, then are blended with other ingredients to make feed.
The sifted dried grains, which emerge with nutrients the larvae have added, go into two addition products: one, a fertilizer; two, feed for freshwater shrimp and tilapia.
That leaves very little waste.
Courtright, whose background is in systems engineering, has combined all these processes into modular self-contained production units that include hatcheries and nurseries on one side feeding or processing beds on the other.
The units can be placed next to an existing food factory, slid inside an old factory space, or stacked one upon the other, depending on the production demands.
That work, however, is done only after EnviroFlight has studied material to be fed to the larvae, the larvae’s nutritional value at production’s end, what feeds the larvae might be used in and potential co-products.
In addition, EnviroFlight wants to a production run of three months so it can troubleshoot operational problems.
The financial arrangement calls for the client to owns the physical plant and its assets, while EnviroFlight retains ownership of the “bio-reactor,” breeding systems, incubator and feed formulations.
Courtright said that for companies just trying to get rid of their waste, it can turn a cost “into a profit zone.”
“To them, it’s quite simple. It pencils (out).”
The pencils are likely to get some help from regulatory pressure from a government trying to reduce the amount of food that goes into landfills, in part because it tends to produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
But Courtright said there are much larger benefits to capturing lost food energy.
If half the food that now goes to waste in the world can be recaptured, he said, “we can feed a billion people,” he said.
Moreover, he said, at a time when the oceans are being overfished and are under pressure from a rising human population, fish farms are likely to become the more reliable place to catch fish.
EnviroFlight’s Website is www.enviroflight.net.