John Chambers, former longtime CEO of Cisco, likes to call himself a growth and disruption guy. “I get market inflections,” he says. The latest inflection the tech veteran has his eye on? Insects.
Chambers explained his bet on bugs over dinner at the Michelin-three-star restaurant Saison in San Francisco, making his way through private batch caviar with broth made from cricket sauce; live spot prawns grilled with sweet cricket glaze; and sea urchin in a sauce of grilled bread and, yes, crickets. The insects are sourced from Aspire, an Austin-based startup that Chambers invests in and advises.
Much of the rest of the world has caught on to the benefits of eating insects—2 billion people in 80% of the world’s countries already consume them. But they’ve been slow to make their way into the U.S. diet. That’s a key reason that Aspire decided to partner with Saison. Serving crickets at one of the country’s most revered restaurants could shift the U.S. consumers’ response from yuck to yum by showcasing how insects can shine as an ingredient. “You see what [crickets are] capable of and that changes image of how people view this,” Chambers explains.
Aspire launched three years ago intending to automate the farming of crickets—one of the most efficient and sustainable sources of protein—and nudge them into the mainstream of U.S. diets. Crickets require 1.5 pounds of feed for every 1 pound of cricket produced—or what the agriculture industry calls the feed conversion rate. For the edible parts of a cow, that ratio is about 20 to 1.
There are about 1,000 different species of edible insects, so Aspire considered nearly three dozen different criteria—how easy they are to farm, taste, whether they transmit disease to humans—in order to decide which to work with. The company eventually landed on Acheta domesticus, which is commonly called the house cricket. Aspire than applied the principals of precision farming—discovering the ideal temperature, what kind of food should be delivered and when—to double the growth rate of the crickets.
“To farm the best cricket on earth, we have to understand the cricket on its own terms,” explains Aspire CEO and cofounder Mohammed Ashour.
Aspire started as an ingredient play, milling the bugs into powder. But it soon noticed customers buying them whole off its site and decided to run with it. “[We thought] the average American consumer was not ready to come face- to-face with crickets,” Ashour says. “We had it wrong.”
Chambers encountered a similar response in his everyday business dealings. “I deliberately take crickets with me when I call on everyone from the Defense Department to the very high-end Wall Street groups and test how many want to try them,” he says. Everyone very slowly raises their hand, he says, but in the end 95% of people want to try and nine out of 10 like them when they do.
Ashour and Chambers think that crickets can follow a similar path to acceptance as the lobster, which was once viewed as a lowly source of protein before it was considered a delicacy. “This is the lobster of the future,” says Chambers.
Now, even Saison is serving Aspire’s crickets. While Aspire normally slaughters its crickets by freezing them, which puts them into a coma-like state, Saison chef Joshua Skenes has them delivered live for freshness. He also requests that his crickets are finished with a specific feed—such as lemon grass or pine nuts—since they take on that flavor.
“They just a have a pleasant nutty taste,” says Skenes. “There’s nothing shocking about the flavor. They’re just delicious.”