Skip to main content

Melbourne biotech company breeds flies to tackle world's waste problem

Martin Pike, 29-year-old CSO of Karma holding a container filled with Black Soldier Fly larvae.
Martin Pike with his eco-warriors — the larvae from the black soldier fly, or Hermetia illucens.

ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky

ADVERTISEMENT

A Melbourne biotech company is using its software development skills to breed black soldier flies whose larvae turn organic waste into animal feed.

Inside a shipping container in a warehouse in inner city Melbourne, a robust colony of the flies is being bred to create a sustainable agricultural feed product.

The larvae produced by the flies convert food scraps into a protein source.

"What we're trying to do here is really harness natural processes, turn them into something that's more efficient than nature, and do something really good for society and for agricultural industries," Karma3 chief scientific officer Martin Pike said.

While the fly only lives for about a week, during that time the efficient breeders lay between 100 and 500 eggs.

As soon as the eggs hatch, they begin breaking down organic matter into a protein-based substance used to feed animals.

With a current nutritional content of 60 to 65 per cent protein, with the remainder a mixture of carbohydrate and fat, Mr Pike said it made an ideal substitute for soybean meal currently used in many animal feeds.

The protein is most commonly used as fish meal, but the company is investigating its use in the poultry and swine industries.

Clean source of nutrients

Larvae produced by the Black Soldier Fly.
Larvae produced by the black soldier fly in a Melbourne inner city warehouse.

ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky

It is not just the high protein content that makes the product desirable — the company claims the added advantage of the black soldier fly is its largely disease-free characteristics that dramatically reduce contamination levels in feedstock.

"They don't use food at all so they're not a vector for disease," Mr Pike said.

This characteristic is further exhibited in the larvae, whose gut bacteria Mr Pike likens to a probiotic, making them a clean source of nutrients.

"The end product itself is just naturally free from any sort of bacteria or virus or fungal infection."

Software expertise helps optimise systems

CEO of the biotech company, Karma, 28-year-old James Sackl, at his Cremorne office.
James Sackl is the chief executive of the Karma3 biotech company.

ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky

While Mr Pike and company chief executive James Sackl concede there is nothing new about the use of black soldier flies in organic waste recycling to create animal feed, the entrepreneurs with a background in software development said they were applying their skills to create an optimised system for rearing insects.

Along with the automated systems and use of 3D printing for design prototyping, the company has also experimented with feed ingredients.

"We have begun adding waste spirits into our feed blend because we found that as our colonies metabolised the alcohol, their protein absorption increased by over 10 per cent," he said.

While the company has only been around for the past 12 months, the pair is ambitious in their plans.

"We're sort of single-mindedly focused on creating basically the world's largest fly farms, or rather insect farms, so not only flies we're hoping to work with in the future," Mr Sackl said.

"Basically we see them as the sustainable way of the future."

The Black Soldier Flies upon the finger of Martin Pike.
The black soldier fly only lives for about a week, and during that time it drinks a small amount of water, lays eggs, then dies.

ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky

Plans for expansion

While the entrepreneurs are currently operating out of a small warehouse in Cremorne, they plan to move to a larger undercover facility near Geelong.

"We've got tremendous support from the council to do so. We've got support from the local waste companies and yeah, we're sledging that as the first of many facilities," Mr Sackl said.

While the company currently sources waste from local businesses, which they offer a free collection service to, the hope is to expand their waste collection.

"What we're hoping to do basically is get a really mixed waste stream so we can experiment with different sorts of streams," Mr Sackl said.

"So we're talking supermarkets, hospitals, schools, food manufacturers, farms and agricultural businesses, anywhere that produces a sort of pre- or post-consumer food waste.

The company hopes to recycle about 500,000 tonnes of waste per month.

Would you eat food produced from fly larvae?

Even though Mr Pike could envision people one day eating the protein source produced by fly larvae, he said public perception would make it difficult.

"We're hoping to change that and we're hoping that we can basically show people that this isn't just a novelty, it's not something that's gross or disgusting," he said.

In the meantime, the company is focused on commercial negotiations with animal feed producers.

"We're talking to Australia's largest animal feed producer," Mr Sackl said.

"There's some big players out there that have expressed interest and are at the point now of signing supply agreements with us."