From Ann Arbor to Africa: Undergrads Team Up to Find a Sustainable Animal Protein

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Unconventionals // Season 5 • Episode 5

Undergrads Team Up to Find a Sustainable Animal Protein

Today on The Unconventionals, a special edition. Call it “Unconventionals Young Guns.” We're taking a peek into the future, and the future looks pretty great, at least embodied by Eric Katz and Kulisha, a company he founded with a handful of other students who hail from Brown to UCLA to Kenya.  Kulisha, which comes from the Swahili verb "to feed," produces an animal protein from insects as an alternative to conventional animal feeds. This is great for small farmers in Kenya, but has implications for all of us. Most animal feed out there is made from fish, which is expensive, destructive, and unsustainable. We're going to hear a little bit more about Kulisha and where it's headed, but we're also going to talk about innovation and entrepreneurship on college campuses. 

 

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Speaker 1:
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Mike:
Today on The Unconventionals a special edition, call it "Unconventionals Young Guns.”. Credit for that goes to PJA creative director Lauren Bell. We're taking a peek into the future and the future looks pretty gray, at least embodied by Eric Katz and Kulisha, a company he founded with a handful of other students who hail from Brown to UCLA to Kenya. We're here at the PJA radio studios in Cambridge and Eric is here in Boston as a visiting scholar sponsored by the Forbes 30 under 30 conference.


Kulisha which comes from the Swahili verb to feed produces an animal protein from insects as an alternative to conventional animal feeds. It turns out a lot of the animal feed out there is made from fish, think small fish like anchovies and sardines. This is expensive, it's destructive, not to mention the fact that most of our fisheries are dangerously over fished.


We're going to hear a little bit more about Kulisha, what it's about and where it's headed, but we're also going to talk about innovation on college campuses. When you hear thought pieces on college campuses today you'll hear a lot about identity politics and trigger warnings, but in fact universities, and University of Michigan among them, are hot beds of innovation and entrepreneurship. We'll talk about how Eric and Kulisha got started. There are a lot of resources out there that put bright young people and their ideas together with the networks that can help them launch.


Eric welcome to Cambridge. I guess I would start with, why do we need Kulisha?

Eric:
It's a great question. The reason that we need Kulisha is because right now we're looking into some of the statistics behind it and over fishing is a huge issue globally. Actually over 30%, 37%, of all fish that are caught, like wild caught fish, are actually small fish like you were mentioning, mackerel, sardines, anchovies. Of that 37%, 90% of that goes towards making animal feed.

Mike:
Who knew, right?

Eric:
Yeah it's incredible. A huge contributor that you wouldn't normally think of is animal feed, that's really causing the depletion of the oceans to some extent.

Mike:
We're feeding what kind of animals with this?

Eric:
We're primarily feeding fish. Aquaculture consumes about 50% of that and then poultry is by far the second biggest, then after that you have pig and those are really the big three.

Mike:
It's a great idea. I'm very curious, how did you come up with that? How did you put that together?

Eric:
Yeah, it is actually a really funny story. I'm part of a scholarship group called the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. What that is, is it's an organization whose goal is to diversify the conservation workforce by bringing 25 young people from around the country of all different academic, socio-economic and different types of backgrounds, so that they can learn together with conservation leaders.


I actually met a really good friend there name Viraj. Viraj Sikand is my co-founder. We really connected. It's a two summer program. We connected the first summer and then part of the second summer is you decide to work as interns together. Together we chose the Quinault Indian Nation and there we were able to work for the Department of National Resources. We really became close with people there and they have a really large salmon hatchery that we were able to go visit.


The salmon hatchery was incredible, it's one of the largest in the Pacific Northwest and the entire United States. We were coming on the close of this program and I was really sad about it. We were taking a hike on I think it was called Pony Creek Trail in Taholah Washington.

Mike:
You remember this.

Eric:
Yeah. I remember it all, I was hiking up a hill and I was talking to Viraj about how I had been studying, I had been working for this organization that looks into emerging markets, business in emerging markets. I was telling about this insects company that I saw that I thought was really cool. He was telling me about where he used to go visit back home, he's Kenyan. Where he used to go visit in Kenya, a place called Msambweni, huge foreign vessels were coming in and trolling on the coast, which was really destroying the ecosystem there and taking a toll on local fishermen.


He was telling me about that, I was telling about the insects and one time he said, "Hey, what if you could use those insects to feed the animals that the fishing that's destroying my community is actually impacting?" He was like, "How about you chew on that?" That was something kind of like a joke, I think I took it a little bit too seriously and went back. That was where I started really diving [crosstalk 00:05:13] resources.

Mike:
That sounds exactly like the Kulisha model, right?

Eric:
Yeah. That is ... What is the Kulisha ... When you say the Kulisha model [crosstalk 00:05:20]

Mike:
You're finding that fish is an alternative protein, putting that together came out of that conversation.

Eric:
Yes, almost exactly. Yes.

Mike:
That's great. I also think too, I think I was working a landscaping job in my summers between college. You're working with this Doris Duke program, you're working on an Indian reservation in Washington, what a great experience.

Eric:
Yeah, it was incredible. The Doris Duke program is one that I highly recommend. It really impacted my life and I could say that for most of the scholars that I was with. It really changed my perspective. Not only did it change my perspective, it's really guided lots of the actions and key decisions that I've made going forward, like starting this business, what I'm going to study, where I'm going to go and what really matters to me.

Mike:
It's funny, when I was in college I studied English but my friends were business students. They would tend to be ... They'd study accounting and they wanted to go work for, this will date me but, the big eight accounting firms back then. Then you would basically be a junior person, working for a big company, work your way up the ladder. That was the thought, it sounds different now maybe.

Eric:
Yeah. That is still a way that many people go, obviously the lingo has changed, it was the big eight, then it was the big six, now the big four, whatever it may be.

Mike:
This was the 80s [crosstalk 00:06:34]

Eric:
But you're absolutely right and I think it really is leaning towards starting your own thing. Entrepreneurship has really been this hot button topic around university campuses. Many people are trying to dive into that, try to start their own thing, have their own idea and really pursue something a little bit different. I think universities are, at least my university I think is doing a really good job of trying to help students out with that.

Mike:
Let's talk about that. What's available to you? You're a business student, right?

Eric:
Yes.

Mike:
What's available to you? You've got this idea, you came back from you summer. You had this idea, who is there to help? Who did you turn to?

Eric:
Yeah, so I had this idea and the first people we turned to were, it's called the Zell Lurie Institute For Entrepreneurship. It's an institute for entrepreneurship within the business school. They were extremely helpful. The first thing that we wanted to do was ... Well we really didn't know, so we went to these guys and we were like, "Hey, we want to start a business, what's next?" They were like, "Well you first have to talk to like who your customers might be, you don't even know who they are."

Mike:
It's a good idea, right?

Eric:
Yeah, you want to grow bugs but what's next? They told us that, then we went to the Center for Social Research I think it's called and they helped us devise a study that we could make sure that we weren't biasing the farmers that we were asking, and then ZLI helped us guide questions to make sure we could validate some of the assumptions based on what Viraj had told me about Kenya.

Mike:
You got one organization helping you define the survey instrument.

Eric:
Yes.

Mike:
Another saying, "That's what you should do."

Eric:
Yes, kind of guiding the survey in two different ways. One making sure it's not biased and the other making sure that you're actually asking questions that matter. The other big thing was ZLI gave us $500 to run this. They have a grant called, I think it's the Venture Shaping Grant. If you have an idea they'll toss some money your way to try to prove it and dive into it a little bit more.

Mike:
$500, okay, awesome but what can you do with $500?

Eric:
I guess as students you stretch money a little bit easier. We were actually able to interview 32 farmers. What that was was Viraj driving through the country.

Mike:
In Kenya?

Eric:
In Kenya, rural areas, way out there. This was actually during the rainy season so half the pictures were of fish farms and interviews and the other half were of his car getting stuck in the mud because you're driving through essentially mud. Fortunately we were able to cover his gas, whatever maintenance cost he had to pay after all the mud, and then also visiting some of the farmers, some of them like a little money. Yeah, that was what we were able to do.

Mike:
What did he hear? He must have heard good things, right?

Eric:
Yeah. I guess good things for us, bad things for farmers in Kenya. At this point we were specifically focused on fish farmers. It was really terrible. We interviewed 32 people, of those 30 people were extremely interested in the idea, it's a really intuitive concept, feeding insects to animals when animals naturally eat insects.

Mike:
Insects that are from Kenya anyway, right? Native to Kenya.

Eric:
Yes, native to Kenya. One of the biggest things we came away with was not just that people were interested but that there was a huge issue in this market that was really unidentified. That was there is a lack of high quality low cost feed for small scale farmers. It can be up to 80% of their total production cost, which is incredibly high.

Mike:
Where do they get ... They're buying feed like farmers here would buy feed I suppose?

Eric:
Actually not. That was really what helped us validate, that's what we had thought going in, but actually they're making their own feed. They're doing that by buying ingredients here and there, maybe they'll buy some corn, some wheat flour, maybe a little bit of fish and then they'll try to mix it. They'll use something that looks like an old pasta maker to make pellets and then they'll lay it out in the sun to dry.

Mike:
Really complicated, expensive.

Eric:
Complicated, expensive, messy and difficult.

Mike:
We talk about on The Unconventionals Darwinian gap sometimes, like what's that big yawning gap between what the need is and what the market is currently providing. It sounds like the feed was one of those gaps.

Eric:
Yeah absolutely. Looking back at the numbers, it turns out that about 40% of all animal feed that's produced in Kenya is actually made by farmers or small community millers in that unprofessional way that we were talking about. The other 60% is filled by those millers but there really is a huge gap there.

Mike:
Yeah. That's what you're attempting to meet, right?

Eric:
Yes.

Mike:
Where's the business now. You're a what, a senior in college?

Eric:
Yeah, I'm a senior in college.

Mike:
You've got a day job, but what's going on with the company now?

Eric:
Right now we're operating a fully functional pilot facility in Nairobi, Kenya. We have two people managing that site full time. Right now what we're working on back in America is proving out the model a little bit more, communicating with millers, talking with farmers and also working on designs for a larger facility. What we want do is scale our facility about 100 times to be at commercial levels of production where we can then sell tons, tons and tons of this insect based protein and really test the market on a whole new scale and test this system that we're developing that can ideally be scaled to waste management companies and throughout the world.

Mike:
Yeah, there's a lot of people who are in the business of taking this kind of process and these kinds of materials and making it large scale. Just to get a sense of scale, how much are you producing today?

Eric:
Today we're producing about 200 kilograms per month.

Mike:
How much is that?

Eric:
We're using essentially 200 really pretty small buckets.

Mike:
Okay.

Eric:
Just imagine, we have about a three by seven meter greenhouse that we were somehow able to put together. It's filled with, kind of like vertical farming, shelves of buckets with bugs growing in them. That's producing about 200 kilograms and where we want to be is about 20 tons, and that's in monthly production.

Mike:
That's awesome, that gives a sense of scale. What next? You're a senior, what happens when you graduate?

Eric:
I really want to move to Kenya and work on this full time, that's my plan right now. Now we're currently working on raising funds to make this possible, not only to support me, my co-founder and our other people supporting the business but also to be able to really build this facility. That's what next, is designing the facility and raising money and really preparing to actually go there and do it when we graduate.

Mike:
You're off to Kenya.

Eric:
I'm off to Kenya.

Mike:
That is awesome. I want to say thanks for Eric Katz for coming in and sharing his story. To all of you thanks for listening. I'd really like it if you would let us if you liked this episode. Does it make sense for us to be playing around with our format a little bit? The Unconventionals is in its fifth season and it feels like the right spirit to upend our own conventions every now and then. Unconventionals young guns, maybe this is the first of many. We're always on the hunt for great stories of disruption, innovation and change and sometimes those stories begin on college campuses. Let us know if you should be telling your story. I'm Mike O'Toole and this is PJA Radio.