Follow along as we discover how startup founders transformed their idea 'seeds' and built them into successful businesses from the ground up.
In this series, we're joined by a range of extraordinary founders to retrace their steps from the thought that first sparked the idea for their business, through to commercialisation and running a startup. Each startup had a different blueprint for building their business, with fascinating stories to read about their wins, setbacks and plans to shape the future of food - and if you're an aspiring entrepreneur, you might find some helpful info about how to grow your business and leverage your ideas.
Food Futures: Hey Skye, how did you come up with the idea for Circle Harvest? What was the question or problem that you were trying to solve?
Skye: When we first started Circle Harvest, it was completely by accident! I have an education company where we go to schools and teach kids about the importance of insects in our environment, and we were looking for some unique promo to do for an education expo. We'd just come back from Thailand where I'd tried edible insects, so I decided to make novel food products like lollipops that had edible insects on the inside - with crickets, mealworms, ants, scorpions etc. We made about a thousand of them and they sold out within a couple of hours which was fantastic. The week after, I was getting calls from lolly shops, marketing companies, newspapers, that wanted to know more about these edible insect lollipops.
Being a food scientist, I wanted them to have correct retail labelling on them, so I sent away some crickets and mealworms for nutritional testing in a laboratory, and when I got the results back I was shocked that no one was eating them as a source of food because they were so nutrient dense. It was at that moment that I thought I had the perfect combination of skills to convince people that this was a good idea, and so I've spent the past fifteen years convincing people that eating insects is a fantastic idea.
Retracing the steps of Circle Harvest
Food Futures: If you had to plot the timeline of having the idea for Circle Harvest to launch what would that look like? And were there any programs that you participated in or actions that you took which were useful over time?
Skye: We actually launched Circle Harvest, formerly known as the Edible Bug Shop, within 3 months of thinking that it was a good idea. Our business has really evolved and changed over time as the market and consumer acceptance around insect-based proteins has changed. We've had a few key moments over time that have helped us to push our business forward and we were part of accelerator programs which really helped us to expand and hone different areas of our business.
2007: we officially launched our Edible Bug Shop website and started Australia's first insect protein farm
2015-16: we stopped making novel food products and really focussed on familiar foods, making them available just through our website
2018: we were lucky enough to be selected as part of the SproutX Accelerator Program, which really helped us to hone our agricultural technologies on the farming side of our business.
2019: we were selected as part of the Mars Seeds of Change Accelerator Program, which was fantastic for us because we really needed help with our branding for supermarket shelves - and now we have our beautiful Circle Harvest branding.
2020-2021: we launched Circle Harvest into retail stores, which was really exciting because the brand looks fantastic on the self and people are really relating to that brand.
2021: we were selected for the Energy Lab Program, which helped us to focus on being a more sustainable business, converting over to all renewable energies and zero waste which is really important to us. We've always been low waste, but that program helped to round our business out on the sustainability side.
The beginning: gaining ground and scaling up
Food Futures: Fascinating! So at the beginning of this process, once you'd started to educate people on the benefits of edible insects, was there anything that you did to validate your idea like market research?
Skye: In the early stages, we did a lot of research around the availability of edible insects in Australia, of which there was nothing - and there no market for edible insects in Australia at the time either. We already had an established website, so initially we launched a few edible insect products (more novel things like lollipops and chocolate coated bugs) on our education website to see what the response would be and get feedback from customers that way. They were really popular, so we established our very own website that would have just edible insect products. Most of the research we did was based on customer feedback that we were getting from our existing website, and we transformed that into something that was completely new.
Food Futures: After you'd done that research and started to gain some traction, how did you go about scaling and what was the next step?
Skye: The next step was to expand our farming capacity, because there weren't any suppliers of edible insects in Australia. Once we realised that there was a market for it and that people wanted these kinds of products, we established Australia's first insect protein farm. In the initial stages we did everything by hand - we set it up in our backyard in a little shed! We learned about farming insect proteins because there really was nothing available for us to research, so we had to do it all ourselves. It was a fantastic learning experience, and because we started so small, it's allowed us to grow, change and find out what works and doesn't work without having to do it on a big scale, and now we can do it on a big scale really successfully.
Food Futures: Amazing - so did the process of educating people about edible insects take a long time in Australia? How did people react?
Skye: When we first started, if we were doing a food expo or something like that, it was like there was a big forcefield around us! People did not want to engage, they were really scared about what we were doing. This was a little bit disheartening, but we pushed on and turned our focus to schools and we've been running a future food program for schools for over fifteen years.
Our cricket protein chips are available in over a thousand school canteens now which is really cool because we developed them specifically for kids, so it's fantastic that they are now learning about edible insects as part of the school curriculum and that they have the opportunity to make a better food choice with their own money
Team-building and mentorship
Food Futures: How did you go about building a team through this? What does the structure of your team look like and how did you fill any capability gaps that you might have had?
Skye: Our team grew very organically - a lot of our staff have been with our business from the very beginning. They all share a passion for food and food security, and we all knew each other previously from different positions that we had worked in before and we all came together to create this market where there wasn't one existing before. We're not a traditional team, we're all highly specialised in different areas and share a passion for sustainable food systems.
The team is very science heavy - I'm a food scientist & entomologist and we range from an insect diet specialist entomologist to a robotics engineer and microbiologist. We've just hired our very first sales team which is amazing, as when we first launched our website we would always sell out of products, so we didn't really need someone to push sales for us - but now that we've launched our products to retail we have a sales team to talk to retail buyers, which has been life-changing for our business.
Food Futures: As a result of growing Circle Harvest into the successful business that it is today, have you met a lot of people who are interested in getting into edible insects based off your role modelling?
Skye: Yes - I'm now a lecturer at a university for animal and food science students about insect protein production, so it's really fantastic because I wish that I was taught about this when I was at university! The students are all interested in different kinds of farming, not just traditional livestock farming, and they're looking at insect-based protein and other forms of agriculture like cellular technologies too. So I really feel that by giving back and teaching them about edible insects and how we farm them on a commercial scale, we're helping the next generation of edible insect farmers.
Food Futures: That's such a great opportunity - and if you had to mentor an entrepreneur starting out in the edible insect protein space, what advice would you give them?
Skye: If you're starting a new business, I would recommend being really flexible and having the flexibility to change and grow with the market - we've been successful because we've been able to do this. Even though you might have an initial, idea, that might not be the idea that you end up with - take onboard any criticisms or feedback that you might have and use to change your business path as the market grows and as people become more educated about your products.
Food Futures: What has been your biggest learning curve along the way?
Skye: Building a business! I'm a scientist and have no business experience except for my own business (which is a lot of experience now with fifteen years operating), but in the early days it was definitely making sure that the business is profitable and successful and learning how to make that happen. It took at least five years to feel comfortable on the business side of things, which was a process of learning from other people and the Internet - it was a long learning curve but definitely one that I'm happy to have taken part in.
Aussie STEM Stars, a series for children aged 9-13 years that celebrates Australia's leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, have just released a book all about Skye and the Circle Harvest story. You can read more about it at the link here.