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Black soldier fly farm creates biomaterials for pharmaceutical, medtech industries by Straits Times

Updated: Jan 29, 2022

SINGAPORE - Black soldier flies - with their innate ability to turn discarded food into nutrients for plants and animals - have found a central role in Singapore's transition towards a zero-waste nation.

While numerous black soldier fly farms have been popping up around the island, one farm has been taking its food waste valorisation initiatives up a notch, by creating biomaterials for use in the medtech, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.

Co-founder and chief marketing officer of Insectta, Ms Chua Kai-Ning, told The Straits Times that up to five types of biomaterials can be extracted and produced from black soldier fly larvae, as they are rich in fat, oils and proteins, including a natural dietary fibre known as chitosan and a type of amino acid known as melanin.

The other three biomaterials are used in animal feed and supplements, she added.

The black soldier fly larvae are fed up to eight tonnes of food waste a month - spent barley grains from the beer-brewing industry and soya waste known as okara.

The food waste is then processed into a by-product known as frass - which can be made into plant fertiliser, and the larvae can be given to animals as feed.

Chitosan, which is typically derived from crustacean shells such as crab and shellfish, is a biodegradable polymer that is known for its anti-microbial and wound-healing properties.

In the pharmaceutical realm, chitosan is often used for drug delivery, bandages or sutures, said Ms Chua.

"The difference between our black soldier fly-derived chitosan and those sourced from, say, crabs, is that ours are sustainably produced, and also have a traceable source, which is key for biomedical or pharmaceutical use," she added.

The global chitosan market is valued at US$7 billion (S$9.34 billion) and is expected to expand by 25 per cent between 2020 and 2030.

The versatility of the polymer also means that it has a myriad of possible uses.

Insectta is working with a few companies to use chitosan as a framework or scaffold for 3D-printing organic compounds.

"For example, when you want to make lab-grown meat, the meat cells need a structure to grow on, and chitosan, as a fibre, is able to provide just that," she added.

Miss Chua Kai-Ning, the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Insectta, at the urban insect farm. PHOTO: PLUS GROUP

Several products made from chitosan have also been in the pipeline.

One example is an antimicrobial spray - developed together with local company C2Plus to create a disinfectant "coating" on fruits and vegetables, preventing germs from spreading when they are touched or inspected by consumers.

As chitosan also has a moisturising effect, Insectta is also working with a local cosmetics company to integrate the biomaterial into their products, said Ms Chua.

But discovering the melanin compound in black soldier fly larvae was more of an accidental surprise, she added.

"During the refining process to create chitosan, we noticed that we were producing a lot of black-coloured wastewater. And we were determined to find out why, given that our company ethos is about creating a circular economy and value recapturing," she added.

And, as it turns out, melanin, along with a lot of proteins, was being flushed out during the refining process.

"Melanin is a very exciting compound because it is natural and biocompatible, can be found in our bodies, and is also able to conduct electricity," said Ms Chua.

To leverage this, the company is working with researchers to create organic batteries. These can be used to power devices placed in the human body for a short amount of time, and then biodegrade after they have done their job, she added.

"Another use for the organic batteries would be in devices that you don't want to recover - such as maybe drones or sensors that are left in the ocean or the jungle, where we don't want the heavy metals in regular batteries to corrupt the natural environment," said Ms Chua.

The research team had also made "quite a bit of headway" in using the insect-derived melanin for bone healing.

"We worked with researchers to develop a bone scaffold made from melanin for use after bone surgery, so as to help bone grow back a lot faster," Ms Chua added.

Insectta's research team had also found that the naturally derived melanin was a lot more refined and could potentially be a lot cheaper than the current one sold in the market - which costs approximately $2,000 per gram.

Black soldier fly fertiliser and flash-dried black soldier fly larvae. PHOTO: ST FILE

"Because of the extremely high price point, it's very hard to put melanin into anything beyond research use," she said of a gap that the company hopes to bridge.

Early clinical trials have so far shown that the bone scaffolding works on a cell-based level, showing potential for larger-scale trials in the future.

Plans are also in place for Insectta to start a pilot plant and scale up the production of its biomaterials, said Ms Chua.

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