Interview with Greg Sewitz, Co-CEO of Exo

Exo Protein

I love protein bars. Long before I ever started eating insects, I was an avid consumer of any rectangular-shaped portable bar of energy. Then I discovered that most of these bars were full of sugar and not actually as good for me as my track coach said they were. This is aside from the point, but simply meant to illustrate my excitement when I learned I would be speaking with Greg Sewitz, the co-CEO of Exo.

Exo produces delicious, nutritious, and sustainable protein bars (without a ton of sugar!) with crickets as the main ingredient! I spoke with Greg to learn about how he got his start creating cricket protein bars, and to discover how he sees public adoption of his product progressing.

GregSweitz
Greg Sewitz

Aly: So can you tell me how you got started in the “bug world” (as some call it)?
Greg: Basically, I cofounded the company with one of my roommates in college during our last year at Brown University in 2012-2013. Essentially, we were living together, and he was this huge gym guy. He had his own recipe for protein bars because he didn’t’ like any that existed in the market – he took matters into his own hands and made them for himself. I had just happened to read a lot of the papers that had come out about the UN report. There was this huge article about how sustainable insects are and how much the world eats insects already. If we could scale up insect farming to an industrial level it would have a huge positive impact on the world – help the food crisis, issues of food sustainability, etc.

We began discussing this and realized that the protein bar could be the perfect vehicle to introduce bugs, crickets specifically, which is what we use. One of the biggest reasons to eat crickets are the heal properties, and that is why people will be eating protein bars. Most people that are eating protein bars want high quality protein and they don’t really care where it comes from. If they are into fitness, they are probably not the squeamish type anyway. Also we realized that we could make a powder out of the crickets… so they just looked like regular bars.

So we ordered crickets to our house on campus, figured out how to turn them into the powder, and made a bunch of prototypes. We took them around to places like the local farmer’s market and people seemed to really like them.  We could see that asking someone to try a whole cricket versus just trying to get them to take a bite of the protein bar – it was just night and day! So we did see that the hypothesis was proven, because of a lower barrier to trial. Then we launched our kickstarter, and met our goal of making $20,000 in 3 days and ended up making $55,000 by the end of the campaign. From there, we knew that there was a market for this type of product. By now, we’ve been selling the bars since last March. That’s a little bit over a year and it has gone very very well.

Aly: That’s awesome. So I did a little bit of reading and saw that you got your start when your drunk college friends would come back and eat the cricket bars out of your refrigerator.  Did they KNOW they were eating cricket bars?

Greg: Well… we had made all of these prototypes that would just be in our fridge as we were testing out different things. SO when people came over for snacks they would just see these brown bars … I think we even had some that were ball or truffle shaped… and they would just eat them without realizing what they were. That was also kinda good as a blind control study because everybody loved them. We figured A. they couldn’t taste anything weird and B. AFTER, once we told them, it was easier for them to eat more because they already knew that they liked it.

Aly: Did anyone ever react poorly to the fact that they had consumed insects?

Greg: Um yeah, well I mean… people were kinda taken aback. Back then, nobody knew what we were doing. Bugs were so much less apparent back then than today even! There’s been so much media over the past two years … maybe now progressive college kids would have heard of the idea. But back then they were totally shocked.

Aly: That makes sense. But now you have a couple of flavors! … How did you decide on your flavors, by the way?

Exo Bars

Greg: Basically, we were working with a chef named Kyle Connaughton. He was the former head of R&D at the The Fat Duck restaurant in England, which was the #1 restaurant in the world, while he was there. He designed all of the flavors for us. He would make a bunch, we would all taste them, give feedback, and bring in different customers to decide which we liked best.

Aly: Do you have a favorite?

Greg: Well, I rotate between them because I eat them so often that I can start to get sick of one and switch to the other. Right now I’m on Blueberry Vanilla – it’s a favorite.

Aly: I am really interested in how new foods get adopted culturally by a society. In my first research dive into entomophagy, I found similarities between the adoption process of sushi and what might happen with insects. Apparently people used to think that eating raw fish was barbaric, but after Japanese businessmen over here started to eat it, people considered the cuisine more normal. (Not sure if that is completely accurate, it was from some brief skimming but…) Have you heard of any similar stories or do you have a similar strategy for how to normalize this aside from just introducing it in other formats like protein bars?

Greg: Yeah, so actually I wrote a pretty long blog post about sushi and how you can compare the two models, and how this informs the strategy. But essentially, before 1960 nobody in the US had ever tried sushi, and if they heard about it they thought it was gross. Basically, this chef created the California roll which he hid the raw fish by putting rice on the outside, putting in avocado, raw tuna, and that’s what sort of led the adoption of sushi around the US. People were more willing to try it and realize they like it. It sort of spread… they saw celebrities eating it in Hollywood and it became a sexy thing. That is a similar strategy that we are trying to use to spread insect eating.

Aly: Yeah! The marketing component is one area, and I’ve also heard other people speak about government incentives. Being from California you would understand that we are in a huge drought and there is a water crisis… Livestock take so many more resources to raise and get protein from than crickets do. One of these resources is water. Do you have any thoughts on how the government could incentivize cricket farming over other forms of agriculture?

Greg: Yeah, I think we will see this a lot more because of the drought and because crickets can be found indoors…. you can really install them in enclosed spaces like huge warehouses. You can really install them in the places that have been the hardest hit by unemployment, for example. These cities have all of these old buildings that could be ideal for insect farming. So there is an interesting component for job creation. The resources that crickets use are so much more efficient than  other crops like almonds of cows. I don’t know yet exactly how that is going to play out in terms of if the government is going to get involved, or if we’ll see subsidies for insect farmers, or anything like that. I do think that is the next conversation to be had. Over the next year we should see that debate more.

Aly: I am really interested in how new foods get adopted culturally by a society. In my first research dive into entomophagy, I found similarities between the adoption process of sushi and what might happen with insects. Apparently people used to think that eating raw fish was barbaric, but after Japanese businessmen over here started to eat it, people considered the cuisine more normal. (Not sure if that is completely accurate, it was from some brief skimming but…) Have you heard of any similar stories or do you have a similar strategy for how to normalize this aside from just introducing it in other formats like protein bars?

Greg: Yeah, so actually I wrote a pretty long blog post about sushi and how you can compare the two models, and how this informs the strategy. But essentially, before 1960 nobody in the US had ever tried sushi, and if they heard about it they thought it was gross. Basically, this chef created the California roll which he hid the raw fish by putting rice on the outside, putting in avocado, raw tuna, and that’s what sort of led the adoption of sushi around the US. People were more willing to try it and realize they like it. It sort of spread… they saw celebrities eating it in Hollywood and it became a sexy thing. That is a similar strategy that we are trying to use to spread insect eating.

Aly: Yeah! The marketing component is one area, and I’ve also heard other people speak about government incentives. Being from California you would understand that we are in a huge drought and there is a water crisis… Livestock take so many more resources to raise and get protein from than crickets do. One of these resources is water. Do you have any thoughts on how the government could incentivize cricket farming over other forms of agriculture?

Greg: Yeah, I think we will see this a lot more because of the drought and because crickets can be found indoors…. you can really install them in enclosed spaces like huge warehouses. You can really install them in the places that have been the hardest hit by unemployment, for example. These cities have all of these old buildings that could be ideal for insect farming. So there is an interesting component for job creation. The resources that crickets use are so much more efficient than  other crops like almonds of cows. I don’t know yet exactly how that is going to play out in terms of if the government is going to get involved, or if we’ll see subsidies for insect farmers, or anything like that. I do think that is the next conversation to be had. Over the next year we should see that debate more.

Aly: I am really interested in how new foods get adopted culturally by a society. In my first research dive into entomophagy, I found similarities between the adoption process of sushi and what might happen with insects. Apparently people used to think that eating raw fish was barbaric, but after Japanese businessmen over here started to eat it, people considered the cuisine more normal. (Not sure if that is completely accurate, it was from some brief skimming but…) Have you heard of any similar stories or do you have a similar strategy for how to normalize this aside from just introducing it in other formats like protein bars?

Greg: Yeah, so actually I wrote a pretty long blog post about sushi and how you can compare the two models, and how this informs the strategy. But essentially, before 1960 nobody in the US had ever tried sushi, and if they heard about it they thought it was gross. Basically, this chef created the California roll which he hid the raw fish by putting rice on the outside, putting in avocado, raw tuna, and that’s what sort of led the adoption of sushi around the US. People were more willing to try it and realize they like it. It sort of spread… they saw celebrities eating it in Hollywood and it became a sexy thing. That is a similar strategy that we are trying to use to spread insect eating.

Aly: Yeah! The marketing component is one area, and I’ve also heard other people speak about government incentives. Being from California you would understand that we are in a huge drought and there is a water crisis… Livestock take so many more resources to raise and get protein from than crickets do. One of these resources is water. Do you have any thoughts on how the government could incentivize cricket farming over other forms of agriculture?

Greg: Yeah, I think we will see this a lot more because of the drought and because crickets can be found indoors…. you can really install them in enclosed spaces like huge warehouses. You can really install them in the places that have been the hardest hit by unemployment, for example. These cities have all of these old buildings that could be ideal for insect farming. So there is an interesting component for job creation. The resources that crickets use are so much more efficient than  other crops like almonds of cows. I don’t know yet exactly how that is going to play out in terms of if the government is going to get involved, or if we’ll see subsidies for insect farmers, or anything like that. I do think that is the next conversation to be had. Over the next year we should see that debate more.

Aly: I am really interested in how new foods get adopted culturally by a society. In my first research dive into entomophagy, I found similarities between the adoption process of sushi and what might happen with insects. Apparently people used to think that eating raw fish was barbaric, but after Japanese businessmen over here started to eat it, people considered the cuisine more normal. (Not sure if that is completely accurate, it was from some brief skimming but…) Have you heard of any similar stories or do you have a similar strategy for how to normalize this aside from just introducing it in other formats like protein bars?

Greg: Yeah, so actually I wrote a pretty long blog post about sushi and how you can compare the two models, and how this informs the strategy. But essentially, before 1960 nobody in the US had ever tried sushi, and if they heard about it they thought it was gross. Basically, this chef created the California roll which he hid the raw fish by putting rice on the outside, putting in avocado, raw tuna, and that’s what sort of led the adoption of sushi around the US. People were more willing to try it and realize they like it. It sort of spread… they saw celebrities eating it in Hollywood and it became a sexy thing. That is a similar strategy that we are trying to use to spread insect eating.

Aly: Yeah! The marketing component is one area, and I’ve also heard other people speak about government incentives. Being from California you would understand that we are in a huge drought and there is a water crisis… Livestock take so many more resources to raise and get protein from than crickets do. One of these resources is water. Do you have any thoughts on how the government could incentivize cricket farming over other forms of agriculture?

Greg: Yeah, I think we will see this a lot more because of the drought and because crickets can be found indoors…. you can really install them in enclosed spaces like huge warehouses. You can really install them in the places that have been the hardest hit by unemployment, for example. These cities have all of these old buildings that could be ideal for insect farming. So there is an interesting component for job creation. The resources that crickets use are so much more efficient than  other crops like almonds of cows. I don’t know yet exactly how that is going to play out in terms of if the government is going to get involved, or if we’ll see subsidies for insect farmers, or anything like that. I do think that is the next conversation to be had. Over the next year we should see that debate more.

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