What do you get when you combine a shared passion for outdoor sports, nature, and healthy food? Fit people. Fit people who have great ideas… like making protein bars out of crickets.
William Walcker, Minh-Anh Pham, and Antoine Domergue are the three men who woke up one morning and decided they would make protein bars out of crickets. Kidding – it’s a much more interesting story than that. I had the pleasure of speaking with Minh to hear a little more about how he went from triathlete to cricket evangelist.
“William and [I] are both triathletes,” Minh began. “Since we started triathlon 3 years ago, we’ve been looking for performing, healthy and eco-friendly nutrition strategies. First we developed an energy bar for ourselves to best suit our training and competition needs.” It was important to Minh that they had a sustainable way to maintain their energy levels during exercises, and that they had the proper nutrition to recover afterwards.
So where did crickets come in? There’s been a growing buzz in the nutrition world about a sustainable, complete protein… and it comes from crickets.
“Antoine’s idea to include cricket protein to our energy bar was revolutionary,” recounts Minh. “We thought it could make a difference to our performance as triathletes. Moreover, eating insects is eco-friendly so we were thrilled to combine our performance needs with a good cause” – preserving the planet. Not only are crickets healthy for our planet, but they’re also extremely nutritious. The graphic above details some of the stellar facts about insects.
He continued, “With the help of one of our friends who’s nutritionist and triathlete, and the chef of the Pastaga restaurant (one of the top restaurants in Montreal), we’ve been working for 2 month to elaborate a recipe combining performance and pleasure. We used our hand-made cricket-powered energy bars during our long bike rides. It worked so well for us that our friends at our triathlon club wanted to try. That’s how we started Naak.”
“The purpose of Naak has been to develop smart & performing nutrition for athletes. We wanted to get the best protein source available on the planet and we found it was actually insect protein. Our energy bar is 100% natural and paleo-friendly. But we’re not only innovating on the nutrition aspect.”
They’re now looking for ways to improve the packaging to make it more convenient for athletes to consume the energy bar during exercise.
Before Naak, William and Minh worked at Groupon for 4 years. At Groupon, Minh launched the Quebec office and recruited William to support the business development of Groupon Goods in Canada. Together, the two friends helped build one of the biggest e-commerce companies in Canada. Next, they built Circlad, a mobile app to buy and sell second-hand products between friends.
Antoine is the most technically minded. He met William at the University of Sherbrooke where they both studied. He worked at Ericsson for 2 years as a Computer science engineer and was enrolled in Ericsson’s early career program that aims to train the future leaders of the company. Before working on Naak, he founded a startup – “LeVestiaire”, a social platform to organize indoor soccer games.
So how did these men first hear about edible insects?
Minh shared, “Our co-founder Antoine first got interested in edible insects 6 years ago. He’s passionate about food and at the time he questioned why humans are eating everything on earth except insects. So he started to read about edible insects and found that not only insects were eaten in other parts of the world, but they also have incredible nutritional virtues. He got very excited and talked to his friends. But people thought he was crazy, so he put this idea aside,”
“Last year, he saw the entomophagy movement was growing in Canada and thought he had to do something.” It was during a conversation with Antoine’s friends [William and Minh] who are both triathletes that the three of them saw an opportunity to improve nutrition for athletes. William and Minh qualified for the Triathlon World’s championship in Cozumel in September 2016. As triathletes, eating healthy is a key component of their progress and performance. Incorporating insect protein to their diet stirred their interest. Minh said, “The following day, we ordered cricket powder from Entomo Farms and we cooked our first cricket-powered energy bar in Antoine’s kitchen…”
Now, any good company needs a name, and I had heard that Naak has an interesting origin. I asked Minh where it came from. He grinned and replied, “Naak stands for Nutrition for Adventurous Athletes who run Kilometers. But the true story is Naak comes from the word “Tabarnak” (common in french Canadian slang). ‘Tabarnak’ has a variety of uses (click here to check them out.) People in Quebec often use this word as an adjective or and adverb to overstate an emotion. In French ‘Ta barre Naak’ literally means ‘Your bar Naak’ and has the same pronunciation as ‘Tabarnak’. Most of people think Naak sounds Scandinavian. We think it’s cool because it emphasizes the premium quality of our brand!”
Great idea? Check. Better name? Check. But what has been Naak’s biggest challenge? Minh said, “Our biggest challenge was to develop our first flavor. Our objective was to get the perfect combination of performance and pleasure; two terms which are often not compatible. What a challenge! Our first recipe included coconut. It was delicious but had too much lipid (fats) – not good for athletes! So we had to remove the coconut and restart from scratch. Nonetheless one of our strengths was our ability to iterate quickly. During each training session in our triathlon club in Montreal, we brought a new version of our recipe to test it on our sportive friends. Then we returned in the kitchen the same day to improve our recipe with the feedbacks we just gathered. And so on. It took us 2 months and more than 20 iterations to get to the final recipe. Members of our triathlon club became our first customers.”
If the team didn’t get swept into the field of edible insects, what would they be working on right now? Likely something related to Sport or Nutrition still, since it plays a major role in their lives. Before launching Naak, Antoine, William and Minh worked together on several projects and one of them was Gearist, a platform to buy your next sport equipment based on your friend interests.
He said, “We stopped working on Gearlist because we decided to focus on Naak. The three of us also have a passion for nutrition. As athletes, we’re highly concerned about the food we eat, animal cruelty and the environmental issues related to the food industry. We wanted to do something to change that. Also, we found out most athletes don’t really know what to eat and when, and if the food they eat is actually good for them. We think there is a lot of education to do to solve that problem. Opportunities to innovate in the nutrition space are huge.”
But now that they are in the world of edible insects, they are committed. Aside from their own product, the men have experimented tasting scorpions, cicada, ants, mealworms, and all the fantastics products made by other entomo companies. So why did they choose crickets to use in the bars? Minh explained, “We explored consuming mealworms but their nutritional value in terms of protein and lipids were less interesting than crickets. Meaning they contain less protein and more fats. Thus we kept working with crickets. However, looking at different species of edible insects is definitely something we’ll do in the future!”
Over the next months, Naak is working on developing two new flavors for their energy bars. Minh continued, “We’ll be on-boarding with a co-packer [soon] to produce our energy bars by thousands. We’re very excited! Currently we’re producing everything ourselves by hand so the production is very manual and time consuming. In the short term, the thing we’re the most looking forward to is our launch with new branding and packaging. It’s coming soon and it’s going to be amazing so stay tuned!”
Make sure to support Naak at their website. See below for more incredible info on the Naak Bar!