Tiny insects key to solving big problems

Biological Sciences alumnus Neil Birrell’s Hexacycle start-up is putting organic waste to good use with the help of a certain fly, while his PhD research explores if other insects could become part of our future diet.

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens). Photo: Neil Birrell
Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens). Photo: Neil Birrell

Neil’s interest in the natural world was inspired by the many hours spent during his childhood, exploring rockpools and streams around Scotland and Northumberland.

Now he is halfway towards gaining his fourth qualification at the University, investigating insects as a food source in Aotearoa New Zealand for his PhD in Biological Sciences. But before he returned to his studies, he created a start-up supported by the University’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) programmes.

“Hexacycle converts organic waste into insect biomass which can then be used as a protein source in animal feed,” explains Neil. “This uses a species of fly called the black soldier fly, which has a remarkable ability to consume a variety of organic wastes.

“Insects as food and feed is a very recent field of research and there is so much scope to study." He adds: “There is also a certain visceral joy in the idea of producing metric tonnes of maggots.”

By chance, he mentioned his start-up to Ashok John in New Zealand, who had family in Kerala, India with large poultry farms. Feed costs were a large proportion of their overheads, says Neil and soon he was heading over to Kerala to establish Hexacycle there.

Photo: Abhilash Hatcheries, CC-BY
Photo: Abhilash Hatcheries, CC-BY

Insects as food and feed is a very recent field of research and there is so much scope to study.


How does the treatment plant help the planet?

There are a few reasons: it diverts organic waste being dumped or going to landfill (where there are issues of leachates and methane); it provides a domestically produced source of protein that doesn’t require productive farmland (it can be built in disused sheds and urban areas); and it also requires very little water or energy.

How is the second pilot plant in Kerala progressing?

The second plant in India is going well and in fact Ashok has been setting up a third plant earlier this year at another poultry farm. This poultry farm is in a very hot and dry location (compared to the hot and humid conditions of the first two plants) which is giving me plenty of biological problems to troubleshoot from afar.

How did you deal with the challenges in establishing a start-up?

There were so many challenges but thankfully there is a lot of great support at the University to help you overcome those challenges. The CIE has lots of great programmes and mentors to help students navigate their way around challenges.

Where do you see your company and career heading?

I’ve come to realise global production of black soldier fly meal is just a drop in the bucket in comparison to soya meal production. To become competitive and have impact there needs to be a sizeable increase in people growing black soldier fly larvae. To achieve this, individual farmers growing black soldier fly to supplement their income need to become prevalent rather than individual companies.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

I’d have to say the friends I made in India who made me feel like a part of their family. I really hope they stay safe and well in the difficult circumstances at the moment.
What is your PhD research topic?

I am investigating the insects as food in Aotearoa. It’s a varied and interdisciplinary topic that explores public acceptance of insects as food, what insects have been eaten in NZ, the reproductive biology and behaviour of our endemic longhorn beetle Prionoplus reticularis (huhu beetle), and metabolomics of the larvae (huhu grubs).

What motivates you to make a difference in the world?

I find insects (and all invertebrates) fascinating and getting to learn more about them whilst doing something useful is a great feeling.

Finally, tell us something about yourself that we can’t learn by Googling you!

I really like Nicolas Cage movies. I’ve also eaten at least 20 different species of insects (including a giant hornet).


This article appears in the 2021 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni. View more articles from inSCight.

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