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Exo Turns Crickets Into Protein Bars

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Tag Collective

"Our company exists solely for the purpose of making this normal. To make the idea of eating insects not be weird," Gabi Lewis says of Exo, the cricket-based protein bar company he co-founded with his college roommate, Greg Sewitz. "So today we have to disguise it and turn it into a protein bar, hide it somewhat. If we’re successful then in ten years we’ll see people eating whole crickets."

An admirable goal, but one that prompts the question: Why eat insects in the first place?

THE CASE FOR CRICKETS

"People, the first time they hear about this, have the most intense visceral disgust reflex. It’s just, like, instant," Lewis says. But despite what your initial reaction might be, eating insects isn't all that weird—people all over the world, in many different countries, count insects as a part of their diets. Ultimately, it all depends on your perspective. "[Drinking] milk is so weird if you think about it," Lewis says.

Then there's the fact that crickets are great for you. These chirping insects, which are more often associated with camping than culinary excellence, are a veritable superfood. They have more iron than beef and more calcium than milk. They're low in saturated fat and sugar. And they're a complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids.

Eating them is environmentally responsible, too. Crickets require less food, less water, and less space to farm than most other forms of protein. They reproduce efficiently, reach maturity quickly, and produce 80 times less methane gas than cattle. All of this is good news in combating climate change and supporting increasing populations. (If you're interested in learning more about the benefits of eating bugs, check out this report that the United Nations published on the subject last year.)

TURNING CRICKETS INTO PROTEIN BARS

Despite all those facts, Lewis didn't immediately take to the idea of crickets as food. As a senior at Brown University with a job offer at a large hedge fund lined up he was, in his own words, "coasting." Skipping class quickly got boring, so the fitness and nutrition buff began experimenting with making his own protein bars. It was Sewitz who suggested crickets. He got the idea from a conference on climate change at MIT and thought they might present a solution to his roommate's quest for the perfect protein.

After a little convincing and a lot of research, Lewis was sold—so the pair ordered 2000 live crickets from one of the dozen or so domestic farms that raise crickets for fishing bait and reptile food. The insects arrived at their on-campus house in something resembling shoeboxes. And although they lost a few especially jumpy crickets in the process, Lewis and Seitz successfully froze, cleaned, roasted, and ground the crickets into a powder. With it, they made their first batch of cricket protein bars.

After receiving positive feedback from fellow students and athletes at a local crossfit gym, the pair decided to look into what their next steps should be. "I started talking to a professor of entrepreneurship about it, drew up a business plan, got more serious, raised a little bit of money from family and friends," Lewis says. And when they graduated in May 2013, they agreed to dedicate their summer to giving the company a real shot—starting with a Kickstarter campaign. They gave their campaign a $20,000 goal. When it raised close to $55,000 in the allotted time, Lewis decided not to join the hedge fund, Seitz scrapped his plan of teaching neuroscience to Tibetan monks, and the two dedicated themselves to Exo.

It wasn't immediately smooth sailing. The Kickstarter campaign ended in August and they produced their first commercial batch of 50,000 bars in March. Finding a manufacturer proved particularly tricky because there's a small overlap between shellfish allergies and cricket allergies, and companies were unwilling to contaminate their equipment in that way. "We were using crickets and they spend their whole lives trying to keep crickets out of their facilities," Lewis says.

Eventually, Louis and Seitz secured a manufacturer in upstate New York, partnered with some commercial cricket farms to set up separate all-organic facilities for the human-consumption crickets—although Lewis says that's more about consumer perception than necessity—and joined forces with a world-class chef.

Exo Now

After working as Head Chef of R&D at The Fat Duck and Culinary Director at Chipotle, Kyle Connaughton was designing a new curriculum in food science for the Culinary Institute of America when a friend of a friend introduced him to Lewis and Seitz. They expected to be handed off to one of his students, but Connaughton, who had participated in a BBC documentary about eating insects, liked the idea so much he joined the team.

"We knew that if this was gonna work, these bars had to be delicious—at least as far as protein bars go—and they had to taste better than most protein bars in a category that’s comically overcrowded," Lewis says.

Connaughton helped them to do just that. Though they currently have just two flavors—cacao nut and PB&J (there was a cashew ginger bar, which had ardent fans but was discontinued for not having a widespread enough appeal)—there are plans to develop more; blueberry vanilla and apple cinnamon are already in the works. And so far, people have liked what they've tasted: Exo can barely keep up with the demand. Every production run has sold out, with around 90 percent of those sales occuring online.

Being a "weird" food is good for word-of-mouth business (and media attention), but normalizing eating insects would be even better. Lewis compares his hopes for crickets to the trajectory of lobsters, which were once considered prison food, and sushi.

"Our attitude towards these things change," he says. "Granted, lobster took a hundred years. Sushi was introduced in the ‘60s in LA and now you can find a sushi bar in the Glasgow airport. And now, with people’s focus on nose-to-tail dining and farm-to-table cuisine and, I don’t want to sound old, with social media, these things happens quicker. So it’s feasible that the shift we’ve seen with lobster that took 100 years and sushi that took 30 with crickets could take five to 10."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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