Beta Bugs Limited is an agri-food biotechnology company, based at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus.
Midlothian Science Zone spoke with Thomas Farrugia, CEO and founder of Beta Bugs Limited:
What is the main purpose of Beta Bugs?
We’re a dedicated insect genetics company which breeds and distributes high-performance breeds of Black Soldier Fly to the insect farming industry.
Our breeds will grow bigger, faster and be more efficient, meaning insect farmers will be able to do more with less, enabling insect protein to compete on price with existing animal and aqua-feed ingredients. As a result, the agricultural supply chain will benefit from a more sustainable and regionally produced source of protein – both within the UK and the EU.
Working with Dr Gregor Gorjanc, a quantitative geneticist, animal scientist and PI of Highlander Labs at the Roslin Institute, we have adapted proven breeding programme designs from the pig and poultry sector, for example, to create bespoke solutions for the Black Soldier Fly in our breeding initiatives. In a nutshell, we identify the best individuals and use them as parents of the next generation and with that improve their overall performance - as has been done before with cattle, pigs, poultry, salmon, our crops – you name it.
It's worth bearing in mind that the bugs that are used today are pretty much like wild strains. They haven’t been genetically improved at all, so classical breeding will take us a long way, whilst allowing us to operate within existing regulatory frameworks.
The super-fun bit is that making a better insect needs us to constantly break new ground – Beta Bugs is an innovation driven company. We’re really excited about the work we do because breeding is the missing link that this rapidly growing industry will need to achieve economies of scale.
What is your career path?
I grew up in Malta, where my grandfather was a fisherman and was always impressed by the size of the fish that he caught, as well as the number of small fish which farms used for animal feed – a lesson I’ve never forgotten and sparked my career.
In 2012, I gained a BSc in Chemistry at the University of Malta followed by a Masters at Imperial College London, using computational techniques and solid-state physics to conduct research in graphene nanomaterials. This was followed by a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Bristol, focusing on producing enzymatically active thin films under the supervision of Professor Stephen Mann.
I was reminded of the potential of insects in 2011 after eating some at a street food stall in Antwerp (no pun intended). During my PhD I spotted an article which posed the question, “Why not eat insects?”.
Intrigued by the idea of insects becoming a main source of protein, I kept abreast of sector developments and in the summer of 2017 connected with Deep Science Ventures in London where I began to research how environmentally friendly and versatile insect-based products could be and how they could provide a different source of protein which could change the feeding habits of livestock and fish farms.
I quickly narrowed the question down from “how do we farm insects” to “how do we make insect farming more effective?”, and the answer quickly turned out to be: “Genetics”.
What are your career highlights to date?
In June 2018, I became a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Unlocking Ambition Enterprise Fellow, a new entrepreneurial programme, supported by the Scottish Government and RSE. As a result of this, I was hosted at Roslin Innovation Centre as a young start-up and relocated the company’s operations, lock stock and barrel, from sister BBSRC Research and Innovation Campus at Rothamsted Research.
In 2019, Beta Bugs was the winner of a new Easter Bush Campus Tenant-Staff Collaboration Award as a result of working together with Gregor Gorjanc at the Roslin Institute. I was also a Venture Finalist in Falling Walls, a global platform for the most promising science start-ups nominated by academic institutions. Since then, I have also had the opportunity to be involved as a panelist and speaker at UK and international investor and innovation events.
Over the last 18 months, the company has secured £133k of private investment, along with £1.2m in grant funding, including £100k from Scottish Government’s Unlocking Ambition programme and £84k from the Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund to help us grow our operations during Covid-19 lockdowns. During this challenging time, we’ve been privileged to double down on our efforts and grow the team to nine in size.
What does the future hold?
Our continuous focus is to develop the best breeding programme possible for Black Soldier Fly, ensuring we keep making a higher performance insect for the industry.
In 2021, we’ll see our company transition out of R&D mode into a commercially focused operation – in effect, a metamorphosis, just like our bugs! Stay tuned for the Year of the Bug (not the virus!)
Why did Beta Bugs choose to locate to Roslin Innovation Centre?
Once I heard of the Easter Bush Campus, it was a very easy choice to make. The opportunities and benefits for collaboration with other local stakeholders are unique as well as opportunities for growth within the environment. It’s a highly supportive ecosystem and there is a great sense of community, both between the businesses and academic organisations.
The state-of-the art facilities available at Roslin Innovation Centre and the wider Easter Bush Campus are also ideal for company incubation and future growth, and we do see the company maintaining a significant presence at this Campus. In fact, we recently expanded our facilities to house our dedicated insect genetics nucleus facility, co-located on Campus. This is conjunction with the office space which we operate out of the Roslin Innovation Centre.
What are the benefits of a 'science park' environment?
The science and research community within Midlothian Science Zone is clustered around one central area, in close proximity to each other, and this has allowed Beta Bugs to operate and engage easily with local stakeholders, primarily the Roslin Institute, SRUC and AgriEPI-Centre.
Support from Business Gateway Midlothian and the wider Scottish Enterprise ecosystem has included help with establishing the company’s operations within Midlothian Science Zone and scaling up our breeding programme. We have also increased our team to help consolidate our position into the wider agri-food markets.
With the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly on employment for young people, we got involved in the Kickstart initiative and are working in conjunction with Midlothian Science Zone/Midlothian Chamber, to interest other companies and establish a local young apprenticeship scheme for the region.
What do you enjoy most about being based in Midlothian?
Midlothian has a rich history of hosting primary industries – from quarrying to coal mining and agriculture. It has rapidly diversified into the biotechnology and life sciences space. We see Beta Bugs as the next step, enabling Midlothian to diversify into a new primary industry – insect protein.
On a day-to-day basis being headquartered in Midlothian provides the opportunity to engage with the community - students, academics and other businesses, in particular those that could benefit from our expertise or services.
Business Gateway Midlothian has been instrumental in our growth since we started out. Having our own adviser to keep us right along the way and signpost us to other available resources has been invaluable and really helped us carve out a niche for ourselves in the UK and International insect genetics market.
Anything would like to highlight or comment on?
The global population is expected to swell to more than 9 billion by 2030, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and experts are pioneering innovative ways to meet that demand in sustainable ways.
We are committed to being part of this effort and to make an impact, to transform the way the world’s population is fed and supplied and address the growing concerns of future protein shortages.
Our vision is to be a global leader in the development and distribution of high-performance insect genetics that will feed, fuel and supply our world's growing livestock and human population.
Beta Bugs Limited
Roslin Innovation Centre
Charnock Bradley Building
University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush Campus
Midlothian, EH25 9RG
Roslin Innovation Centre
- The University of Edinburgh
- Easter Bush Campus
- Midlothian EH25 9RG
Chief Executive Officer: John Mackenzie
T: +44 (0)131 651 9000
Midlothian Science Zone
- Roslin Innovation Centre
- The University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush Campus
- Midlothian, EH25 9RG, Scotland
Enquiries: Project Team
T: +44 (0)131 651 9000
- 40-46 Buccleuch Street
- EH22 1DN
T: 0131 271 3435
F: 0131 271 3537