Damian Józefiak

Hipromine – A creepy crawly business

Researchers are scouring the oceans and soils to get their hands on new bio-active compounds and nutrients. An unexpectedly productive source might be closer than we think: in those little bugs many consider a pest. Polish start-up Hipromine is using insects to produce everything from fish food to antimicrobials.

Some coincidences are too peculiar not to be true. When HiProMine was looking for a place to open their R&D facility, they ended up on an old family farm of their co-founder Damian Józefiak. Here, HiProMine’s insect armada would churn out bio-active compounds for use in feed, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. The name of the place? Robakowo, literally Bugsville. “HiProMine has brought the bugs back to Bugville,” Józefiak, an Associated Professor at Poznan University of Life Sciences, says with a grin. Beetles, crickets, cockroaches – around 30 species live on HiProMine’s farm today.

It all started one country over, at a symposium on poultry nutrition in Germany. Talk turned to using insects as an alternative in poultry feed. After all, bugs produce high-quality proteins that can easily match up those from soy or fish, and they are produced in a more sustainable manner. The idea stayed with Józefiak, and only grew from there. 

Apart from being diligent suppliers of proteins, insects are an abundant source for compounds pharmaceutical companies are hunting for. The six-legged creatures create enzymes and fats with properties that cosmetics companies find highly appealing. Insect droppings also make perfect fertilisers. 

Józefiak saw a business opportunity –  after all, he is an entrepreneur as well as a researcher and had founded companies before. In early 2015, he managed to secure pre-seed funding from Startup Hub Poland and Giza Polish Ventures. Two months later, the Polish National Centre for R&D joined the backers and HiProMine was founded. Józefiak considers himself lucky to have found financiers. “In Poland, it is hard to find investors who understand the business, and who appreciate it will take years before a company becomes profitable.”

Big run on bug products

That is why HiProMine is focused on becoming profitable in the short term. Collaborations with the livestock industry show that the demand is there, and, for the products, going through the roof. “Actually, we cannot produce enough of the high-quality proteins suit the requests coming in from all corners of the world. That is why our next step is to scale up.”

Longer term, the projects become more varied. For instance, HiProMine collaborates with M.A.R.S., which develops research stations for space exploration. “You cannot keep a cow in space,” says Józefiak. “But insects...they are robust, they are versatile. They can get rid of waste and produce proteins and fats good enough to eat.”

Biopharmaceuticals are also in the cards. Some insects provide novel antimicrobials, for example. So, when will the first insect-born medicine hit the shelves? Józefiak laughs. “Maybe it’s not so far off,” he says. “Recently, I was in Switzerland to discuss a collaboration with a pharma company. I cannot talk about specifics, but this is definitely one of the directions we are pursuing.”

For Józefiak, it seems incredible that many people find using insects as a resource in any way unusual. “It is not new or strange,” he points out. “It is happening on every farm, in every park and every forest. HiProMine is just converting it to a controlled process.”