From Singapore to the USA and all around Europe, Edible Innovations profiles food makers that engage in improving the global food system at every stage, from production to distribution to eating and shopping. Join us as we explore the main trends in the industry from a maker perspective. Chiara Cecchini of Future Food Institute — an ecosystem with a strong educational core that promotes food innovation as a key tool to tackle the great challenges of the future — introduces you to the faces, stories, and experiences of food makers around the globe. Check back on Tuesdays and Thursdays for new installments.
Originally from Austria, Katharina Unger packed her stuff in 2015 and flew to Shenzhen, the electronics manufacturing hub of China. There, she formed a company called Livin Farms. Livin Farms’ flagship product is a counter top machine that raises live worms that can be harvested and eaten at home. The project raised $145,429 on Kickstarter and has quickly gone from paper concept to physical product.
Kate, how did you start working on Livin Farms?
I grew up in a rural area of Austria where bringing food to the table was a daily practice. We had a couple of cows and we grew our own produces. Food has always been an important element for me, as well as the way animals are treated. When I moved to Hong Kong to work as an industrial designer, I was extremely fascinated by the variety of food people had access to, and, at the same time, I was shocked by the little space available for growing food.
The country immediately seemed to be very dependent on imported food. I believe that society cannot continue to mass produce cows, pigs, and chicken as we have done for so long. That’s why I started looking into alternatives. I bumped into insect in 2013, but there wasn’t so much hype on the topic yet. I started building tiny farms that were small enough to keep in an apartment. That was my very first prototype!
Why specifically this product?
I believe that we don’t have much power to influence what we can find on the shelves. We go to a supermarket and are forced to make a choice between the options someone else decided for us. Growing your own food allows people to reclaim this power, but a lack of space usually limits a person’s ability to do so. Insects are fascinating because they are not beholden to such a limit. They are tiny, rich in protein, and easy to grow.
How does it work?
Livin Farms consists of a series of trays. Users place live beetles, which come shipped with the device, in the topmost tray. Their eggs filter through a mesh bottom into the tray below, and as the baby mealworms hatch, they filter to the next lowest tray.
This process continues for each phase of the mealworm’s life cycle monitoring their growth with a system of vibrators, sensors, and manual levers that move bugs from one tray to another. Once the live worms are mature, they’re removed from the trays, or “harvested.” After freezing them, they can be fried, baked, boiled, or ground into a powder.
Can you tell us more about the quantities that people can grow?
The current design allows consumers to use their own vegetable scraps to grow up to 500 grams of mealworms each week!
How did you make the first prototype?
At the very beginning, we just cut and glued everything together. The very first time we built the product, we tried 3D printing and it was extremely useful. We eventually moved on to plastic that we heated into different shapes. We’ve now standardized the production of the cases, electronics, and sensors, and we just had our first production batch delivered.
How has your journey evolved?
Everything started as my master thesis. Since we launchd the crowdfunding camping, I did some consulting work related to edible insects, and I went to Africa to build a low-tech prototype there. Back in Hong Kong, I’ve been working with a group of Malaysian researchers who are looking at under-utilized crops to do something with black soldier fly larvae. The truth is that when I start exploring a specific topic, as a maker, I always end up getting my hands on something new!