Meet the entrepreneur who's betting you'll eat bugs
Harman Johar is an entomologist and businessman who believes this acquired taste is sensible, stylish and sustainable.
Mon, Jul 01 2013 at 4:08 PM
Harman Johar holds a cookie he baked topped with a cricket in the entomology lab at UGA. (Photo: Tom Oder)
If the thought of eating insects makes you squeamish, Harman Johar has a small request. Just take one bite.
Crickets, mealworms, beetles, scorpions, ants, grasshoppers, wasps. “All you have to do is break the mental block,” he said, “Once you do that, you’ll not only get accustomed to eating bugs, you’ll get hooked.” Johar got hooked in 2011 during his sophomore year at the University of Georgia where he was majoring in marketing and entomology and experimenting with growing insects in his small dorm room.
The experiment turned into a startup business in entomophagy, raising and processing insects for human consumption, while he was still a student. By the time he graduated in May with dual degrees in applied biotechnology and environmental sciences/entomology, the business had won awards in global student and Chamber of Commerce competitions and attracted the attention of business leaders at home and abroad.
As fate would have it, Johar came up with the idea for the business during a missed opportunity. Early in his sophomore year he planned to attend a lecture by David Gracer, an icon in the world of entomophagy and an English composition teacher at the Community College of Rhode Island. He missed the talk because he lost track of time at one of the parties UGA is so well-known for.
Later that week, he took a date out for sushi. During dinner she accused him of ignoring her. In truth, he remembers being lost in thought — about bugs. Twenty years ago, he recalled thinking at the time, people wouldn’t eat raw fish. He wondered, what will they be eating in 20 years? The answer was obvious: insects. The date didn’t go so well, but a business concept was born.
To turn concept into reality, Johar put together a group of intrigued college buddies majoring in graphics arts, finance, biology, new media, and public relations who helped him form a business structure. Later that same year, Johar moved to an off-campus apartment where he formally launched Word Entomophagy. With himself as the only employee, he began to organically breed insects “for real,” as he put it, in stacks of plastic containers in an environmentally sealed closet.
His insects of choice were then and remain primarily crickets and mealworms. “I grow them in oatmeal or another grain where they are surrounded by food,” he explained. “I add apples and carrots to give them a water source. They can’t help but grow fat and happy!” And multiply prolifically. When populations reach a sufficient level and he has orders, he harvests enough to fill the orders, kills them painlessly in a process he developed, dry roasts them and seals them in airtight, plastic ready-to-ship bags he sells by weight.
Within a week of having a salable prototype, Johar had his first client. The customer, a bakery in Ohio, wanted bugs to sell as Halloween treats. The end product was a spiced pumpkin rum cake covered in chocolate and dipped in caramelized mealworms. Other clients quickly followed, including bakeries, restaurants, and academic institutions of various levels.
Before long, Johar was taking box after box to the apartment sales office to mail. The landlord, he says with a grin, started giving him quizzical looks. Finally, his curiosity got the better of him, and he asked Johar what was in all those boxes. “Books,” Johar said he told him. “Just a lot of books.” The grin grew a little wider.
While the business was flying under the landlord’s radar, it caught the business world’s attention. Johar was named runner-up in the 2013 Global Student Entrepreneurial Awards sponsored by the Entrepreneurial Organization, selected as a Startup to Watch in the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s 2013 Business Person of the Year Awards, and just returned from the G20 Summit in Moscow where for the second time he represented his business on the world stage.
“Most of the world, 80-85 percent, regularly consumes insects,” said Dr. Marianne Shockley, an entomology faculty member at the University of Georgia, one of the top five academic institutions involved in entomophagy in the United States, she proudly points out. Johar says she is his mentor and the reason he attended UGA. Shockley describes herself as an outreach entomologist who takes edible insects into schools and the community and studies the public’s reaction to eating them.
“Two things about insect consumption differentiate the United States from the rest of the world.” Shockley explained. “One is perception, the other is wealth. Land for agriculture,” she pointed out, “is readily available.”
The benefits of growing and eating insects, she added, are numerous and fall under scientific umbrellas including nutrition, the environment, conservation and sustainability and medicine.
Insects, Shockley said, provide an alternative source of protein, vitamins and minerals not found in legumes, beef, pork, or poultry, their carbon footprint is far less than farm animals and she believes researchers will one day derive a new vein of medicine from bugs.
She shares Johar’s belief that most people are intrigued and open-minded about insects as by-products in their food. That’s not to say either of them is suggesting folks sit down to a dinner of scorpions as a main dish with sides of crickets and mealworms.
“We’re also not talking about harvesting adult wasps with stingers or grasshoppers with wings that would have to be removed,” Shockley added. “They taste much better in the pupae or larvae stage.”
What she and Johar envision are dry-roasted bugs as snacks in something like a chirpy chex mix or topping cookies with crickets or mealworms rather than pecans. Other options might be to add insects to pizza toppings, put them in pastas, risottos and tacos or slip them into chili.
For doubters who can’t imagine the sight of a bug on their plate, Johar said insects are finding an acceptance in food and culture scenes. As an example, he cites the culturally progressive capital of Texas which has adopted the small business promotional slogan Keep Austin Weird.
On trips to Austin, Johar has worked with Hickory Street Restaurant and Little Herds Charity to have a special menu listing mole´ cricket tacos, mealworm bruschetta, fried calamari coated with a meal worm flour, pear-styled macaroons made from a meal worm flour and mole´-spiced chocolate chip cookies topped with crickets for the first of many Bug Dinners. Austin attracted his attention because the charity educates people about eating insects — he now serves on their board of directors — and because “the people there accept new and strange things in the culinary and cultural scene.”
The business and the demand for his bugs have outgrown an apartment closet, and Austin is one of the towns where he is considering opening a large production facility. He’s also considering Atlanta, which is the heart of the state’s $20 billion bioscience industry.
Other locations are under consideration. Harmon, though, says for competitive reasons he can’t disclose those or revenues. He will say he does plan to have a facility up and running “in limited production in November and to be in full swing and pumping out bugs to anyone who wants them in January 2014.”
In the meantime, he’s looking for investors and finalizing business plans. “The timing is right,” he said, “because food shifts come in great movements. Recent food shifts occurred in the post-World War II years of the 1950s when we industrialized our food and in the 1990s-early 2000s when we realized our food was making us obese.” The next shift, he’s convinced, is beginning now and is in mass-produced but healthy and environmentally sustainable food.
Shockley believes Johar is poised to ride the wave he envisions. “U.S. insect nutrition studies were prevalent in the 1980s and ’90s,” she said. “But,” she added, “research essentially stopped when the leading proponent of insect nutrition at the time, Gene DeFoliart, retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” That conversation, she said, has started again.
Johar sees himself as a part of a greater movement. “My generation of entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs,” he said. “We will make or break the world.”
I am a Sikh, he continued. “One of the pillars of our religion is to hold a langar, a free and completely open communal meal after prayers. Everyone has the right to food, water and shelter. Of these, food is the closest to love.” That’s why he said he wants to devote part of his business to famine relief. He’s already planning to work through the United Nations distribution network to accomplish that.
Along the way to developing a business that creates an impact and makes the world a better place, he said he also plans to make a buck. No doubt when that time comes, he can trade in what he calls his college car, an aging white Nissan Xterra that takes a few solid whacks on the battery posts to crank, for a brand new bug mobile.
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