A business plan with a few bugs in it

by Jennifer Nault

For many people, the opportunity to share a stage with former U.S. president Bill Clinton would qualify as the thrill of a lifetime. For others, the chance to receive million dollar support to make their business plans a reality, would constitute the same. A group of McGill students recently managed to experience both things on the very same night.

On September 23 in New York City, Clinton made an announcement at the Clinton Global Initiative that would profoundly affect the lives of Mohammed Ashour, Gabriel Mott, Shobhita Soor, BSc'10, Jesse Pearlstein and Zev Thompson. The five were named as the winners of the 2013 Hult Prize Challenge.

The $1-million prize invites MBA students from around the globe to solve the world’s most critical global challenges, providing seed money to encourage the next generation of social entrepreneurs. The competition is stiff. In fact, more than 11,000 applicants from 150 different countries submitted entries for this year's competition, which bills itself as the “start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship.”

Every year there is a new theme, and the 2013 challenge required entrants to find solutions to enhance food security for undernourished communities and solve the global food crisis. “To be competitive at the Hult Prize against other top business schools, we knew we needed something revolutionary. We decided on insects. Once we did some preliminary research we knew we had our idea,” said Mott in an interview with the Globe and Mail.

In the Boston regional competition held this spring, McGill beat out Harvard, MIT and Yale based on the merits of their plan to produce and promote insects – or what they call “micro-livestock” – as an innovative protein source.

Back then, the McGill team was still at the conceptual phase of their business plan; they believed their business model could be implemented within urban slums, which would have meant raising insects within those inner-city zones.

However, plans change. “Now we are moving operations to more 'peri-urban rural areas,'” says Soor. “We’ve done more research since the regionals, and so we’re being informed by conditions on the ground. We’re still looking to serve the urban slum market, but we’ve made a shift based on the observation that the infrastructure is just not there in urban slums.”

As a result of their investigations, locations peripheral to urban areas are currently being sought out as places to raise micro-livestock. “We learned that people migrating into the big cities – into slum areas – they are trying to distance themselves from growing their own food, from farming.”

They settled on Puebla, located about 120 kilometres southeast of Mexico City. Right now, the team is taking advantage of the grasshopper season in Mexico. “We have operations and an employee based in Puebla, and we are currently harvesting large numbers of grasshoppers to begin our breeding colonies. In a few weeks’ time, two of us will be travelling to Mexico to begin production there. A couple of months after that, we’ll begin production in Ghana – we’re building relationships there right now,” says Soor.

Soor is the lone law student in the group. Mott, Pearlstein and Thompson are all MBA students, while Ashour is working on a joint MBA-medical degree.

With team members balancing their studies at McGill with their business plans, they will need all the extra protein they can get to push themselves into the production phase. No problem there. “Crickets are packed with nutrients, especially protein, which people living in urban slums lack. Millions of people around the world already eat insects and the solution is to get them to eat even more, in a way that is both sustainable and reliable. If fed the right diet, crickets contain eight times more iron than beef,” says Thompson.

Ashour, who ate crickets this spring on a live television broadcast, calls them the "shrimp of the next decade.” Speaking with the Globe and Mail, Mott listed off an array of culinary creatures they’d tried: “Fried crickets taste slightly like buttery almonds, with a bit of an aftertaste. Fried in chilies and lime, however, they taste like those ingredients, and baked into a chip they are all but undetectable. Zev Thompson had grasshoppers in tacos and sauces in Mexico and found them spicy. Shobhita Soor had caterpillars in Thailand and found them savoury and sweet.”

When presenting the prize to the McGill team, Clinton declared, “If I said to somebody 60 days ago I’m going to give this prize this year to someone who wants to process and sell edible insects — to empower rather than devour — they’d have laughed.”

McGill's Hult Prize champions will be participating in a McGill Homecoming event on October 18 at 3 pm organized by the Desautels Faculty of Management's Social Economy Initiative. Also taking part will be the four past winners of McGill's Dobson Cup Social Enterprise Track. It's an opportunity to find out how social entrepreneurs are changing the world. RSVP to reserve a seat.