One of the main goals of ESCP’s Master in Sustainability Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MSEI) is to show what it’s like to take on a values-based entrepreneurial venture or transform sustainability practices within an established organisation.

MSEI students work on their own business ideas in the first year through the Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship Project, and collaborate with companies in the second year in the Consultancy Project. Those who might be interested in developing their concepts even further, and seek additional support, usually head over to the Blue Factory, ESCP’s in-house start-up accelerator for students and alumni that is part of the school’s Jean-Baptiste Say Institute for Entrepreneurship. 

It was here that Pierre Catinot, a MSEI student graduating in 2021, brought his sustainability idea. Pierre came to ESCP Business School fixated on mitigating the effects of carbon emissions and seeking the tools to effect change. He has since focused on a very specific but impactful solution -- insect farming -- and has worked on it with a group of colleagues coming from different German universities.

The Blue Factory staff advised Pierre’s start-up, NERTUS, and counselled his team through the application for the EXIST-Gründerstipendium, a federal grant program in Germany for students interested in starting a business. Thanks to a collaboration with the Technical University of Munich (TUM), the Blue Factory also recommended NERTUS for a spot in TUM’s Global DeepTech Accelerator, an initiative which aims to support international entrepreneurs in launching a successful startup in areas such as artificial intelligence and sustainable mobility. The DeepTech Accelerator programming took place online over a month, and was quite intense, but fruitful.

Below, Pierre discusses NERTUS, the issue at hand the start-up is trying to solve, his experience with the DeepTech Accelerator, and what it means for the future of his entrepreneurial project.

What sustainability issues or topics interest you?
I am quite obsessed with carbon emissions and how they impact our climate and oceans. I want to be involved in projects that reduce emissions or even capture them (one of the solutions to reduce the effects of climate change). It's with such a project in mind that I applied to ESCP's MSEI programme. However, as of today this project is paused for me, and I am focusing on NERTUS, which doesn't capture carbon but increases the sustainability of the protein feed supply chain's emissions.

To give some background, 70% of Europe’s protein supply to feed livestock is imported and is dominated by soy imported from countries like Brazil, where forests are cleared for arable lands. FIshmeal, which is also a protein-rich powder, and its industry has terrible impacts on the world’s oceans. Where soy is still cheap, the price of fishmeal fluctuates and increases each year, posing challenges to all industries dependent on such productions. We are expecting a 60 megatons protein shortage by 2030, so can we really clear more forests and deplete even more the oceans even more?

It has been a few years now that insects have been determined to be an alternative to soy and fish meal. Insects are able to transform food waste into high-quality protein. Furthermore, very recently, the EU food agency declared mealworms (the insect we are farming) safe for human consumption -- this is great news since it opens a new market for insects.

Tell us more about NERTUS. 
Many farmers have been looking to mealworms as a more sustainable, protein-filled food source, and have expressed their desire to switch their production to the alternative of insect farming. Yet, insect farming is complex and only represented by large centralized insect production plants. Our approach is different; NERTUS provides farmers with insect eggs and the technology to grow it themselves. Farms have or are close to grain by-products (such as mills, and chicken/fish/swine farms), which insects feed on. By localizing and integrating insect farming into our current farming system, we reduce transportation costs and increase the sustainable potential of insect-based products.

Where did this idea come from?
I came up with this idea during the Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Innovation Project (SEIP) during our first year. Basically, I thought that insects should be farmed right where they are needed, and not in huge, faraway factories. Then, our SEIP team, named EXAFARM, came up with a concept of an automated container, producing insects (mealworms) directly for farmers or animal feed manufacturers. In the end it proved to be too complex for us, and we pivoted to a more traditional, factory setting.

However, after the end of the SEIP, I wanted to carry on with and expand the original idea and I met Leo Flohr. He had previously worked on a similar "decentralized" insect farming project, and his brilliant idea was to separate the complex production of insect eggs from the simpler process of the remaining insect growth. We shared the same vision for insect farming and decided to work together from this point. We eventually became a group of four in this venture: Leo Flohr (CEO), Alexander Bexter (Chief Biologist), Felix Ott (CTO) and myself, CFO.

Why did you apply to the TUM DeepTech Accelerator?
Our program manager Stephan Schmuck shared with all MSEI students this opportunity, and I was not quite sure if we perfectly matched their requirements, so I asked Cynthia Klauth of ESCP’s Jean Baptiste Say Institute for advice. We had a close look on how NERTUS matched TUM DEEPTECH’s requirements because this program covers AI, robotics, sustainable mobility, and additive manufacturing. At NERTUS, we 3D print our prototypes and we rely on automation and AI to run them, so because of this, we decided to apply.

What did you gain from the Accelerator and how will it help NERTUS?
An advantage was access to experienced mentors whom we could reach any day -- their feedback was very valuable to us. What was also great was the access to many other courses and lectures, some of which were mandatory, and some optional.

It will for sure help us scale our impact. For example, we are applying to the EXIST grant through ESCP but our mentor at TUM helped us a great deal with his experience on the matter. It added to the Blue Factory's feedback so that we could perfect our application.

The TUM Accelerator appears to be a pretty intensive four weeks. How did you manage it all with your studies, etc.?
As of now, the program is over, yet at the time I was juggling exams, a thesis, NERTUS and TUM's Accelerator programming, the company consultancy project and the EXIST application. So in order to attend all meetings and lectures with the Accelerator, working in a team of four was really handy, since we were sharing the obligation, depending on our respective agendas.

Are there long-term plans for NERTUS?
Our vision is that insect farming will be a cornerstone of the global food supply. Our long-term goal is to empower thousands of farms in the world with automated insect farming modules.

Farms have been providing us with food for thousands of years and the farm of the future will be able to produce insects as a sustainable protein source for animals as well as humans. Innovations like insect farming are paramount to ensure our capacity to feed nearly 10 billion humans by 2050.