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Mealworms can provide the protein for animal feed. (Beta Hatch Photo)

Thar’s money in them thar mealworms!

At least that’s what Cavallo Ventures is counting on. The venture capital arm of the Wilbur-Ellis agricultural product distribution firm says it’s providing seed-round backing to Beta Hatch, a Seattle-based startup that grows mealworms for animal feed.

Beta Hatch is developing a proprietary process that feeds the worms organic waste, and cultivates critters that contain 56 percent protein and 33 percent fat. The company, founded by entomologist Virginia Emery in 2015, says its process requires minimal water and produces protein at 5,000 times the per-acre yield of soy.

The process offers an alternative to fishmeal, which is currently a favored source of protein for animal feed — typically, for feeding poultry, pigs and farmed fish. In addition to the protein-rich feedstock, the manure from mealworms (technically known as frass) can be used as an organic fertilizer for specialty crops.

“Beta Hatch’s technology will allow our partners access to a fresh, year-round protein supply that is both sustainable and environmentally friendly,” Andrew Loder, president of Wilbur-Ellis Feed, said today in a news release. “It’s a win for us, and a win for our customers.”

Cavallo Ventures said its stake in Beta Hatch is its first investment in the feed industry.

AgFunderNews reported that Beta Hatch has closed $1.6 million of a $1.8 million seed round, thanks to Cavallo as well as Seattle-based angel investors and E8, a firm that invests in early-stage clean-tech companies. The company has also benefited from $575,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation and other government agencies, Emery said.

Beta Hatch is currently operating out of a 7,000-square-foot indoor proof-of-concept farm in SeaTac, but expansion plans are in the works.

“This round of fundraising will allow us to build a pre-commercial facility where we can demonstrate the full processing capacity of our system and design a commercial facility,” Emery said in today’s news release. “Within a few years, we will be producing several tons of product each day.”

In a follow-up interview, Emery told GeekWire that Beta Hatch is making rapid progress. “We’ve been able to bring our cost of production down 80 percent over the last year,” she said.

Beta Hatch currently produces about a ton of worms and frass per month, Emery said. Local customers include PCC Natural Markets, which sells bags of frass fertilizer; and Sauk Farm in Concrete, Wash., which uses the fertilizer in its organic apple orchards.

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