If you follow Exo on Instagram, you’ve undoubtedly encountered photos of customers enjoying their cricket flour protein bars in a variety of delicious combinations.
Founded in 2014, the New York startup pioneering the education and consumption of cricket flour and other insect protein, has cultivated a significant following that continues to surprise its founders. We first interviewed Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz in November 2014, 11 months after they launched. The team was half the size it is today, and their highest priority was answering the make it or break it question: How do we get people to eat crickets?
In today’s featured interview, Gabi shares the company’s evolution and how their deliberate approach to scaling, both internally and with their flagship product, is establishing a foundational path forward for the brand.
Two years in, Exo is home to seven “radically different” individuals who are passionate about convincing the world to add crickets to their daily diet. From renowned Michelin chef Kyle Connaughton to former junior Olympic lifter Kaitlin Holliday, each member brings a unique perspective that contributes to the overall vision of the team.
“There’s no playbook for building a food category that’s never existed, developing a supply chain and products around it, and then convincing people to eat something they think is weird,” Gabi says. “We aim to find people whose experiences lend unique perspectives to solve new problems.” Accordingly, 50% of Exo team members are American; while the other 50% are globally diverse. They’ve each traveled the world sampling exotic foods ranging from exploded shrimp brains to frog shakes and seahorse soup.
A typical day at Exo finds the team huddled around the test kitchen sampling new variations of cricket flour and bars. One of their recent adventures was determining if the feed crickets are given during their last week on the farm impacts the flavor of the flour. For the curious, the crickets were fed apples, carrots, and filtered water. According to Gabi, the apple variation tasted best. “It’s not the standard for food companies but it’s a lot of fun,” he asserts.
As with any growing company, the founders are cognizant that assembling the right team is crucial to their ability to scale. Exo’s implemented a thorough hiring process to ensure they are bringing on individuals who are eager and ready to navigate the unique challenges that accompany introducing a new food category to the world. Each Exo team member is responsible for individually interviewing a potential candidate before the team collectively decides if he or she will be additive to the culture. “Our hiring process is very long and probably a little intense, but hopefully, people see that it makes for a better company,” Gabi says. Exo advisors and investors also play a hands-on role in the decision-making process.
“Greg and I are acutely aware that we are 25-year-old first-time entrepreneurs so we try to surround ourselves with people who are not 25-year-olds first-time entrepreneurs,” Gabi shares. They rely on individuals like best-selling author and investor Tim Ferriss, who helps with PR and positioning, and the Co-Founders of AccelFoods, Lauren Jupiter and Jordan Gaspar, as close partners. In addition to providing tactical support, Exo advisors, evangelists, and investors serve an important role validating the need for insect protein in the market.
“We are doing something so new and radically different that it’s important to attract really great people around it to legitimize to the movement,” Gabi says. “If it was just Greg and me walking into a meeting with investors saying ‘We are first time entrepreneurs trying to sell cricket bars,’ they wold laugh us out of the room.”
In February, Exo closed a new round of funding, the first Series A financing for an insect protein startup, raising $4 million from new and existing investors such as AccelFoods and Collaborative Fund. Partnering with influencers like artist and producer Nas has been equally beneficial raising awareness for the movement.
“It’s a major stamp of legitimacy,” Gabi remarks, addressing the persisting question of whether cricket flour is rooted in media hype or if the adoption of insect protein is here to stay. “We wholeheartedly believe that crickets are a foundational food source for a growing population. Our Series A is an important milestone signaling that there are a lot of very experienced and smart people who are putting their money where their mouth is.”
Cricket protein is unparalleled in terms of resource efficiency.
A few of the environmental and nutritional facts attracting investors include:
- A single serving of crickets contains more iron than beef
- Crickets are high in good quality protein and packed with essential amino acids and omega-3 healthy fats
- They contain 65% protein by dry weight which is higher than conventional livestock
- They require a fraction of the land and water needed to nurture traditional livestock. It takes 100 gallons of water to produce 72 grams of crickets as opposed to 6 grams of beef, as cited in Fortune. Crickets can also be farmed indoors eliminating the methane gasses associated with raising cattle.
Despite the clear benefits, Exo quickly learned that simple trumps sophisticated when it comes to flavor profiles. “We’re already asking enough of consumers trying to get them to eat bugs,” Gabi says. “To say, ‘Start eating a cricket bar instead of your KIND bar, and by the way, instead of having chocolate try green tea matcha goji berry,’ was asking too much.” Similar to other brands in the market, Exo uses the highest quality berries, fruits, and chocolate to craft their flavors. They currently sell Banana Bread, Blueberry Vanilla, Cacao Nut, Apple Cinnamon, and Peanut Butter and Jelly. If you are new to cricket protein, you can try a sampler pack here.
The team recently tested and released a special savory collection for early adopters who were craving a meal replacement bar without the sweetness. Three limited edition bars were sold online: Barbecue, Mango Curry, and Mediterranean. You can learn more about them here.
Another recent addition is Exo Elite: “a monthly subscription service on steroids” that provides early adopters and evangelists a direct glimpse into the new products the team’s working on. Members can customize monthly bar deliveries as well as receive samples of new flavors that the team is testing. Exo places heavy emphasis on the feedback they receive from their community members.
The evolution of the bars and consumer response over the past two years has unveiled crucial insight that every customer is unique in how he or she perceives the benefits of Exo’s solution. When they first started, Gabi and Greg pitched a memorized script to every new customer; “Depending on if they had one of three answers we would go to the next response. We learned that it’s an art, not a science,” Gabi says. Today, when they hear that a potential customer is solely looking for a healthy snack, they focus on the bar’s nutritional benefits rather than extensively highlighting the ethics and environmental consequences of farming crickets. Above all, when it comes to food, Exo’s learned that taste persists as their number one sales driver. “The environmental component motivates our team internally, and it’s a nice cherry on top for consumers, but it’s rarely the single largest motivating factor when someone is making a purchase,” Gabi says. “You have to get a real feel of what each person cares about. It’s very case by case.”
Whether you’re speaking with their investors or the team members themselves one thing is very clear about Exo: They are far more than your afternoon snack. While he wasn’t able to disclose upcoming products, Gabi assures us that the team is just getting started.
“We’ve never viewed ourselves as a protein bar company,” he affirms. “We want to introduce an entirely new food source to America that is more sustainable and nutritious than what we consume today. In the next couple of years, we’ll have a far broader range of products, all which incorporate insect protein. Protein bars are only the tip of the iceberg.”
To learn more about the Exo movement and find out how you can get involved, tune into Gabi’s Beyond the Headline episode next week and meet the team here.