For a tiny bug, a cricket packs a big nutritional punch.
On a sunny afternoon in the University of Virginia’s iLab, alumna Lyon McCandless rattles off the bug’s bona fides.
“By weight, they have more protein than beef, more potassium than bananas, more calcium than milk, more omegas than salmon and more iron than spinach,” she said. “They are high in protein and fiber, low in fat, and generally just have an awesome nutritional profile.”
Crickets are also a sustainable food source. The United Nations, in a 2013 report, named crickets and other insects as a critical low-cost, low-impact food source for combatting food shortages. They have a short, eight-week life cycle, reproduce rapidly and require a tiny fraction of the water, food or other resources demanded by typical livestock.
And, importantly, crickets have a significantly lower ick-factor than their insect peers.
“In the industry, we call crickets ‘the gateway bug’ because it’s a little more palatable for the average American consumer than, say, a mealworm,” said McCandless, who first tasted a cricket while traveling in Thailand and began researching them after returning to the U.S.
Now, the 2012 McIntire School of Commerce graduate has bet her business on getting people through that gateway. Her company, geedunk, will offer a line of cricket powder-based cookies and granola bars, launching with three flavors at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello on Sept. 22 and available online on Oct. 15.
To get ready for launch, McCandless spent her summer in the W.L. Lyons Brown III Innovation Laboratory, or iLab, run by the Darden School of Business’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Each year, the lab welcomes new ventures from UVA and the Charlottesville area for an immersive 10-week incubator program, complete with a $5,000 grant, networking opportunities, mentor programs and pro bono legal advice. This summer, the lab is assisting 23 new ventures.
McCandless started geedunk in Norfolk, where her husband is stationed in the U.S. Navy. The name – military slang for a canteen or snack bar on Navy ships – reflects an important aspect of the company’s mission: providing for military spouses.
Like many military spouses, McCandless has to look for new employment each time her husband is stationed somewhere new. When the couple moved to Norfolk, she found herself unemployed again and realized that starting her own company might be the solution – for herself and for other military spouses.
“As a military spouse, I have found myself unemployed and alone in a new city while my significant other is deployed,” she said. “I wanted to create a company that really understood that, with a culture that catered to and helped military spouses.”
As her company grows, McCandless hopes to focus on employing military spouses and offering flexible hours, child care, a friendly environment and other support for men and women facing the same dilemma she did.
First, though, she had to create the perfect product.
McCandless spent months experimenting with cricket powder in her kitchen and seeking out farmers to supply cricket powder for her products. To better understand the farming side of her operation, she raised a mini cricket farm – about 100 crickets that quickly multiplied to 1,000 – in her guest bedroom. Eventually, she will supply her business from a larger farm that she is planning to get off the ground in Virginia.
“I love cooking. I’m definitely a foodie,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in my own kitchen building prototypes, experimenting and having friends and family taste-test.”
Once she was happy with her flavors, McCandless hired a food scientist to help her formulate geedunk’s first three cricket powder-based granola bars: peanut butter & jam, coconut & banana, and chocolate & berries.
“They are all high in protein but low in sugar, which was important to me,” she said. “I love the flavors. PB&J is so nostalgic, and the chocolate and berries flavor – with acai and goji berries – is actually great as dessert. I love it with wine.”
Her husband – also her taste-tester and biggest fan – loves them too, she said.
“He was my ultimate guinea pig,” she said.
The iLab offered the perfect opportunity to take the bars from kitchen testing to a fully fledged product line, complete with a website, branding, marketing campaign ideas and sales channels.
“At the iLab, there are 22 other companies and entrepreneurs working on a huge range of businesses, and we all jive off each other and help each other through the challenges,” McCandless said. “It’s been great, and my own goals have evolved and grown more than I could have expected or predicted.”
Making all of that progress at UVA was icing on the cake (or the cricket?).
“When I came back to UVA for the iLab, there was this wonderful sense of coming home,” McCandless said. “It was exciting, and inspiring, just to be back in this community.”