Photo of Katharina Unger

Biotechnology & medicine

Katharina Unger

Her technology turns insects into a sustainable source of protein for animals and people
Photo credit: Paris Tsitsos

Year Honored

Livin Farms


Hails From

Proteins are essential nutrients in our diets. Today, most of the world's protein intake comes from animal sources, however, ruminants produce 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein than legumes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned about this problem. Therefore, it is urgent to find new sources of proteins that do not aggravate the current climate emergency and help sustain a world population that does not stop growing.

Among the possible solutions, FAO identified insects as a cheap and simple alternative protein source years ago. With this idea in mind, in 2016, Austrian designer Katharina Unger presented LIVIN Farms Hive, a 'beehive' that allows users to raise insects from their homes to create their own sources of protein and fertilizer. Thanks to this initiative, Unger has become one of the winners of Innovators Under 35 Europe from MIT Technology Review.

The structure is made up of interconnected modules for egg breeding, for insects to mate, and for larval growth. It was financed thanks to Kickstarter and private capital, and a year later there were already hundreds of its units in homes and educational centers around the world. One virtue of their hatcheries is that they need very little energy, water, and food (oats or vegetable waste) to function. At the bottom is a tray that collects insect debris for direct use as fertilizer.

Unger believes that her work "can solve many problems in the food chain right now." She is currently developing a plug-and-play system, which controls the temperature at which worms are found and uses easy to move modular units to generate protein sources in small spaces.

In addition to providing a new source of protein, which is increasingly in demand, Unger's technology will help incentivise the agricultural sector across the globe and raise awareness about the production of environmentally responsible nutrients and fertilizers. For example, flour worm waste is a good nutrient for plants, while insects themselves can serve as food for livestock and pets. To overcome cultural resistance to eating insects, the team only shares images that give a sense of cleanliness. "In fact, growing them is a clean process. It's cleaner than raising pigs, cows or chickens," Unger points out. On the awareness side, Unger has focused on making the original platform cheaper so that it has a better penetration in the educational market. After passing through Hong Kong, China, the young woman says, "Many schoolchildren in Asia [who live in big cities] don't know about sustainability."

The team assures that they have partnered up with Europe's largest retailer to feed their bakery surplus to insects in order to generate proteins and fertilizer. Unger says, "We are installing modular industrial units on-site to digest the waste at the spot where it occurs. The proteins produced go into pet food, animal feed, as well as human food applications."

PowerWay-Asia Partner and member of the Innovators Under 35 Europe 2019 jury, Therese Vien, believes that Unger "has overcome the difficult challenge of producing more nutrients with less land and resources," adding: "Not only does it intelligently solve a major problem, but it is opening up a whole field for progress that would save the world and preserve our planet." She appreciates that the young woman has had "resilience and persistence in making the prototypes" and is confident that she will succeed in "creating new business models and ways of producing organic food."

By José Manuel Blanco
Translation: Brian Bostwick