Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque | Special to Reach by Gulf News

When you are building a pioneering biotechnology company, you have to build the very path to walk on. That is what three UAE-based entrepreneurs discovered when they began Circa Biotech, an innovative start-up that upcycles food waste into high-quality animal feed using industrial insect farming – the first of its kind in the region.

In order for Dr Haythem Riahi, CEO of Circa Biotech, and his co-founders, Kristine Wong and Liudmila Prozorova, to see their vision of sustainability come to life, they had to relentlessly draw courage and inspiration from their belief in the project. There was no legislative precedent for the sort of industrial insect farming they had in mind – feeding the indigenous Black Soldier Fly larvae with organic food waste redirected from landfills, harvesting the larvae after a short 14-day period to generate high-quality protein feed for fish and poultry, and then creating organic fertiliser from their by-products.

Anas Thacharpadikkal | Gulf News

For them to even begin operations at Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a new category of operating licence had to be created, and they needed to convince several governmental bodies – the Ministry of Environment, Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority – that their insect farming was not harmful for the environment or people.

That was just the beginning – they still needed companies to invest in what was then perceived as a crazy idea. “We were laughed at, so many times,” recalls Riahi. But that didn’t stop them. “The three of us are PhDs with MBAs,” he says. “But the first quality we share is resilience.”

Passion for sustainability

What kept them going was their dedication to making the world a better place for future generations. For Riahi, that determination stemmed from becoming a father, and realising that a planet struggling with climate change and food shortage cannot be his children’s legacy.

“By 2050 – in just 27 years – the world will be lacking 200 million tons of protein for animal feed, and we will not be able to feed the 10 billion people on the planet,” he explains. “We all need to become passionate about sustainability, about the way we live, produce and eat.”

That passion gave the three founders the courage to take the leap of faith needed to give up their corporate jobs and transition into entrepreneurship. And slowly but surely, their work began to be noticed.

Moment of glory

The moment they knew that they were truly on the path to success was when Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, inaugurated their facility in 2022, signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and pledging her support. It was a reaffirmation that the company was aligned with the UAE’s food security strategy for the next 20 years.

Our first KPI is not what we are generating in revenue; it is zero food waste.

- Dr Haythem Riahi, CEO and Co-founder of Circa Biotech

“Our first KPI is not what we are generating in revenue; it is zero food waste,” says Riahi. “We don't want to see any more food dumped in landfills, causing harmful methane emissions.”

Towards a better tomorrow

To that end, Circa Biotech aims to upscale its industrial capacity to produce 22,000 tons of animal feed a year by processing 200 tons of food waste a day, placing it in the top 10 companies in the world when it comes to alternative food protein.

Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque | Special to Reach by Gulf News

“Today, the UAE is number four globally when it comes to food waste,” he says. “We want to go from that to making the UAE one of the top five sources of alternative protein in the coming five years.

“The solution will not come only from us. We were licence number 1 in this field of activity; now it's open to others to come and operate in the sphere.”

For these trailblazers, that would be the greatest achievement – to see an entire ecosystem of start-ups and SMEs in the UAE follow them along the path they have built towards a sustainable future, paved with passion, belief and resilience.