15 Minutes With… Olympia Yarger, CEO and Founder of Goterra
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Global AgInvesting Media (December 6, 2022)
Photos courtesy of Goterra
Standing at the forefront of the revolution of organic waste management is Olympia Yarger. A visionary in the Australian insect farming industry, in 2014 Yarger founded Goterra, which builds and deploys smart city infrastructure for food waste management. Since that time, the company’s innovative insect farms have saved more than 35,000 tons of food waste from going to a landfill.
Goterra, which is based in Canberra, has achieved this through its deployable modular, autonomous waste management units, which allow waste to be processed at the site of creation via waste-eating maggots, or Black Soldier fly Larvae (BSFL). At the same time, this unlocks distribution channels as waste no longer has to be hauled to another site, saving transportation and shipping costs. And, every ton of waste kept from the landfill prevents 1,700 CO2 Eq kg emissions from being released into the environment.
Additionally, the production of larvae, of which Goterra produces more than one ton a day, is used for livestock, pet, and aquaculture feed. It also produces and sells frass from the insects. The company’s dehydrated whole BSFL and insect meal are used by the likes of Barangaroo, Lendlease, and customers across all food waste segments.
Now with over 25 employees, Goterra’s growth has been fueled by a government-issued ACT Innovation Connect grant, and an AUD$8 million Series A raised in 2020.
GAI News spoke to Yarger, who was just named ACT Australian of the Year for her ground-breaking efforts in insect farming, to see where the company is heading and how she will remain steadfast in her mission to move forward with “this truly sustainable food system to support Australian agriculture”.
1). How did you come to found Goterra?
I wanted to create a sustainable farming system and thought that if I could create a protein source that was not subject to volatile market forces, I would solve one of the most challenging parts of farming – that is, the volatile cost of feed, which comprises 70 percent of all operating costs.
I started with that vision. I soon realized that insect farming was exactly that - farming. And I fell in love with how new it was, and how, because we don’t know much about it, there is so much to learn.
2). Goterra is a sustainable food waste management company, and a producer of alternative poultry and aquaculture feeds from insects. Can you explain how Goterra integrates the two activities within one business, and is part of a community of “unreasonable companies”?
We built a robot. Insects do the job of turning waste into high-value protein. They have done this for centuries. We just needed a way to harness what they do naturally and create a way to commercialize this. We designed modular units that are autonomous insect farms. They accept the waste, process, and manage the waste, and then ensure that the insects are fed waste every day. Whilst the insects are feeding, the system ensures the insects are kept in a healthy environment so they continue to consume as much food waste as possible.
As a result of this technology, we can provide food waste management as a fee for service, and the resulting insects and their manure become valuable commodities in agriculture.
Unreasonable (which is a Colorado-based, international company that supports a fellowship for growth-stage entrepreneurs, channels exclusive deal-flow to investors, and partners with institutions to discover profit in solving global problems) understands the urgency of the problem we are innovating to solve. Being part of a network that connects businesses and founders with investors and researchers is important for us to affect change at the scale and pace we need to.
3). Currently, how much food waste does Goterra process? Where is it sourced from? What volume of insect meal do you produce per month, per year, from this food waste? What positive impact does this “recycling” have on the environment, emissions and the like?
Goterra currently processes 100-plus tons of waste per week across our five sites, and this number is growing week by week. Our customers come from all sectors – hospitality, supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, residential, and everything in between.
The volume of insect protein produced depends on how much waste we manage in a given week, but on average we produce five to six tons a week.
Every ton of food waste that doesn’t go to landfill prevents 1700 CO2 Eq kg emissions. Our process has a significant impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Additionally, because our technology is deployable and can be in more logistically opportune locations, like at the site of waste creation, we can support our customers in reducing road transport and trucking miles, driving down the fuel usage and further reducing emissions.
4). What response have you received from Australia’s livestock producers to your live Black Soldier fly, mealworm, and cricket proteins? Have you found them willing to branch out, or is there a steep need for education before adoption?
Response from agriculture has been overwhelmingly positive. Both the protein and the frass are in high demand as the cost of feed and fertilizer continue to skyrocket. Our job is to meaningfully increase production so we can continue to support Australian agriculture with these much-needed commodities.
5). How is Goterra enabling a circular economy and encouraging consumers/businesses to do good with their food waste?
The saying is, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”. The same goes for waste. Currently we don’t measure how much we waste at our homes and in our offices, so we don’t really see how much we’re wasting.
When customers become our clients, they can examine new data about this, where they have not had this opportunity before. This has been an important part in helping our customers understand where they can improve and waste less. Additionally, the process provides transparency and connectedness to the food system, which many people don’t have. We’ve found our customers deeply appreciate this connection, and it creates a strong alignment with our mission and our customers.
6). Please explain how automation and robotics help fulfill the Goterra mission.
Without automation this process would continue to be manual or require centralization, and be much more costly, to be effective. Our robotic system allows us to create as much capacity as is required, with the option to increase that as necessary to serve customer needs.
More broadly, food waste management involves using large, centralized locations where waste is collected and transported long distances for processing. Goterra’s autonomous deployable technology provides a solution that universally addresses food waste management challenges and demand, no matter the location, type of waste, or volume. This has created access for organic waste management in locations that have not previously been serviced, and fulfills our mission to divert as many tons of food waste as possible from going to landfill.
7). In 2020, the company raised AUD$9.2 million in Series A funding, led by Grok Ventures and Tenacious Ventures. What’s next for Goterra as far as funding and growth?
With five locations across four states in Australia and growing, we are set to capture a significant part of the East Coast market in 2023. We are currently setting up new sites with our key client Woolworths that will triple the amount of waste we manage within the next six months. Next year, we have international expansion plans in the pipeline into the U.S., Asian, UK, and European markets.
As we continue to grow and expand operations, we’re welcoming funding partners who want to participate in the revolution of organic waste management.
ABOUT OLYMPIA YARGER
Olympia Yarger, an Australian native, is an innovator, sustainability champion, and leader in the insect farming industry. She has a global vision for waste management --- to make it decentralized and use robotic systems that employ insects to do the work. In 2014, she founded Goterra - a company that builds and deploys smart city infrastructure for food waste management – and also is its CEO. She’s devised a waste management system that uses fly larvae to process food waste into fertilizer, which has already saved more than 35,000 tons of food waste from going to landfill.
Yarger was honored by having a species of fly, discovered in the Daintree rainforest in 2018, named Hermetia Olympiae after her. In September 2022, she was named the ACT Australian of the Year 2023 in recognition of her ground-breaking work as an insect farmer and founder of Goterra.
- Michelle Pelletier Marshall is contributing editor and author for HighQuest Partners’ GAI News and Unconventional Ag, and managing editor for its WIA Today blog. Additionally, she is the company’s Senior PR/Media Manager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.