2013-09-27

Co.Exist

The $1 Million Plan For Farming Crickets, And The Huge Controversy Of Who Hatched It

A battle over who deserves credit for the Hult Prize-winning cricket-harvesting idea is a classic tale of the dirty side of starting a business. Just because they're solving world hunger doesn't make it any less cutthroat.

Business plan competitions don't come any bigger than the Hult Prize. The prize, which was just awarded to a team from Montreal's McGill University, is worth $1 million. And part of the kudos includes meeting Bill Clinton, who handed over the check and trophy in New York City this week.

But back in Montreal, another McGill student isn't too happy. Jakub Dzamba claims the McGill team made generous use of his (very similar) idea, and has yet to provide any sort of compensation. He also says the team wanted to gag him from talking about his contribution and the dispute that followed.

McGill's winning idea is to industrialize the production of edible insects in developing countries. By creating a cheap insect harvesting kit, and developing partnerships to gather and process the animals, the team hopes to widen access to protein and important nutrients. Many countries already eat insects like crickets and grasshoppers, but they tend to be produced by hand and only at certain times of year. McGill's Hult proposal is to make production an all-year-round commercial proposition.

In 2012, Dzamba competed in another business plan contest—McGill's Dobson Cup—coming in third for his "farming system to raise crickets." He has since gone on to develop his own business, called Third Millennium Farming, which we covered here.

According to both sides, the Hult team, called "Aspire," invited Dzamba to work on the project with them last March. What they differ on is the level of his involvement, and the promises that were made to him.

Shobhita Soor, one of the students, says the team's "entire business model was finalized before we ever knew who he was." She adds: "When we met him, we said 'we're going to have this kit that's going to be collapsible," and then he graphically represented it for us. I think a lot of the knowledge base was already with us from our research that was already in the public domain on how to rear crickets."

Read more about Dzamba's cricket growing project here.

The McGill team, all MBA students, included Dzamba's design in its Regional Stage presentation in March, crediting his work without crediting his work on several slides. But Dzamba says his involvement went beyond sketching a few pictures.

They "asked me many basic knowledge questions about cricket farming, such as how efficient crickets are at converting feed into body mass, how many crickets can the cricket-farming kit designed by me, farm, and how long does it take for the crickets to mature from an egg to an age where they should be harvested?" he says.

Dzamba says that the team changed its business plan after meeting with him—most visibly in the way it planned to collect and transport crickets from people's homes. "[They] modified their business plan, where a collection route would pick up farms that were ready for harvest from the farmers, take them to a central processing location, and then return an empty farm back to the farmer," he claims.

After getting through the regional stage, the McGill team concluded that it needed to change its original concept. Initially, the team had planned to distribute multiple insect growing kits in cities, collect them, and process the insects at a central hub. But fieldwork showed that people didn't want to grow their own food, Soor says. So the team instead decided to distribute kits to professional farmers, creating a more typical agricultural model.

Another bug growing project is Farm 432, which lets you grow delicious larva and eat them.

The presentation that the team made in the final round of the competition used none of Dzamba's designs. Soor says the team is now working with insect experts and designers in the U.S and Holland to come up with a new kit design, and that the students are currently at the "pre-prototype stage." But Dzamba argues that the team would never have won the competition without his involvement.

Over the summer, Dzamba, who is studying for a PhD in architecture, grew upset with the business students. He says the team promised him full member status if it won the semifinal. But, when the team did make it through, they didn't want to continue the collaboration. "We did see synergies of working with him, but unfortunately that relationship had to end," Soor says.

At that point, Dzamba made an official complaint to McGill. The university brought in four deans and its commercialization officer, Mark Weber, to hear the two sides. The officials mostly took Dzamba's side (while still saying it wasn't up to them to enforce a resolution). Their letter says: "Mr. Dzamba played a leading role in the invention of the cricket farming device in question" and "Mr. Dzamba made a substantive contribution to the Hult Prize Regional Final presentation." The letter then suggests the students give Dzamba "financial compensation in the amount of $5,332."

Though Dzamba had asked for $25,000, he says he would have been happy to sign an agreement based on the university's findings, and leave it at that. But the business students wanted to add a "release clause" that Dzamba says would have stopped him "talking about my own invention with professors and stuff like that."
The document, dated August 30, says:

The Releasees [Dzamba] agree to not ever mention the interaction between the Releasors and the Releasees to any 3rd party or in public nor to disseminate any such information in the public domain or in any media outlet, including but not limited to the nature of their interaction, the conflict resolution process nor the services rendered.

Dzamba says he couldn't sign, given the language, and the business students came back with a less legalistic offer that nonetheless says he should never "speak about this dispute publicly." The parties have yet to reach an agreement.

Asked why the team felt it necessary to stop Dzamba talking, Soor says "there were a lot of situations where we felt that the truth was not being told. We felt that, if [the agreement] was going to end our dispute, then we don't want to put our reputation at risk." Dzamba counters: "They didn't want me mentioning facts despite those facts being true."

Ahmad Ashkar, founder of the Hult Prize Foundation, didn't respond specifically to Dzamba's points. But, in an email, he says that he "spent a lot of time looking into" the merits of the dispute:

[We] are fully satisfied, as is McGill University, that there have been no legal violations nor violations of Hult Prize rules by the Aspire Food team at any point during this year's Hult Prize; this includes application, regional competition, accelerator and yesterday's global final.

Dzamba sounds more sad than angry ("It would have been nice to get to meet Bill Clinton," he says). His beef isn't only with the students, but the Hult Prize itself, which he says allows teams to effectively exploit non-original ideas.

"It is saddening to see that the Hult Prize ... only requires that the winning team's final submission is ethical and breaks no laws. In doing so, the Hult Prize rules allow certain well-timed unethical acts to go unpunished in earlier elimination rounds, and I believe this realization actually encourages unethical behavior."

Absent any change of heart from Aspire or Hult, the project will continue and attempt to use the prize money to scale, while Dzamba's own Third Millennium Farming attempts to gain speed as well. If the world ends up being fed on crickets, perhaps we'll look back on this as a seminal moment in the history of global food culture. Then again, there are probably enough mouths to fill with crickets to go around.

[Image: Crickets via Shutterstock]

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