Sometimes in life, there are those moments when an idea pops into your head and you just can’t shake it. Like a repeat offender, it strikes at random times, reiterating the thought over and over again, until you decide to finally embrace it. For today’s Caffeinated Convo, the founders of EXO Protein had a hunch that was eating them up inside, so they decided to explore their idea — and thank God they did.
Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis created EXO Protein after discovering how nutritional insects are as an alternative protein source. While Gabi was already making protein bars on his own, Greg introduced the idea to combined crickets into the mix and that’s when things exploded. After a Kickstarter campaign and a few shipped boxes of crickets, EXO Protein is now taking over by producing different flavors of protein bars all ranging from banana bread to mango curry — all with a hint of hint of cricket flour.
We chatted with Greg and Gabi at the LES Projective Space location to see how they started EXO Protein, what were some of the challenges they have faced, and what their plans are for the future. Meet the cricket connoisseurs, Greg Sewitz and Gabi Lewis.
Tell us a little bit about how you guys met and came up with EXO Protein?
We met during our first year while we were studying at Brown. Gabi had a strong interest in all things health and wellness and was actually making his own bootleg protein bars in our dorm room because he couldn't find a good product on the market that satisfied his strict criteria.
Around that time, I attended a conference at MIT held by the Dalai Lama where I learned about insects as an alternative protein source and the incredible nutritional and environmental benefits. After some persuasion, I eventually convinced Gabi that it was an idea worth pursuing—over 80% of the world already consumes insects in some form, and there was clearly a gap in the US market for a product that integrated this food source into an everyday diet in an accessible, tasty and nutritious way.
A box of home-delivered crickets and some rave reviews from our friends and family later, Exo was born.
What is the best way to end a very productive day?
Personal health and fitness is a huge part of our company culture, and being able to head to the gym after a long, productive day is a great way to unwind. Some of us hit up the local CrossFit gym and a couple of others in the office are training for a triathlon right now. We also love exploring new restaurants and try to do a big team dinner somewhere cool every couple of weeks.
Why did you guys decide to use crickets in your protein bars and what are some of the health benefits of them?
They’re exceptionally high in protein quantity and quality—up to 65% by dry weight, containing all the essential amino acids. They’re also packed full of micronutrients like zinc, calcium and vitamin B12. Gram for gram, crickets have more iron than beef and more calcium than milk. While I hate to use a term that’s lost almost all meaning, crickets are a true superfood.
Coffee or tea?
Depends! We're all big coffee drinkers (Gabi even has a CUPS subscription) but we also enjoy mushroom tea by Four Sigmatic (full of cordyceps - which helps fight fatigue) and an afternoon matcha from our friends at Matcha Bar.
What do you feel is the biggest stigma when it comes to insects? How would you like EXO Protein to change that?
People tend to have this idea that insects are an inferior food source, only to be consumed by people who can’t afford “normal” food like chicken. It’s an absurd idea, really—insects are actually more expensive than traditional protein sources in many parts of the world. In Uganda, for example, grasshoppers cost more than steak. We’re combatting this misinformation by having our recipes developed by Michelin-Starred chefs so when people taste our bars, they realize crickets can be delicious, and using ultra-premium ingredients like almond butter, dried blueberries and honey to create products that are really high-quality.
What do the both of you do to have a better work-life balance?
As mentioned before, we both enjoy physical activity and exercise after work, which is a great way to disconnect. At the same time, Exo is born out of interests and passions that excite the both of us, so 'working' isn't something that we consider difficult. The tenants behind Exo bleed into our everyday lives and personal interests, which often serves to help us combine leisure and work.
As young entrepreneurs, what were some of the biggest challenges you both faced during the inception of your business? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Like any other first-time business founders, it was a pretty steep learning curve. We are lucky enough to have an incredible team with decades of experience to help supplement our skills.
Everything we have done up until this point helped shape the company into what it is today, mistakes and all, so I don’t think there’s much we would have done differently.
That said, we’ve definitely learned to become less distracted and focus on one thing at a time. It’s tempting as a founder to try to do everything from Instragram posts to investor pitches, but obviously that’s unrealistic and you end up getting very little done. We’ve become much better at delegating, and hiring amazing people to help us on this journey.
When you both took the leap from conventional occupations to pursue EXO Protein, how did you squash the voice inside your head telling you you might fail.
Gabi actually turned down a job at the biggest hedge fund in the world, and I was planning to travel to Tibet to teach monks about neuroscience as part of a government initiative - so starting Exo was a big leap of faith for both of us.
Any negative thoughts about failure were pretty much silenced by the science and research behind insects as valuable and revolutionary protein source - we both believed so strongly in the concept and knew that what we were doing could have the potential to bring value to so many customers, and ultimately make a massive impact on our food system.
Best app to use right now?
Poncho. Simple and awesome weather updates with humor - even tells you what's happening with your train line that day.
Besides protein bars, are you guys thinking of exploring other types of foods to embed with crickets?
Absolutely—protein bars are just the tip of the iceberg for us. We’re experimenting with pretty much everything you could imagine adding extra protein to.