Larvae vs landfill: Goterra hatches waste-tech expansion

Larvae vs landfill: Goterra hatches waste-tech expansion

Goterra founder and CEO Olympia Yarger.

At the intersection of robotic technology, insect breeding and waste processing sits a Canberra-based company whose sheep farmer co-founder wants to change the world by disrupting at least two industries that contribute to anthropogenic climate change.

The first is waste, the second is protein generation in its various forms, which both account for high levels of carbon emissions around the globe. Olympia Yarger's Goterra is taking the former to create the latter with the help of maggots.

Hers is a story of larvae versus landfill, and with $9.2 million raised since inception Goterra has developed the tech, networks and knowhow to make its use cases clear for local councils, and enterprise clients ranging from major supermarkets to the nation's leading waste management operators. 

The most recent of these breakthroughs is the deployment of a more compact offering called Modular Infrastructure for Biological Services (MIBS) at Melbourne Airport in September, representing an expansion into Victoria. This took Goterra's footprint to four sites with seven units in use, but soon that number will fester to 60.

Yarger, who was recently named the ACT Australian of the Year 2023, is emphatic that Goterra is not just a tech company that is experiencing success or growth, but is "answering a really big problem".

Backers include Grok Ventures, Tenacious Ventures, Rampersand, Giant Leap, Flying Fox and Schneider Electric, but the amount of capital raised or the number of sites all mean very little without taking stock of what the entrepreneur seeks to achieve.

"Yes, we solve for climate, but we do so because we are improving logistics, and we're creating infrastructure capacity where there hasn't been any before," she says.

"We forget that our infrastructure and utilities are really easy ways to create climate action."

It was in 2014 that the entrepreneur started buying into the premise that you could sell insects as a protein of agriculture, and this was nothing new.

"It was only once we kicked off and got going that I realised waste management was actually a bigger opportunity," she said.

Black Soldier Fly larvae
Black Soldier Fly larvae.

 

Unlike other players in the space, for example Melbourne-based Bardee which has a more centralised approach, mobility is at the core of Goterra's proposition for its units that utilise black soldier fly (BSF) larvae to feed on the waste, and after they've plumped up are processed as a natural protein to be on-sold. 

The on-site approach is the result of early conversations with waste distributors.

"I started by reaching out to the actual waste distributors to discuss the challenges they had, what they were looking for and how it worked, and then we had partnerships through local government looking at how they needed to manage," Yarger explains.

"It’s a pretty boring story of market deliberation and looking at what are the actual pain points of waste, and what challenges our customers would be facing."

From the very beginning, Yarger built the business with an ethos to avoid replicating intensive farming systems in the way Goterra is set up.

"We know that logistics are a problem, we know that our supply chains are broken, we know that transportation’s becoming more expensive - if we we believe those things are true then we need to change those three things," she says.

"So we asked, what if we create a system or a modular unit that’s big enough to manage a lot of waste but small enough to be in a small place?"

The ability to execute on this vision is enabled by an industrial, robotic technology developed by Goterra that holds the insects in their trays, moving them around the unit so that they can be fed, all the while monitoring and managing them to optimise feed at the right levels.

"You’re not going to see any fine motor robotics in there or a little light and it doesn’t talk to you in a funny voice, but it is able to accept waste, manage the waste, process the waste, so it can handle waste from a wheelie bin or a tipper truck," the entrepreneur says.

"It can package the waste on its own, and it takes that waste and puts it into the system every day, and it knows how much to feed itself.

"It can unblock itself, it can tell people when it’s in trouble, it can do basic things to manage the colony by itself, and then it has human interactions."

She says the human side of the process does not include sorting the waste to any extensive degree.

"It goes all through to the insects and we let them do their job, which is to manage waste," she explains, although there are technicians at the plant who will remove glass, and ferrous contamination like boxes or metal.

The finished product is treated as a commodity, and Goterra does not exactly touch the product development side of the supply chain.

"We sell directly to farmers, and we sell our protein direct to product makers. A lot of our protein right now is in trial use case for industrial applications, and then we have a small amount of clients who purchase it for boutique poultry products and dog food," she says.

"We’re really interested in the use case of insects in industrial applications long-term, so we’re doing a bunch of R&D there, but we don’t create products per se."

A Goterra MIBS (modular infrastructure for biological services) installed at Barangaroo, Sydney.
A Goterra MIBS (modular infrastructure for biological services) installed at Barangaroo, Sydney.

 

She says product development with insect protein is actually a challenge due to the variability of protein levels in the waste itself, likening this input to the variability in grain cropping quality based on varieties, soil, the season, etcetera.

"What we feed the insects determines how high or low their protein will be, and so to try and create a product out of that is quite difficult because you’re always going to have some fluctuation in that step, but if I sell it as a commodity like wheat, I can just sell it to someone who has a specific use case."

As far as use cases go for Goterra's technology, Yarger points to how the Albury City Council has used the service to help extend the life of its landfill area.

"For city councils for example, their biggest concern may or may not be recycling; it’s generally the life of their landfill," she says.

"Recycling helps extend the life of the landfill because less and less waste is going into landfill, so the council can make that asset last longer, and that return flows on to the ratepayer.

"What we’ve done is given infrastructure that’s not paid for by the public – it’s paid for by private – but the public can use it. The Albury City Council has made a space for us at the landfill so we can integrate with their existing waste management regime...they haven't had to increase rates to get this opportunity in their community."

Despite the case for mobile operations, Yarger's message to potential customers is "I can be what you want me to be". In the case of Canberra, due to its geography, Goterra has set up a plant that can accept a centralised receival of aggregated loads across the city.

"But we’re right in the middle of Canberra. Because we take up a really small footprint, we don’t interfere with the general issues of a big landfill somewhere or a composting facility.

"I think what we've achieved is technology that can be deployed in the ways that people need them to, but with the same outcome. The waste is managed by maggots, maggots are harvested and sent off to do things for the world, and we’ve reduced a bunch of logistics and management time."

Corporates and governments are taking notice of what Goterra has managed so far, and this has led to several new projects in the pipeline.

"We’ve got three sites that we'll be building in the Greater Sydney and Newcastle region, so we have a facility on Raymond Terrace that’s part of a grant program with NSW EPA and Veolia, we have a facility in Sydney itself with another waste incumbent, and then we have another facility in Sydney for Woolworths," she says.

"We’re getting quite a bit of pull now into Europe and North America. We’re still having discussions with some Asian partners around where we can lend the most value.

"Moving internationally is not something that we’re taking lightly, so we’re just going to continue to have conversations with international customers and partners to talk about how that deployment’s going to look as we continue to grow and scale."

On another front, in two weeks' time Goterra will also be embarking on a human biosolids trial to understand the substrate better and what the use cases of its technology might be applied, perhaps as a remote location toilet.

"It’s a part of our world that has not changed for centuries. We are still going to the toilet the same way in the developed world that we have since the Romans," she says.

"What we are looking at is can we use our system and put a toilet block on the front of it, and how would we innovate those waste streams. It’s a really exciting project we’ve been working on.

"We go to waste treatment plants, and they smell worse than we do….it’s nice to go to a place where everybody’s like ‘what smell?’"

Somehow, despite all the responsibilities of running a business, Yarger also manages to raise sheep in her spare time.

"All my sheep are getting flystruck with all the rain, so I’m managing maggots on the sheep and managing maggots at work. It’s a marvellous maggot moment of time," she says. 

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