Edible insects and artificial intelligence – who ever thought they’d be a match made in tech-for-good heaven?

Well, Sheldon Fernandez, CEO of Waterloo-based DarwinAI, and Mohammed Ashour, CEO of sustainable-food company Aspire Food Group, did.

DarwinAI adapted its artificial intelligence expertise to help Aspire improve efficiencies at its state-of-the-art facility in London, Ont., where the company raises crickets as an edible and sustainable source of protein.

The innovative collaboration is being honored by the United Nations as one of 10 Outstanding Projects internationally for applying AI to advance the UN’s sustainable development goals.

“It’s great news,” Fernandez told Communitech News. “It shows that Canada can compete on the global stage when it comes to artificial intelligence.”

The UN recognition comes from the International Research Center in Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI), part of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). IRCAI issued a call for AI solutions with global relevance last year. The submissions were whittled down to the top 100, of which 10 were deemed “outstanding.”

The DarwinAI-Aspire collaboration – titled, the Novel Application of Advanced Manufacturing Approaches to High Quality Protein – will be honored at an event at UN headquarters in New York on Feb. 14. 

Fernandez said the high-profile recognition is more proof that Canadian AI companies are winning against much larger international powerhouses.

“We often hear that we have an opportunity but that we're losing ground to China, Russia and the United States,” he said. “We've still got to be vigilant, but I really think it shows our innovation is world class. We were only one of two projects in North America to get this distinction – the other one was NASA – so it just speaks to the innovation that the University of Waterloo, Waterloo Region and the whole of Canada is capable of.”

 DarwinAI and Aspire were first introduced in mid-2019 by a representative of the Ontario government. There were no obvious projects that the two companies might collaborate on right away, but they kept in touch.

Aspire’s vision – “pioneering sustainable insect agriculture for the good of all” – reflects its roots as the winning proposal in the 2013 Hult Prize competition, an international contest that encourages university students to solve pressing global social issues such as food security, water access and sustainable energy.

Back in 2012, Ashour was a student pursuing both a medical degree and an MBA at McGill University in Montreal. He and some friends decided to enter the Hult competition. In doing their research, they discovered that many people around the world consume insect-based protein – things like cricket flour, for instance.

The McGill team developed a proposal to cultivate insect-based protein as a sustainable way to address global food shortages. They chose crickets, says Ashour, because they wanted a “cosmopolitan” insect that was found in many places around the world so that grow facilities could be established in any geographic region without having to introduce a foreign species into the local environment. 

The team also wanted an insect with good “organoleptic properties” – in other words, a bug that tastes good.

It turns out that making food from insects provides maximum nutrition with a minimum of resources – less water and less impact on the surrounding environment.

Ashour and his McGill teammates beat out numerous competitors from around the world to win the 2013 Hult Prize. Inspired by the market for cricket flour, they used the $1 million in seed money to, in part, start a pilot cricket farm in Austin, Tex. Over the next few years, they raised several rounds of capital, built an R&D facility and made several strategic acquisitions.

Fast forward to 2020. Aspire purchased five hectares of land in an innovation park in London, Ont. and began building a 9,300-square-foot facility, billed as the largest indoor cricket farm in the world. With a $16.8-million investment from Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), Aspire began talking to a number of potential collaborators about using technology to enhance their manufacturing processes.

DarwinAI, as well as IoT firm SwiftLabs of Kitchener, were among the companies involved in the NGen-funded project.

 “Where we help is really maximizing cricket yield by looking at a number of data points and determining how those data points influence the growing and harvesting of crickets,” Fernandez said. “We look at temperature and humidity, moisture; you look at the food you're giving these crickets, the sounds of the crickets, and eventually even their visual indicators. And all this is processed using artificial intelligence to uncover correlations with the inputs into the system and the amount of protein you're getting, to maximize it over time.”

The Aspire project is “a bit of an outlier for us,” said Fernandez, explaining that DarwinAI is currently focused on applying artificial intelligence to visual inspection in manufacturing settings.

The appeal of the Aspire project was the food-sustainability component.

“I think the humanitarian element here is really the compelling reason for us to work with them,” Fernandez said. “The fact of the matter is, when you’re a for-profit business you can't always bring a social dimension to what you do, so in those cases where you can, it really becomes something special and that really was a motivating factor for us.”

DarwinAI’s vision is to “transform industries by instilling trust in AI.”

“It's our belief that AI is only going to reach mass adoption when people feel it's trustworthy, and so part of our aspiration is to make you trust (it) through our fundamental technology,” said Fernandez, a past recipient of the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering Young Alumni Achievement Medal for his professional and humanitarian accomplishments.

DarwinAI was launched in 2017 based on research conducted in the lab of co-founder Alexander Wong, Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Medical Imaging at the University of Waterloo.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong and DarwinAI began adapting their technology to help medical doctors assess the severity of individual COVID cases.

While DarwinAI isn’t rushing into the agriculture industry just yet, Fernandez said the UN recognition is certainly welcome.

 “It’s a nice distinction because it is global, and it's the first time we've gotten this kind of global recognition,” he said. “Right now, manufacturing is the big place we're applying AI. In time, we do want to expand into a number of adjacent industries, (and) agriculture will be one of them.”