There’s a fascinating twist to the origin story of Footprint, a Gilbert, Arizona-based maker of fiber-based packaging solutions, which was founded in 2014 with the objective of innovating new alternatives to plastic-based food packaging. The impetus for that goal came not from the food and beverage business or the packaging world, but from the microchip industry. “I spent 15 years at Intel,” said Troy Swope, co-founder and CEO of Footprint. “That’s important to this story. We have over 100 engineers, and the core of that group is from Intel. It’s central to who we are–we’re not from the industry we’re disrupting. We kind of stumbled onto plastic outgassing in [computer chip] wafers, and that brought us to the need to get plastic out of food.”
The company has grown substantially from its first two employees, founders Swope and his fellow Intel engineering alum Yoke Chung, now Footprint’s CTO, to over 2,600 full-time people today. Footprint has locations that include its Arizona headquarters, R&D center and manufacturing plant, a European R&D headquarters in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and a second manufacturing site in Mexicali, Mexico. That growth has been supported by business from big names like Unilever, Tyson Foods, Procter and Gamble, Nestlé, Quaker Oats and Conagra. The company is off to a strong start in 2022, with first-quarter revenue up 133% year-over-year, and revenue on track to meet the company’s goal for the year of $135 million.
The founders knew when they were just getting started that they’d have their work cut out for them to compete in the tough world of CPG packaging. “Plastic does a great job keeping food safe, and it’s cheap,” said Swope. “We knew we’d have to come in and compete with plastic right away. We also knew up front that if this thing represented a major premium, it wouldn’t have a big impact on the world.”
They looked at several materials before settling on their current plant-based fiber solutions. “Early on we looked at PHAs [polyhydroxyalkanoates, or compostable bioplastics],” Swope explained. “We’re still looking at algae, but it has too much water. We found that the use of recycled boxes as a raw material meant a huge plus environmentally.” Footprint’s current solutions include the use of recycled corrugated boxes as well as virgin fiber from a variety of sources, and all materials produced are specifically designed to be recycled or composted.
One of Footprint’s early wins came in 2017. “We worked with Conagra on their frozen business,” Swope said. That resulted in Footprint’s plant-based molded fiber bowl being adopted for Conagra’s Healthy Choice Power Bowls meal line. “Now Conagra has a very strong and growing frozen food business. Consumers don’t want to microwave plastics–especially Millennial and Gen Z consumers.”
Part of the win was in that price competitiveness the founders identified early on. “When we started, our material was at a five-cent premium versus plastic,” said Swope. “Now we are priced competitively compared to plastic with an opportunity to be a cost savings as the price of plastic continues to rise.”
Swope sees other big advantages playing to Footprint’s favor for the future. “We now have over 3,000 aspects of our business either under patent or with patents applied for, including our materials and processes,” he said. “Our manufacturing is also a win. We have 1.8 million square feet of space and hundreds of lines installed. We’ve been ordering 200 lines at a time. We’re chasing a significant backlog, and will be for the next ten years.”
Even today’s tough economic environment can be a plus for Footprint. “In a challenging economy, companies like Conagra do well as people eat staple foods at home more,” said Swope. But that also represents the company’s biggest hurdle too. “We know that our demand will grow, and we must accelerate what we’re doing to meet that demand. It will be an immense challenge, but we’re customer-obsessed and are committed supporting our customers’ needs. We are in the process of taking Footprint public which will allow us to raise the capital we need to rapidly scale our business to meet customer demand.”
Still, it’s exactly what the two founders were after when they started the whole thing. “We have the ability to take agricultural waste products and convert them to a plastics replacement,” Swope said. “Where we’re completely dominating the space now is in the supermarket for extended shelf life. We have opportunities at McDonald’s and Starbucks too. And we have the technology to support most of the supermarket.” Footprint’s current containers support frozen foods, produce, quick-service food products, and ready-to-eat foods. They also make cups and lids, supermarket trays, and shelf-stable cups.
“We expect to be recognized as one of the most positive companies out there,” he continued. “There’s only one U.S. polypropylene recycler. Aluminum is touted as a replacement, but it uses a huge amount of energy for production. We’re getting plastics out of our bodies, and eliminating single-use plastics.”
They have no intention of stopping with just their current markets, either. “We’re building a factory in Poland right now,” Swope added. “We expect to close on a second site in Poland this summer. And we’ll be in Canada next.”
Originally published at Forbes.com on June 27, 2022.