Maine’s Tanbark Molded Fiber is rethinking a century-old product for modern times.

As consumers better understand the health and environmental cost of plastic packaging, businesses are increasingly looking for alternatives. A startup in Maine is looking to the abundant Northern Forest and the state’s legacy pulp industry for a solution.

“At some point, the problems with plastic just becomes undeniable,” said Melissa LaCasse, who cofounded Tanbark Molded Fiber Products with her husband, Christopher LaCasse. “It stays around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, polluting water and finding its way into our endocrine systems. We can’t engineer or recycle our way out of the plastic problem. We need alternatives.”

For LaCasse, that alternative is molded fiber. It’s a product she and Christopher are in a unique position to reimagine for the future. Their family company, LaCasse & Weston, manufactures the machines that make molded fiber packaging. The size and expense of the machines, however, has traditionally limited the use of molded fiber to large, commodity markets.

For businesses with low to medium size orders, the Type 3 molded fiber used to package food, cosmetics, and electronics has been prohibitively expensive compared to readily available plastic or styrofoam options. “The problem was that if you have medium to low volume order size, even 10 to 20 million parts per year, it’s a challenge to access molded fiber as an option. The equipment is very large and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to tool up, making it cost prohibitive for a lot of midsize companies.”

As awareness around problems with single-use plastic grows, however, so does demand for those small to medium size orders. “We were getting calls everyday from businesses who wanted to get out of plastic, but their order size was too small for other Type 3 producers. We knew there was a market and that we were in a position to actually make a big systemic change. It was a huge risk, but something we had to try.”

A sustainable alternative to plastic packaging.

Melissa and Christopher, along with a team of engineers, built a prototype machine that could handle those smaller volume orders. From there, it was a short leap to begin manufacturing molded fiber packaging directly for customers, and Tanbark Molded Fiber was born. “These aren’t machines you just turn on and run,” she said. “Once we had the machine, it made sense to offer the service.”

Rather than churn out the same bland molded fiber that has been around for decades, however, Tanbark is modernizing the product with color and custom branding. “Molded fiber does not have to be brown,” said Melissa. “It’s naturally beautiful and highly customizable. It can be colored, textured, embossed, or molded into intricate shapes that enhance the customer unboxing experience.”

“We’re opening up the market to groups that haven’t had access to molded fiber before,” said Melissa. “From food and beverage to makeup to medical supplies, companies know they have to get out of plastic yesterday. They know regulation is coming and their customers are pushing for sustainability. We’re offering a solution.”

Made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood fiber that is a byproduct of timber harvests in Maine, molded fiber is a renewable resource that is recyclable and compostable. “If it ends up in the ocean, you literally have no problem,” said Melissa.

Tanbark purchases large sheets of market pulp that are turned into slurry and molded into a variety of shapes and sizes. The centuries-old pulp and paper industry in Maine has been in decline for decades with the number of paper mills falling from 20 in the 1980’s to only eight in 2022. Innovative new companies like Tanbark and TimberHP are breathing new life into Maine’s legacy forest economy.

Tanbark is also experimenting with other fibers. “Once we solve the problem, there are going to be a lot of companies that want the solution,” said Melissa. “Wood fiber is the longest and the strongest, so it’s the one we can be most innovative with. That said, variety is meaningful. We’re going to need a lot of different sources.”

Navigating a capital raise.

With a clear market opportunity and the niche ability to build a solution, Melissa and Christopher started Tanbark in 2021. “For us, the biggest hurdle was capital,” said Melissa. “We just didn’t understand the startup world.”

Tanbark was accepted into the Founder’s Residency at the Roux Institute, a one year program in Portland, Maine designed to support entrepreneurs. “We knew how to run a business, we knew B2B sales, we knew how to manufacture the product, but we didn’t understand capital stack,” said Melissa. “Coming out of that year, we decided to start small. Raise money, test the concept, raise more money, retest the concept.”

To date, Tanbark has raised $3.2 million over two rounds, and is planning a third in 2024. The first round of funding came primarily from Maine-based angel investors and funds set up to support startups. “We were pretty unknown at the time,” said Melissa, “but the Maine community realized that we had the technology and the team, and the timing was right.”

The second round attracted funders from further afield, including the Flexible Capital Fund (Flex Fund) in Vermont. “The Flex Fund has a great reputation and gave us credibility outside of Maine,” said Melissa. “That helped attract a whole new group of investors.”

“You almost don’t have to explain the plastic problem,” she said. “Investors get that. We hit a lot of other notes. We’re coming out of the legacy industry of pulp and paper. We’re manufacturing, not making an app. We’re creating real jobs in a rural economy. We care deeply about shared prosperity. All of those threads really matter.”

Planning for growth, shared prosperity.

Tanbark signed their first two customers, Luke’s Lobster and Hannaford Supermarket in Maine. Even though they have not officially advertised their opening, the pipeline is already queuing up. “If we were ready, we would be at full capacity within six months,” she said.

Given that momentum, Melissa is already planning to open a second, larger manufacturing facility in Maine. She envisions the current facility becoming their R&D Center of Excellence, where they can continue to innovate, experiment with color and custom branding, and handle “micro” orders for the smallest customers. She is also thinking about a new kind of pulp mill, one fashioned after a modern brewery bearing little resemblance to the large, industrial mills of the past. “It’s completely doable in the next five years,” she says.

“I love helping brands get rid of plastic,” she said. “We are all going to be better off in the long run without it.” But what gets her out of bed every morning is the idea of shared prosperity. “I want people who work here to buy their first house. I want them to upskill and become managers and make a living wage. I want this company to help improve their lives and for them to be able to support their families and their goals. That idea of shared prosperity is really important.”

And, she says, she believes that molded fiber can spark joy. “Climate change is the biggest story in human history,” she said, “and it’s a catastrophic story. It’s not just what we see on the news. We’re living it in our communities. We’re watching fisheries collapse and winter…where has that gone? I believe it will bring people some joy to see this product on the shelf at Hannaford, knowing that we can make change. I think they will feel happy to have their lobster roll from Luke’s without contributing to plastic pollution.”

About the Flexible Capital Fund

The Flexible Capital Fund, L3C is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and impact investment fund that provides flexible risk capital in the form of subordinated debt, revenue based financing (also known as royalty financing) and alternative equity structures, to growth-stage companies in Vermont and the region’s food systems, forest products, and clean technology sectors.

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