Pioneers of Progress: Footprint
In our video series Pioneers of Progress, we feature outstanding entrepreneurs and leaders. Footprint's plant-based technology is reinventing the future of packaging.
"Footprint exists to create a healthier planet. We’re focused on eliminating single-use plastics.” – Troy Swope
Founder and CEO Footprint
Co-Founder and CTO Footprint
Eliminating plastic with plant-based solutions
Footprint develops technology and plant-based materials to help companies cut unnecessary plastic from their operations. At the root of it all: innovation.
Single-use plastic is a problem that stretches across multiple areas of sustainability. Six percent of the world's oil is used to make plastic, while the small pellets of virgin plastic that are melted down and molded during the product manufacturing process are one of the biggest sources of microplastic leakage into the ocean.
With plastic consumption expected to quadruple by 2050, it's a landscape calling for disruptive innovators to challenge the status quo. And while numerous start-ups launch with the aim of tackling this issue, the United Nations says scaling up for the mass market is often a stumbling block.
Sustainable packaging pioneer Footprint is channeling energy and intellect into overcoming this challenge. Co-founded by former Intel engineers Troy Swope and Yoke Chung, the company creates technologies that help its customers – consumer product groups developing food lines for big-box retailers – replace single-use plastics with materials that nature can digest, such as 100% plant-based fiber.
What really makes Footprint stand out from many other start-ups in this space, however, is that not only does it design the materials and build the technology to deliver the products – it also does so from scratch, with innovation at every stage, creating new manufacturing technologies based on a deep understanding of what their customers need.
Five lessons from Footprint on scaling sustainable solutions
Currently, very little plastic packaging is recycled. Over 91% of plastic – or some 8 million pieces of plastic every day – ends up in the ocean. Once there, the plastic can last hundreds of years.
Swope and Chung, now acting as CEO and CTO of Footprint, are proving that start-ups in this area can overcome the scaling challenge, and their company is delivering hundreds of millions of innovative, 100% plant-based products, which are completely biodegradable and aim to replace normal plastics.
1. Drive innovation with expertise
"We are a technology company focused on innovation," Swope says. "Everything we do is an innovation."
This innovation is about more than just bright ideas. Footprint boasts a diverse range of engineering talent, from ex-Intel experts to new graduates. And it's this team's deep understanding of technology and development methodology that informs the company's advances in material science and process technology.
Swope credits this expertise, crucial to everything from designing experiments and problem solving to efficient communication, as one of the key success factors behind the company.
2. Fail fast and forwards
Failure is almost as important as innovation. In fact, it enables it.
At Footprint, failure leads to new insights and solutions. What’s important is knowing how to fail, learning from it, and quickly adapting the key learnings into your business.
"If you're really looking to get out of plastic, we're your partner, we're going to innovate with you," Swope says. “We're going to fail, and if you're willing to fail forward, we're the partner for you."
3. Focus on your mission
"You're going to walk into a supermarket in the next five years and that sea of plastic is going to be replaced with a sea of Footprint technologies that nature can digest."
That's Swope's grand vision for Footprint, and he is confident that through the company's expertise, problem-solving capabilities, and strong development methodology, it can be achieved.
However, it also takes courage, commitment, and a never-give-up mentality. "The mission for me and most of our team members, number one, is our children," he says. "What are we going to leave for the planet?"
4. Understand your clients' needs
"We learned to align our value system with our clients."
For Footprint, it's vital that every company it does business with is committed to eliminating plastic. If the value systems match, it takes on the project and develops technologies to help that customer with what they want to achieve.
"We'll develop custom solutions for you, whatever your needs may be," Swope says. "Ultimately, we're going to give you a solution that gets you out of plastic and is something nature can digest. And when our customers see increased sales and then they can go and report on their CO2 initiatives or ESG (Environmental, social, and governance) objectives, that's a win for us."
5. Collaborate as you scale
Once you've developed your product or technology, scaling up fast to meet global customer demand is the next hurdle.
Swope acknowledges that while Footprint is delivering hundreds of millions of units right now, getting to billions of units is a challenge that must be met with speed, efficiency, and operational flexibility. Its latest site in Mexico, for example, is 14 times the size of the original company, and managing that capacity calls for a whole new skill set, he says.
Connecting with like-minded businesses – as Footprint has done through the World Economic Forum's Global Innovators community – can help you draw on the knowledge of your peers to take things to the next level.
For not missing out the next episode, sign up to our newsletter and get updates about Pioneers of Progress directly to your inbox.