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Updated: March 18, 2024 / 2024 Business Leaders of the Year

Business Leaders: Tanbark, led by Melissa LaCasse, produces sustainable packaging

File PHOTo / Tim Greenway Melissa LaCasse is the CEO and co-founder of Tanbark Molded Fiber Products.

Tanbark Molded Fiber Products, which began operations last summer, designs and makes molded fiber packaging products using wood pulp sourced mainly from Maine woods.

The company is led by Melissa LaCasse, who secured $3.2 million in pre-seed funding and utilized her skills in distribution, business development and strategic planning to position Tanbark for success. After going through the Roux Institute, in the past year, the business established a manufacturing site in Saco.

LaCasse says, “When it comes to funding and overall support, I cannot say enough about Maine’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, which showed up in a big way.”

She says Maine Angels, Maine Venture Fund, the Roux Institute, Coastal Enterprises Inc. and the University of Maine “provided us with the foundation and scaffolding to get started.”

Mainebiz: What is your most recent accomplishment?

Melissa LaCasse: We’re excited about our incoming funding from the Finance Authority of Maine and Maine Technology Institute. This financing will help us purchase and install equipment to grow operations and produce more Type 3 Molded Fiber packaging to help replace single-use plastic.

FAME awarded us a $1 million direct loan and a $594,000 loan through the Grow Maine program. MTI approved financing totaling $500,000. We’re also really proud of our work with Luke’s Lobster, who piloted a program with us and will transition to using our products exclusively for their custom takeout containers this fall.

We’re also knee-deep in market testing and prototyping materials. We continue to pinch ourselves daily that we’re up and running and in full production.

MB: What prompted you to start Tanbark?

ML: I was at an intersection. Literally and figuratively. I was driving in Westbrook listening to the ‘On Being’ podcast with Krista Tippet when the words, ‘What kind of an ancestor do you want to be?’ synced up perfectly with a junction in the road. I decided then and there to turn my climate grief into action. I knew our family had experience and expertise in molded fiber, so we felt the responsibility to do something.

We’re creating sustainable packaging from Maine trees to give all businesses, big and small, a viable option they can scale. At the end of the day, scale equals impact.

MB: What is your business outlook for 2024?

ML: Our focus this year centers on growth, beginning with a Series A raise. We also plan to hire additional design staff and a robust sales force to shift our efforts from inbound to outbound sales to put Maine back on the map for molded fiber.

MB: What is next for you?

ML: We look forward to expanding our facilities with a line of sight for building a much larger facility at a legacy mill site in rural Maine.

MB: What are some challenges your business has faced?

ML: The reality is when you start a business, especially in manufacturing, everything takes longer and more money than you think. This was exaggerated because we started Tanbark during a supply chain crisis. We had to stay hyper-focused and be willing to pivot on a dime at the same time.

Once again, Maine’s entrepreneurial community stepped up for us time and time again, helping us navigate challenges and stay on course.

MB: What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who is just starting out?

ML: Be coachable. Garner feedback. Know that everything you do will feel like you are pushing a boulder up a mountain. Know that in time, things will begin to be repeatable and scalable, but it takes enormous work and patience to get there (we’re just getting there).

As Elon Musk said, ‘The difficulty and value of manufacturing is underappreciated … even for rocket science, it’s probably a factor of 10 harder to design a manufacturing system for a rocket than to design the rocket.’

We get it. There’s so much you can’t anticipate. Be humble, nimble and keep going even when you think you can’t.

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