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June 8, 2022

Packaging startup wins $50K LaunchPad prize, hopes to fill 'manufacturing void'

Contest on stage Screenshot Melissa LaCasse, co-founder and CEO of Tanbark Molded Fiber Products, delivering her winning pitch to judges and a live audience at Tuesday's Gorham Savings Bank LaunchPad event in Portland.

Sustainable packaging edged out fish, food, technology and textile design in Tuesday's Gorham Savings Bank LaunchPad business-pitch contest, where Tanbark Molded Fiber Products took the $50,000 grand prize.

The company, a maker of earth-friendly packaging with a new facility in Saco, was represented by CEO and co-founder Melissa LaCasse.

She used her short presentation to highlight the company's focus on custom packaging. She also said that if Tanbark won, the company would use the prize money to hire a designer, an addition that would in turn create up to 50 manufacturing jobs in Maine over the course of three years.

Using Maine wood bark and Maine labor, she said, Tanbark aims to "fill a manufacturing void and transform and industry."

Later when asked about the company's intent to be acquired in five to seven years, LaCasse told judges that the strategy was "fluid" as the company remains 'hyper-focused" on starting operations at its new facility.

For Tanbark, the $50,000 prize comes on top of $1.7 million recently raised to fund its first growth phase. In Portland, Tanbark is currently one of five companies in the Roux Institute's one-year Founder Residency program for high-growth technology companies. The debut cohort is due to run through the end of this year and overlap with a second cohort set to start in July.

"As always, Melissa spoke eloquently and knowledgeably about Tanbark and its potential to speed the packaging industry's transition away from plastics to create a more sustainable world," Ben Chesler, the Roux Institute's associate director of entrepreneurship, told Mainebiz on Wednesday.

"We have been incredibly proud to support her through the Roux Institute's First-Time Founder Residency and we look forward to watching her continue to thrive," he added. "All five businesses on the stage gave amazing pitches, and we're lucky to have such a strong and growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Maine to support them."

Stiff competition

In the LaunchPad final, Tanbark competed against Bookclubs, a Camden-based developer of a web-based application for organizing book clubs; True Fin, a Portland-based processor of premium seafood from local harvesters; Maine Food Group, a Brunswick-based value-added ingredient processor and specialty food manufacturer; and Studio E Flett, a Gorham-based textile studio owned by Erin Flett, a returning finalist from 2021. Flett was honored as a Mainebiz Woman to Watch in 2020.

The annual LaunchPad event was canceled in 2020 at the start of the pandemic but returned in a remote format in 2021 when Portland-based industrial software startup HighByte won the crown. Tuesday's edition was in a hybrid format that drew an audience of more than 200 combined viewers.

While the live portion took place at University of New England's Innovation Hall in Portland, organizers preemptively canceled the pre-competition reception last month amid a rise in COVID cases at that time. 

As he welcomed the audience at UNE, Gorham Savings President and CEO Steve deCastro said it was good to have a live audience again to react to contest participants and promised that next year "is going to be a much bigger deal."

Other winners

Tanbark wasn't Tuesday's only winner.

True Fin, one of the five finalists, won a $5,000 surprise grant, of which $1,000 was contributed by an anonymous donor. Additionally, deCastro announced that all five finalists will get access to four invitation-only events at the Roux Institute in order to build useful connections.

Out of five finalists for the Emerging Business Award, NKENNE, a Portland-based African language learning app, was crowned the winner. The prize consists of a $10,000 grant plus $10,000 of in-kind business and marketing-related services from Creative Imaging Group, Grove Marketing, iBec Creative, Nu-Yar and Philbrook PR. Other Emerging finalists were Eskuad, FibrWorks, Ocean Farm Supply and pumpspotting.

Last year's Emerging Business Award winner was the C. Love Cookie Project, a mission-driven bakery in Portland that employs immigrant women and donates a portion of its sales to the city's immigrant community.

A replay of Tuesday's pitch-off will be available online in coming days. 

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