For nearly 70 years, the global floral industry has used oil-based, toxic foam bricks to hold flower arrangements in place.
A Twin Cities company is commercializing material developed at the University of Minnesota to bring to market a new, compostable and nontoxic foam brick that — when available next year — could receive significant demand within a $10 billion floral industry.
The product's potential and its impact on the environment won over judges of the annual MN Cup, a statewide innovation competition run by the University of Minnesota, which awarded BKB Floral Foam the contest's grand prize of $50,000.
Floral foam has been shunned by environmentally-conscious consumers, including King Charles III, who custom ordered the foam-free floral wreath laid upon the casket of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, for her state funeral held Monday.
Now in its 18th year, MN Cup is the state's largest innovation competition. Nearly 2,600 companies entered the contest this year, making it the largest applicant pool ever.
In addition to the grand prize, BKB Floral Foam, a business registered in St. Paul, was awarded $25,000 for winning the energy, clean tech and water division of the competition. The company also received the $10,000 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Green and Sustainable Chemistry Prize, which goes to a business with the best green and sustainable chemistry-based outcomes.
BKB company leaders Dundee and Ian Butcher said the prize money will be used on staffing, equipment and producing its foam brick, called Plae Foam. The foam brick, which is made from corn and can hold water for up to seven days, would be sold to distributors and floral companies that would sell it wholesale.
Over the next several years, the Butchers aim to raise at least $4 million to build a production facility in Minnesota and potentially in Europe.
The company currently has a research and development office in Bloomington with a full-time staff distributed throughout Minneapolis. Since its founding in 2014, BKB has raised $500,000 from investors, valuing the company at $3.5 million, said Ian Butcher, the company's chairman.
As a researcher at the University of Minnesota, BKB's chief technology officer David Goldfeld worked with Marc Hillmyer, the professor who oversaw the development of the material. Goldfeld later partnered with the Butchers to commercialize the material. Earlier this year, BKB was awarded patents for the foam product.
BKB chief executive Dundee Butcher worked as a florist for about 25 years, including operating a floral school and company in California. Her immediate next step is to gain feedback from her colleagues, who are some of the industry's top florists.
"I think the floral industry is on the cusp of trying to become sustainable and this is a huge part of that," she said. "There's been a lot of [attempts] at it, but no one has been able to do it and there's no alternative. We're so pleased to provide that."
High tech division winner Carbon Origins, a Minneapolis company that developed a platform where people use virtual headsets to remotely control robots for deliveries, was runner-up in the MN Cup, collecting $25,000 for winning its division and an additional $10,000 for second place.
TurnSignl, a Minneapolis company that developed an app that connects motorists with attorneys via video after accidents or roadside stops with law enforcement, received an additional $25,000 from the Metropolitan Economic Development Association and JP Morgan Chase for taking the prize for a top competitor led by BIPOC founder.
Since 2005, more than $5 million in prize money has been distributed among 20,000 entrepreneurs that have participated in the MN Cup. Finalists have raised more than $1 billion in additional capital from investors, according to the university.