The Groningen based scale-up Foamplant is the first and only company in the world to make 'green' foam that can be used in horticulture, or as sustainable filling for sofas and mattresses. Foamplant was nominated for Deloitte's Fast 50 Rising Star Award 2021 and has big ambitions to make a real impact worldwide. CEO and co-founder Martin Tietema sat down with us to discuss these ambitions and what other entrepreneurs in Groningen can do to help kickstart the transition towards a more sustainable and liveable world.
Foamplant produces a circular, sustainable and biodegradable alternative for conventional foams, using biopolymers. The seed for that idea was planted when Martin was studying molecular biology in Groningen. “I was working with biopolymers and just fascinated by all of the different applications. You can basically create anything you want and try to change the world for the better. All you really need is creativity and perseverance. We didn’t want to come up with a niche solution, we wanted to create something that’s relevant for everyone worldwide. That’s the mindset we had when we started our company out of a garage in 2017, and it’s still the mindset we share with the 38 people now working at Foamplant.”
Finding focus and the right market
“When we started out, we were actually a little surprised that there was no other company in the world doing what we did”, Martin continues. “We had limited means, but we did have a clear focus on creating a foam that was both circular and biodegradable. There’s already enough trash in the world and we, as a company, absolutely do not want to contribute to that if our foam ends up not being recycled.”
With that in mind, the fledgling startup started working on the production hardware and ended up being the first company in the world with a high quality open foam that had many potential applications. So the next step was finding the right market. “One of our interns actually suggested using our foam as a substrate to grow plants and vegetables for horticulture and greenhouse farming. Our foam already had all the necessary qualities for it and we could produce it with the hardware tech we already had. So that gave us access to a gigantic market and helped us secure investments from the Future Food Fund and SHIFT Invest.”
Helping to accelerate the transition
Even though the environmental clock is really ticking, large companies are notoriously slow in adopting more sustainable methods. “That’s why I think startups and scale-ups have the perfect role to play in accelerating that transition, because of their ability to be flexible and creative”, says Martin. “Part of the problem is thinking that sustainable alternatives are more expensive. If that’s your starting premise as a company, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, which is why we’ve put a lot of effort in making sure our foam is competitively priced and easily implemented in existing production processes. And because of that, we can offer these companies a ready-to-use building block that works well, is cheap and easy to integrate.”
The big dot on the horizon
According to Martin, Foamplant is still scratching the surface of what’s possible. “In the coming years, you’ll see a lot more vertical farming and automated greenhouse farming. The substrates that are normally used for growing are made of peat, but depending on where you are in the world, the soil quality differs. Our foam offers a consistent quality, which is really helpful in terms of automation processes and scaling up sustainable production. In other words, we’re helping with enabling that market to take big steps in becoming more sustainable.”
But that’s not the only market where Foamplant has big ambitions: “We’re also taking our first steps in the furniture and bedding market. That’s really where the largest volumes of foam are used worldwide, so it’s a great opportunity for us to offer a sustainable alternative. We’re currently working on a pilot to finetune and scale up our production hardware and we want to start making our first products for that market in 2023. And the dot on the horizon that we’re working towards is producing foam on location at the world’s biggest manufacturing hotspots, like in the US for example.”
Calling all (future) entrepreneurs in Groningen
In order to effectively halt climate change, we need real and quick action. “We have a unique opportunity here in Groningen to do just that, and also give our vibrant startup climate an extra boost, with a nice cocktail of new technologies”, Martin says. “There are plenty of great technologies just sitting on the shelf at our universities, catching dust and just waiting for entrepreneurial students to get started with them. Students here are also being trained in entrepreneurship, there is more and more know-how and funding in the region. It’s a tremendous opportunity, so let's seize it together!