BKB Floral Foam is pioneering a nontoxic alternative to a harmful industry staple.
Floral arrangements bring a bit of nature into our homes. But if the stems of those roses and sweet peas and lilies are stabbed into a mound of typical green floral foam, that arrangement can carry toxins that are harmful to a florist’s health and the environment. That’s because the familiar green foam most of us are accustomed to is made from phenol plastic, which contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
And while some of these traditional foams are labeled as biodegradable, the truth is that they don’t dissolve entirely. Instead they break down into smaller pieces, meaning the original microplastics can survive. Those particles, along with other microplastics, can eventually make their way into the soil and oceans, a looming problem of increasing concern.
In 2014, that dilemma was top of mind for florist Dundee Butcher, who had opened a flower school in California’s Sonoma County. She was concerned that there wasn’t a nontoxic alternative to this floral industry staple. A mutual friend introduced her to David Goldfeld (M.S. ’17, Ph.D. ’20), who was planning to study sustainable plastics at the U of M with McKnight Chair and Distinguished University Teaching Professor Marc Hillmyer (Post-doc ’94-97).
Goldfeld was intrigued by Butcher’s challenge. He’d always been interested in sustainability and intended to do research in that area. He brought up the problem when he started his studies at the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP), headquarted at the U of M and run by Hillmyer. CSP decided to fully sponsor the project.
Goldfeld says his early research was more curiosity than conviction. Was it even possible, he wondered, to replace traditional foam with a nontoxic alternative that wouldn’t spend its afterlife in a landfill? It took less than two years to discover the answer was a resounding yes. He and his colleagues created a product made from renewable feedstocks, specifically corn sugars, which take only one growing season to produce.
“We had what we thought was a really great starting point for a sustainable, compostable replacement for this foam that could be made commercially and at a profit,” Goldfeld says. Creating a product that could hold different stem widths was a particular challenge. “A lot of florists will put an arrangement in a van or transport it to a wedding, so the [foam] can get pretty beat up along the way,” he explains. “You really need it to be able to hold that arrangement together.” He says their eventual product, BKB Floral Foam, actually surpasses traditional floral foam’s ability to keep flowers in place.
In 2018, Goldfeld, Hillmyer, and fellow researcher Philip Dirlam (Post-doc '16-'19) filed for a patent on their process and published an academic paper. The race was on to find investors to provide funding to commercialize this new floral foam.
The pandemic slowed that momentum as investors across the globe shied away from new endeavors. By 2021, Goldfeld—who’d completed his Ph.D.—and Dundee and her husband, Ian Butcher, decided to start the company themselves. Goldfeld joined full time as the chief technology officer. Already, the company has garnered praise, including winning the grand prize at the 2022 Minnesota Cup, a community-led, public-private partnership with the University’s Carlson School that brings together corporations, venture capitalists, foundations, government, and volunteers to support Minnesota entrepreneurs. The event is the country’s largest statewide entrepreneurship competition.
Today, BKB Floral Foam is headquartered in Eden Prairie. The company plans to premiere its product—a foam brick called Plae Foam—to florists worldwide this summer. BKB leaders are also talking with distributors in the United States, Australia, and Europe. The University has also invested in the company through its Discovery Capital program, a matching equity seed stage investment program.
“The floral industry is based on something that is so close to nature,” says Goldfeld. “At the same time, the whole business is built on something that is not sustainable.”