Andrés Benavides and Claudia Barona
Claudia Barona and Andrés Benavides are—quite literally—growing their eco-friendly business.
The husband-and-wife team created Lifepack, which makes biodegradable plates (produced from argicultural waste and seeds) that can germinate into plants. They left their home country of Colombia for St. Louis two years ago after receiving a $50,000 grant from Arch Grants, a St. Louis-based organization that helps fund entrepreneurs.
Barona, who studied industrial engineering in Colombia, and Benavides, who practiced law, launched Lifepack in 2011 out of concern for the environment. They noticed customers didn't have many options at the supermarket for disposable plates outside of paper and plastic.
"Claudia and me, we are very eco-friendly people," Benavides says. "We were very concerned for the contamination [caused by] disposable products, especially plastic and styrofoam."
After applying for and winning the Arch Grant, Barona and Benavides, with their 7-year-old daughter, left Colombia for the United States. Although it was difficult at first—especially with the language barrier—Benavides says his family is happy with St. Louis and its supportive environment.
"It's a very calm city—and it's green," Benavides says. "The most important [thing is] the people. The people are very friendly. They're helpful... People say, 'What can I do for you? What can I help with?' We are very happy in St. Louis. This is an excellent place to start a new company."
Adds Barona: "It's nice. The people in St. Louis are eco-friendly. There are many networking [events]. We have the opportunity to know many people and many experiences."
Lifepack products, including Colombian coffee beans, are available at Create Space Generator in the Delmar Loop (though plates are currently sold out there), the Missouri Botanical Garden store, and Local Harvest Grocery. The company is receiving support from local organizations such as Arch Grants; Yield Lab, an AgTech accelerator; T-REX, an incubator downtown; the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of St. Louis; the Helix Center Biotech Incubator; and the St. Louis Mosaic Project.
All Lifepack products are currently made in Colombia, where the company's factory is, and sold in supermarkets there. Barona and Benavides hope to eventually open a factory in St. Louis, and they plan to launch a Kickstarter campaign for it this spring.
A tableware package from Lifepack includes eight large, medium, and small germinating plates—plus 12 wood forks and knives. The plates are made from natural materials, like pineapple crowns, and embedded with seeds. After use, they can be planted in soil to sprout grass, flowers, herbs, or even a tomato plant.
Along with being environmentally conscious, Lifepack also recognizes a social responsibility. In Colombia, they've employed 25 single mothers who need support for their families. When they open a factory in St. Louis, Benavides says they plan to replicate this initiative with war veterans and those who are disabled.
In the future, Lifepack hopes to expand its line of products with sustainable packaging for food and beverages, and biodegradable cups and coffee sleeves.
"It was a crazy idea," Benavides says of Lifepack, when he and Barona first hatched their plans.
But with fast sales in St. Louis, and big plans for the future, it doesn't seem so crazy after all.