When a back injury ended Ryan Mundy's career three years ago as a safety on the Chicago Bears defense, he set up an asset management firm, Techlete Ventures (a fusion of technology and athlete), and began investing money in startups.
In mid-2018, Mundy, 33, armed with an MBA from the University of Miami (Fla.), made the leap from investor to operator as co-founder of Swzle, a Chicago company that is moving quickly to react to the growing list of cities and states banning plastic straws by offering alternatives in paper, stainless steel and biodegradable polylactic acid. His partner is Philip Causgrove, 34, formerly director of business development at sneaker retailer BucketFeet and a management consultant at Accenture.
For now, Swzle is mostly a virtual concern, with manufacturing outsourced to several Chinese companies while logistics, design and marketing along with other functions are being fulfilled by outside contractors. A Kickstarter campaign raised $21,205, nearly twice the partners' goal. Mundy declines to disclose how much more money Swzle has raised.
"What we might like now is to talk to some strategic investors with a background in food and beverage and hospitality who can help introduce us to customers," says Mundy, who was a star at the University of Michigan and the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the Bears in 2014.
Swzle is positioned to fill an emerging void as bans on plastic straws were enacted last year in California and in cities such as San Francisco; Seattle; Vancouver; and Fort Myers, Fla., while big companies such as Starbucks, American Airlines and Aramark have vowed to reduce their plastic waste. Americans use millions of straws a day, and nearly all of it ends up in the trash.
The chief competition for Swzle at the moment is a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based company, Aardvark Straws, a maker of durable paper straws that recently was acquired by Hoffmaster Group of Oshkosh, Wis. Newer rivals include Hummingbird Glass, Strawsome, Glass Dharma and Eco Straw. The market is clearly hungry for plastic alternatives — Aardvark is running three months or more behind in filling orders.
"In the coming months we will aggressively ramp up Aardvark's manufacturing capacity to meet the rapidly accelerating demand for paper straws," Andy Romjue, president of Hoffmaster's food-service division, says in a statement.
Mundy and Causgrove say their Chinese suppliers can get them plenty of product in short order. They already are selling from their website and have started calling on prospective commercial customers, with prices running from $20 for two steel straws to a couple of cents per paper straw. Plastic straws cost less than a penny apiece. It's still not clear which material will win out in the end.
"We're teaching consumers a new behavior here, and that won't happen overnight," Mundy says.