Handle with Care: UWG Chemistry Alum Serves on Frontlines of Sustainability Efforts

Julie Lineback

Friday, February 10th, 2023

One of the most important things Austin Gann ’15 learned at the University of West Georgia was how to face your fears and go after something you want.

“When I was enrolling in the chemistry program, I was very intimidated by it because the classes were intense,” he recalled. “Once I took those first steps, I found out I was capable of doing it.”

It’s a lesson that has proved fruitful throughout the years. This spirited sense of initiative and resourcefulness landed him a position at Footprint, a company focused on reducing or eliminating single-use plastics through the development and manufacturing of plant-based fiber solutions.

A Carrollton native, Gann said the decision to attend UWG was a given; he was familiar with the campus, and the institution kept him close to family. What didn’t come naturally was an academic major.

Gann loved the arts. When he arrived at UWG, he participated in UWG’s Saxophone Ensemble, but he felt it wasn’t the right fit. Then, in a summer chemistry class with Dr. Spencer Slattery, something clicked. He fell in love with the subject and the smaller classes, allowing closer relationships with professors in one-on-one conversations.

“You could say I didn’t choose chemistry, chemistry chose me,” Gann recalled. “The new types of equations, understanding how molecules interact with one another – it was mentally stimulating. Once I got into organic chemistry with Dr. [Partha] Ray, I knew this was my field.”

Under Ray’s tutelage, Gann was able to participate in undergraduate research and was published in a peer-reviewed international chemistry journal.

“The chemistry professors were eager to invest in their students and had an enthusiasm for students to understand,” he said. “I gained a lot of confidence in what I was learning and the ability to form my own thoughts.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from UWG in 2015, Gann earned his master’s degree and spent a little over a year working for a plastics manufacturing company before making that fateful effort to reach Swope and join Footprint.

Footprint was founded in 2014 when two former Intel employees – Swope and CTO Yoke Chung – wanted to create more sustainable packaging. In Footprint’s case, fiber.

“Especially in the United States, there’s so much plastic in our grocery stores,” Gann observed. “Not only are your bags plastic, but your food is in plastic. Some studies have shown we consume on average five grams of microplastics every week, which is roughly the size of a credit card. It’s crazy.”

In a recent consumer survey, Footprint reported 72 percent are dissatisfied with the amount of plastic food packaging waste they end up with at home, 80 percent say takeaway restaurants need to act faster to get rid of plastic packaging and utensils, and 86 percent say grocery stores should do more to reduce the amount of plastic packaging being sold.

Today, Gann works as a technical development account manager, helping Footprint fulfill its mission via prototype development and materialization. A recent success story includes the Shelf Stable Cups Fiber Bowls. These plant-based containers minimize oxygen and moisture transmission, allowing the protection of a wide range of products like macaroni and cheese, cereals and even yogurt.

The company reports that replacing plastic food cups with fiber bowls saves 15 million KwH of energy, which is enough energy to microwave over 236 million mac-and-cheese meals.

When it comes to a different kind of energy – the power of resilience – Gann’s advice for students today is to take a leap and face the challenges.

“Don’t underestimate what you can do with your education,” he concluded. “This is your chance to challenge yourself on your own terms. Plus, at UWG, every professor wants to invest in you. The culture and environment of support is there.”