By Candice D. McLeod
Each week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Innovation (SBIO) finals on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will feature two articles on SBIO semi-finalists. Meet Semi-finalist, Back to the Roots.
In 2009, when most college seniors were hoping to find any kind of employment, Back to the Roots Ventures (BTTR) co-founders, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez decided to take a risk. In their last semester, the UC Berkeley students turned down lucrative jobs in management consulting and investment banking to become urban mushroom farmers. Specifically, mushroom farmers that grow gourmet mushrooms from coffee waste.
What exactly prompted two seniors graduating during the recession to place a bet on growing mushrooms from a bag of recycled coffee grounds? Used coffee grounds are often used for composting, as its nitrogen content makes it a good fertilizer. During a class senior year, Arora and Velez learned that recycled coffee grounds could also be used to grow mushrooms. They decided to capitalize on this fact by turning mushroom farming into a sustainable business, after receiving a $5000 grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellor for social innovation, as well as some interest from Chez Panisse and Whole Foods.
“The combination of the strength of our partnership, and the initial support that we received gave us the momentum to jump off this cliff to start Back to the Roots (BTTR), and not look back,” said co-founder Nikhil Arora.
From there, they started growing mushrooms out of plastic bags. They also started selling their special mix of mushroom spawn and recycled coffee grounds at local farmers’ markets, which turned out to be the easiest (and probably cheapest) way of collecting market data for BTTR. “We got tons of feedback from farmers’ markets, and were inspired by people asking to take it home, but they were also freaked out by just some fungus in a bag,” says Arora. So he and Velez took this feedback back to their office – that is, a Peet’s coffee shop, which had also been the primary source of their coffee waste. With additional guidance from a buyer at Whole Foods, the team was able to create the mushroom kit that is available for retail today.
BTTR has since then transitioned from simply “the mushroom guys” to a company that is “on a mission to inspire others to grow their food,” and have made food-from-waste products the base of their business.
BTTR’s two core products are both innovative and exciting, with multiple functions. The first product, BTTR’s mushroom kit, utilizes plant waste to grow 1.5 pounds of oyster mushrooms within ten days. Since the mushroom kit’s launch, BTTR has shifted from using only coffee waste, to using various plant-based waste streams including rice husks, corn husks, tea leaves, and other grains. The kits are now also certified organic.
Their newest product, the AquaFarm – a home aquaponics garden – is a self-cleaning fish tank that grows food. The consumer feeds the fish, which in turn produce waste, which is then pumped up to the plants. This waste serves as fertilizer for the plants, allowing consumers to grow “a variety of fresh produce, including spinach, baby greens, oregano, beans, basil, mint, parsley & thyme.”
Thanks to the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, BTTR received $248,000 in seed money for AquaFarm, which will be available for retail in mid-May. PetCo is the main distribution partner for AquaFarm, and the nationwide retailer is in good company, as BTTR has also secured key distribution deals with Whole Foods, Home Depot, and Safeway for their mushroom kits.
There is also a third component to their business – food education. BTTR uses their mushroom kits, and the Aquafarm as educational tools to teach kids the importance of growing their own food. Their list of accomplishments include not only diverting approximately 3.6 million pounds of Peet’s coffee grounds from landfills, but also donating more than 10,000 kits to schools across the country. In fact, for every photo someone posts of their fully grown mushrooms kit on BTTR’s Facebook Page, the team donates a kit to an elementary school classroom of their choice.
In the past four years, their diverse consumer base continues to develop and expand along with their brand. BTTR’s target audience ranges from families with small children, to young professionals living in urban areas with limited space for personal gardens. However, there is a common thread among their consumers – the desire to grow one’s food in an easy, sustainable way.
The BTTR team continues to attract a lot of attention with their innovative products. In fact, in November, they were also one of 15 small-business owners invited to the White House to discuss the role of small businesses on the economy with President Obama. Given their ongoing success, and as a Sustainable Brands Innovation Open semi-finalist, I asked Arora, what advice would he give to fellow entrepreneurs looking to take risks, such as they did four years ago. He says, “Don’t expect overnight success. This didn’t happen to us in six months. But every small thing you do, every phone call, every ounce of passion you pour into the small details will build up, and pay off.”
Candice D. McLeod is the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Co-Coordinator. She received a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies, concentrating in Energy Management & Policy, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @candicedmcleod.