From the Grounds Up

There is an old saying, that “creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.”

If Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora were to pinpoint that exact moment when creativity connected for them, it would be last year during a business class at U.C. Berkeley.

“We were sitting in this lecture and these two random facts came about,” said Velez, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley last summer. “Mushrooms grow really well in hardwoods, and coffee grounds are basically a hardwood.”

This seemingly innocuous bit of eclectic ecology set-off buzzers in both their minds. Without knowing each other, they individually approached the teacher who connected them together.

With 10 buckets filled with coffee grounds donated by Peet’s Coffee, they launched an experiment in the kitchen of Velez’ fraternity. After a week, nine buckets sat without a trace of life. But one bucket, bore a single oyster mushroom.

“We took that mushroom around everywhere,” said Velez.

They presented their glorious finding to everyone from Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, to Whole Foods. An executive at Whole Foods expressed interest -- and as they say -- a new business mushroomed.

In a nondescript warehouse in Emeryville, Calif. long fluorescent lights cast sinister light on shelves lined with strange looking bags. Each one looks like it contains the festering remains of a gardening experiment gone awry.

This is home base for BTTR Ventures, the company started by the two budding entrepreneurs to bring their unique mushroom operation to an eco-minded public.

Each day, a worker heads out to Peet’s to collect used coffee grounds.

“What we do now is we collect eight thousand pounds a week of coffee grounds that would normally be composted or thrown away,” said Arora, who turned down a business consulting job to take part in the start-up.

The coffee grounds serve as a medium for the gourmet oyster mushrooms. In addition to selling mushrooms, the pair now makes do-it-yourself kits for people to grow their own mushrooms at home.

“It's just a beautiful closed loop system where they're taking our rubbish and creating something out of it and in fact enriching it,” said Shirin Moyyad, who serves as the director of coffee purchasing for Emeryville-based Peet’s Coffee.

Moyyad was one of the early believers in the pair’s concept, and has in-turn supported them with all the coffee grounds they can use.

“In this environment and today’s economy, for two kids to be committed to doing something good and sustainable is an effort that I feel should be supported,” Moyyad said.

For Earth Day, Peet’s put the BTTR Ventures home mushroom kits on sale in its stores – closing the circle on the coffee-to-mushroom process.

For Velez, the days have become a whirlwind as he and Arora journey around the state doing demonstrations of their kits in Whole Foods stores. It’s a pace Velez seems to treat with enthusiasm.

After being successfully treated for Hodgkins Lymphoma, he recently turned down a job offer from a New York investment firm to pursue his mushroom growing dreams. As the 22-year old businessman/farmer packed boxes of mushroom kits into a box to take to a store that had just ran out, he paused to take in his new venture.

“I think that's what gets us up every morning,” he said. “We've become very passionate about something we knew nothing about.“     

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