UC Berkeley Grads Grow Thriving Mushroom Business

by Sarah Henry on November 12, 2010 · 34 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,civil eats,food businesses

There’s so much buzz around the fledgling food business launched last year by two former University of California at Berkeley students, that you’d think they were pumping out premium honey.

Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora. Photo: Kristen Loken

BTTR Ventures, run by Hass School of Business grads Nikhil Arora and Alejandro (Alex) Velez, has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and on the BBC.

Launched on Earth Day last year, the company has also won a steady stream of awards for its innovative, socially conscious, green business.

The pair, both 23, were named among America’s most promising social entrepreneurs by Business Week this year and in the top 25 of young entrepreneurs by the same publication last year.

What are they doing? Well, they’re in the mushroom business: using recycling coffee grounds (from Peet’s Coffee & Tea) they produce spore starter kits so people can grow their own ‘shrooms at home. It’s part of a zero-waste system that diverts 7,000 pounds of coffee grounds a week into a delicious and nutritious food source. Their production process also results in nutrient-dense soil amendment suitable for fruit and vegetable gardens.

The duo spent four years in business school together but they barely knew each other then. The seed for the company was planted by a visiting lecturer in a business ethics class who mentioned that women in Columbia and parts of East Africa were growing mushrooms from coffee grounds to fight malnutrition. This got the guys thinking about America’s coffee addiction and the farming, food, and financial potential of a consumer waste product destined for the landfill.

That idea spawned some serious mycology research and, in short order, led to the lads producing around 500 pounds of oyster mushrooms a week for Northern California Whole Foods stores and local farmers’ markets.

Then BTTR, um, mushroomed into a D.I.Y. enterprise; their Gourmet Garden Grow-it-at-Home Mushroom Kits retail for $19:95 online and are sold in Whole Foods Markets across the country. Their topsoil product can be found in Northern California Whole Foods stores and local nurseries.

The mushroom guys, as Arora and Velez are locally known, passed up lucrative job offers (in investment banking for the Colombian-born Velez, and consulting for Arora, whose family hails from India) to launch their urban farming start-up on a shoe-string budget in a fraternity kitchen.

I met with Arora this week at the company’s warehouse in Emeryville before he flew to Washington, D.C., where the pair accepted their latest honor, a young entrepreneurs award from The Hitachi Foundation (with a $50,000 check attached), before speaking at a Tedx event on Saturday in the nation’s capital.

When you started your company, what kind of experience did you have in farming, food or mycology?

Zero. We just realized this was a good idea with a lot of potential. It’s a total by the boot straps, learn-as-you-go operation. We did a ton of mushroom research, consulted expert mycologists, and watched a lot of You Tube videos about growing mushrooms. I don’t think in the beginning we had any idea we’d become mushroom farmers.

What’s the significance of the company’s name, BTTR Ventures?

It stands for Back to the Roots (and is pronounced “better”) and encompasses the idea of creating a company that stands for sustainability, innovation, and social responsibility — a better way of doing business. And “back to the roots” references the completely closed loop system of our sustainable business.

How did you get started?

Before spring break last year we filled 10 plastic buckets with soil and spores. When we came back nine were no good, completely contaminated, but one bucked had these lovely oyster mushrooms. We took them to Chez Panisse and were lucky that the chef, Cal Peternell, decided to saute them on the spot and told us they were good. Alice Waters happened to be there and she was intrigued by what we were doing. That gave us a bit of a boost.

Then we took a bucket to a Whole Foods Market where the regional buyer told us if we could figure out a way to get him enough product he could “blow this business up.” Pretty quickly we went from selling three pounds of mushrooms a week to 300 to Whole Foods.

Did being in Berkeley help you get this business off the ground?

Absolutely. We had the support of university professors, and we got our first $5,000 of funding from Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who sponsors a competition called “bears Breaking Boundaries” for entrepreneurial projects. Alice Waters was an early supporter, as was Mayor Tom Bates, who told people to vote for us for one of our awards.

We wouldn’t be where we are today without the encouragement and backing of Whole Foods, in particular Randy Ducummon, the regional produce coordinator, who I think of as a mentor. And Shirin Moayyad at Peet’s helped us secure a steady supply of grounds.

And, of course, our customers at Whole Foods and the farmers’ markets have enthusiastically supported this project from the start. We have an absolutely vibrant and passionate community around us willing to go that extra mile to support a local, unique brand.

Why the shift from selling mushrooms to producing D.I.Y. grow kits?

Our customers started to ask us if they could do this themselves. We wanted to respond to that. There’s a lot of interest in D.I.Y. food right now. People can grow up to one pound of mushrooms in as little as 10 days and harvest as many as four crops from a carton. 

What else has changed for the business?

We’ve gone from the two of us to a company with six employees, and we’re starting to hire people with specific skill sets we need. We moved from an office near the Oakland Airport, which was less than ideal, to a warehouse in Emeryville. We moved out of student housing. I live in San Francisco and Alex lives in Emeryville. And we started to pay ourselves $300 a week.

In what ways is your environmentally-sustainable business socially responsible?

We donate a percentage of sales to worthwhile causes. Alex had cancer when he was in high school, so we wanted to do something to support research to fight that disease. We hire people with children who have been unemployed for six months or more, through a jobs program in San Francisco called JOBS NOW!. We donate top soil to school gardens and community farms. We educate students about growing their own food.

How do you two work as partners?

We complement each other. Alex has a finance background so he tends to handle that end of things and I’ve done some computer stuff, so I do most of the website work, but the truth is we both have our hands in every aspect of the business, that’s how it is with a start-up.

He’s like family now,we’re like brothers. My family follows the Indian guru Sai Baba and when Alex was in his teens he was twice approached by people who told him that Sai Baba would come into his life. You should have seen the look on his face when I was rifling through my wallet and he saw a picture of  Sai Baba with his name on it. We laugh about it now.

What advice do you have for other budding young food businesses?

Don’t just focus on profits. It’s important to think about the community, environment, and sustainability. Customers will support companies during tough times if they produce a quality product and operate with integrity, respect, and a desire to help the communities they’re in.

Pursue opportunities that pull at your heart. if you believe in your product, mission and long-term vision, the tremendous amount of time and energy — we work 12-16 hour days — doesn’t seem so hard.

Get out there every day, put yourself in front of customers and tell your story. The community support and feedback you will get in return will be invaluable.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside. It was republished on Civil Eats and The Bay Citizen.

You might also like:

Marvelous Mushrooms
Berkeley Student Food Collective: Education & Eating
Sprouts Cooking Club: Growing the Next Generation of Chefs
Vanessa Barrington: The D.I.Y. Delicious Diva
Berkeley Bites: Cristina Lau

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

MyKidsEatSquid November 12, 2010 at 8:35 am

I want to keep reading more. What an amazing project and idea. I’m glad they’re doing well and I hope they continue too!

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Marthaandme November 12, 2010 at 8:53 am

Love this! What a terrific idea!

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Sarah Henry November 12, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Who knew, M&Me, that coffee and mushrooms made such good companions?

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Ruth Pennebaker November 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm

What a fascinating, fun post. You find the greatest people to interview, Sarah. I start grinning every time I turn to a new one.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Sparkle- Shirley- Sparkle …

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Sarah Henry November 12, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Ruth, so sweet of you to say that. I’m often amazed at the get-up-and-go of many of the food folks I interview.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. November 12, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Clever name for the business – and I never thought about growing mushrooms at home! I have to check out my local NJ Whole Foods to see if I can get one of their kits.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Carignane at Porter Creek Vineyards

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Sarah Henry November 12, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Let me know, Casey, if you can find them in your store.

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Nikhil November 17, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Hi Casey,

Thanks for your support! We don’t have them in NJ quite yet, but pushing for this holiday season. We do ship out there from our website though if you’re interested. Feel free to email me at nikhil@bttrventures.com if you have any questions! Best, Nikhil

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Alexandra November 12, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Fabulous idea! And what a great name. Thanks for this. I will pass it on.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Green Working Group Rolls Up Its Sleeves

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Sarah Henry November 12, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Funny how much folks like the name. I like that people just call them the Mushroom Guys. I be they never thought in a million years they’d come out of UC B biz school with that moniker attached.

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Sheryl November 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm

What a great story. Two things I love – coffee and mushrooms – who ever knew they would be related, somehow. These guys are very impressive.

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Sarah Henry November 12, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Judging by their growing list of awards, you’re not the only one impressed, Sheryl.

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Susan November 12, 2010 at 7:17 pm

This sounds cool on a number of different levels! They’re re-using coffee beans, encouraging people to grow their own food, donating to worthwhile causes, and so on. Sounds like a win-win.

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Sarah Henry November 12, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Agreed, Susan, they seem to have the eco-social bases sewn up on this venture.

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Alisa Bowman November 14, 2010 at 6:19 am

This is such an inspiring story in so many ways! I heart this business!
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..How to Get Past an Affair

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Sarah Henry November 15, 2010 at 9:32 am

And it seems to have struck a nerve with a wide-ranging audience. I think people respond positively to an eco food start up with a social conscience run by two charismatic recent grads.

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Nikhil November 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Thank you so much Alisa…your support means a ton to us! :)

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Jill Silverman Hough November 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

I saw Nikhil at the Napa Whole Foods just this past week, showing off his product! Very, very cool. Thanks for helping to spread their very good word.

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Sarah Henry November 15, 2010 at 9:31 am

Hi Jill, Thanks for chiming in with a Mushroom Guys sighting. They are definitely an adept pair at spreading the word about their new product.

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Nikhil November 17, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Thanks Jill! We should be up there again soon doing some more demos…stop by and say hi if you see us. Appreciate your support :)

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi November 14, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Very, very cool story. I bought my folks a shitake kit one year for Xmas and it was a big hit. I’d definitely like to be growing my own mushies.

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Sarah Henry November 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

Love shitakes myself. I wonder if the Mushroom Guys will branch out into other varieties.

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Nikhil November 17, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Thank you Melanie! Right now we’re focusing on the pearl oyster mushrooms as we really think it’s more about the experience for the whole family. Our next product though that we’re working on is a D.I.Y version that lets you recycle your own coffee grounds from home (if you brew coffee at home) and use that soil for the pearly oyster mushrooms…so a little more hands-on than the “ready-to-grow” kits we currently sell.

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Merr November 15, 2010 at 9:22 am

The interconnectedness of all this is great. I like how they talk about focusing not only on the profits but also on the connections and community.
Merr´s last [type] ..Fits- Starts &amp Matters of the Heart is here!

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Sarah Henry November 15, 2010 at 9:34 am

Yes, exactly, Merr. Arora and Velez seem very intentional about all their business moves.

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DKA November 16, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Over the last few months I have bought 3 kits. I am on my third kit now. Got 2 mushroom crops from 1st kit, 5 from second, kit, and I am on my second crop from 3rd kit. Excellent mushrooms, fresh. It has been so much fun for the family, specially the children to see them grow. Great Idea.

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Sarah Henry November 17, 2010 at 10:47 am

Welcome, DKA. I appreciate consumer reports from readers. Sounds like you’ve harvested a couple of bumper ‘shroom crops. Enjoy.

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Nikhil Arora November 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Thanks everyone for all your support! It means so much to us as we look to grow this company and its impact in our community. If you ever want to get in touch or have any questions, regarding the kits or just the business in general, you can reach me at nikhil AT bttrventures.com Warm regards, Nikhil

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Lana May 2, 2011 at 10:34 am

Thanks, Sarah, for the story! It is very inspirational and made me smile.
I cannot wait to see my mushrooms peek:)
Meeting you at Campblogaway was one of the highlights of the weekend:)
Lana´s last [type] ..Royal Blues

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Sarah Henry May 3, 2011 at 10:15 am

Lovely to see you here, Lana, and to meet you in person last weekend as well.

Enjoy watching those mushrooms grow — and eating them too, of course.

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