Innovating Every Day

College friends Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez were taking a class together when they first learned from their professor that it might be possible to grow gourmet, edible mushrooms from recycled coffee grounds. The very brewing process made the grounds sterile, rendering a perfect base for the mushroom spores. Intrigued, they collected used coffee grounds from local coffee shops and experimented. When the idea worked, they were inspired to write up a business plan for Back to the Roots, growing 100% sustainable mushrooms within a closed-loop agricultural model. They submitted it to an entrepreneurship competition and won. The $5,000 in initial funding was all they needed to launch Back to the Roots in the Fall of 2009, just after graduating from UC Berkeley at the age of 22.

Their company incorporates the values of sustainability, innovation, and social responsibility in every facet. First is their contribution to helping eliminate waste: They estimate the world production of coffee is 7 million tons a year, in which only 1 percent actually makes it into the cup. Nikhil and Alex collect approximately 1 million pounds of waste coffee grounds from regional coffee shops annually. With that waste, they harvest oyster mushrooms and sell directly to Whole Foods within Northern California. Their own farming waste stream yields a rich, usable soil, which they then package and sell as a premium soil aggregator, thereby completing the agricultural loop. They also donate soil to local schools, urban gardens and nurseries.

In 2010 the two friends took their business one step further, introducing “Grow-It-At-Home” mushroom kits for consumers. The kits, which come pre-packaged with the coffee grounds, generally yield about one pound of mushrooms within 10 days and are sold nationwide. Their innovative and environmentally responsible business model has been recognized with several awards, including SVN’s 2010 Innovation Award and the Hitachi Foundation's Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneur Award*.

*The Hitachi Foundation is a funding partner of Social Venture Network's Bridge Project, an initiative to support the world's brightest and most innovative social entrepreneurs.