Alums’ Mushroom Venture Wins 3rd in Global Competition

BTTR Ventures, a startup founded by Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, both BS 09, that grows gourmet mushrooms from coffee grounds, won third place in a worldwide competition sponsored by the BBC and Newsweek.

BTTR Ventures (pronounced "Better"; stands for "Back to the Roots") competed against 11 other finalists from Europe, Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East in the World Challenge 09. The global competition aims to find and reward projects or small businesses from around the world that have shown enterprise and innovation at a grass-roots level.

As the third-place winners, founders Arora and Velez received $10,000 and will be featured in an article in the next issue of Newsweek.

"With the grant money, we look to improve our current operations by investing in some heavy-duty equipment that will streamline our current operations and also use it to help us move forward more quickly on expansion efforts to other urban markets," says Arora.

As a finalist, BTTR Ventures also was profiled by the BBC World News in October. Catch their video at

Arora and Velez had their entrepreneurial "Aha!" moment that blossomed into BTTR Ventures when they learned in a Haas School business ethics class that women in Colombia and Africa used waste pulp from coffee plants to grow mushrooms.

A “closed-loop” uber-green business model that provided jobs and nutrition “was so cool,” says Arora. “We wondered if we could adapt it to coffee-addicted urban America.”

The pair did just that, thanks in part to a $5,000 prize from Berkeley’s 2009 Bears Breaking Boundaries Competition. BTTR Ventures now produces 300 pounds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms a week and also sells the BTTR Gourmet Garden, a grow-it-at-home mushroom kit that allows consumers to harvest up to a pound of mushrooms in their home in about a week.

Whole Foods Market buys almost all of BTTR Ventures' mushrooms, selling the edibles for $8 to $12 a pound at Northern California stores. The rest are sold at eight Bay Area farmer's markets. The BTTR Gourmet Garden can be found online, at, and at local farmer's markets.

Peet’s Coffee & Tea donates the grounds (about 3,000 lbs. per week), keeping tons of waste out of the landfill. And post-harvest grounds rich in protein and nutrients are donated to local nonprofit urban farms for compost.

“Nikhil and I truly believe that doing business and doing good do not have to be separate philosophies,” Velez says. “We were enlightened by mushrooms.”

Correction: The headline in the Haas NewsWire email newsletter version of this article incorrectly said BTTR Ventures won second place. Please note it should have said third place.

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, both BS 09