Undergrads Tap Waste Stream for Shitakes

Two Haas graduates from the class of 2009 appear to have found grounds for a sustainable venture — coffee grounds, that is. Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez (pictured) recently launched BTTR Ventures, a firm dedicated to turning coffee grounds into a gourmet edible: specialty mushrooms.

Arora and Velez walked away from job offers in investment banking and consulting in order to focus on making an impact in their community. Their firm's name BTTR, pronounced “better,” stands for “back to the roots,” a phrase the pair chose to encompass their ideal of creating a company that stands for sustainability, progress, and social responsibility.

BTTR Ventures won in the Partnerships for Social Innovation category of the UC Berkeley 2009 Bears Breaking Boundaries Social Venture Competition and has been using the $5,000 award money to help fund their initial operations. The firm launched in the Bay Area with offices and a mushroom growing facility in Emeryville, and already has begun laying the groundwork for expansion into the Los Angeles market.

Coffee grounds are one of the largest waste streams in America. Coffee purveyors such as Peet’s, Café Strada, and Café Milano are on board to provide the coffee grounds that will become substrate, an enzyme-rich growing base for the mushrooms. BTTR's first large client is A & B Produce, a large Bay Area mushroom wholesaler, lined up to purchase more than 100 lbs. of oyster and shitake mushrooms weekly. Arora and Velez are also in final negotiations to sell their mushrooms to over 20 high-end grocery stores by the end of the summer.

Beyond the sustainable approach of using trash to produce a sought-after product, Arora and Velez aspire to provide urban jobs, prevent thousands of tons of valuable waste from being dumped into landfills, and donate a substantial portion of profit back into the communities where the coffee ground waste originated. The pair is working with Gunter Pauli of the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives Foundation and two award-winning mycologists, who have trained 10,000 individuals in Africa and Colombia in sustainable farming methods.

Inspiration for the venture struck in Lecturer Alan Ross’ business ethics class, where Arora and Velez first met. Pauli from the Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives Foundation gave a guest lecture in the course on how rural women in Colombia and Africa were using coffee pulp to grow mushrooms as a means to fight malnutrition.

“Alex and I were inspired to see how we could use this newly learned fact to turn waste into high-end mushrooms in coffee-addicted urban America,” Arora says. “With the economic and environmental ruin we're currently in, it's clear we need to rethink the way we do business, to create closed-loop entities that work with the environment, not against it. And there's no better place to start than here in the Bay Area."

Alejandro Velez, BS 09