Each week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote at SB '13, we will feature an article on one of our SBIO semi-finalists. This week, we re-introduce you to local innovators Back to the Roots.
There’s nothing like attractive design for turning people on to something new and unusual.
Case in point: home mushroom farming. A hobby that was virtually nonexistent two years ago has become a gift idea and school science project of choice across the country, thanks to handy, portable, Grow-Your-Own Mushroom kits from Oakland, California start-up Back to the Roots.
“[Our kits] started off as a big bag of fungus,” says BTTR co-founder Nikhil Arora. “We went to Whole Foods and the buyer almost fell off his chair — he was like, ‘that’s disgusting!’ The grow-at-home food movement is still kind of stuck in the Berkeley/hippie stereotype. Apple brought design, ease of use to gadgets — we thought, how can we bring design and ease of use to this? So it’s cool to go from that to something that you can sell at Bed Bath & Beyond and Nordstrom.”
Back to the Roots was founded by classmates Arora and Alejandro Velez in 2009, during their last semester at UC Berkeley. Just before heading off into the corporate world, they attended a lecture on the potential for growing gourmet mushrooms using recycled coffee grounds. Inspired by the idea of turning waste into wages and fresh, local food, they experimented in Velez's fraternity kitchen, ultimately growing a test bucket of oyster mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. With that bucket, some initial interest from Whole Foods and Chez Panisse and a $5,000 grant from the UC Berkeley Chancellor for social innovation, they decided to forgo corporate life in favor of becoming full-time urban mushroom farmers, and Back to the Roots was born.
After a short stint cultivating their own mushrooms for sale, Arora and Velez decided to share the mushroom-growing experience with the public in the form of Grow-Your-Own Mushroom kits, which hit the market in late 2010.
The company’s success has even gotten the President’s attention — in November, Arora was one of 15 small-business owners invited to the White House to give President Obama more insight about the state of the economy and the role of small businesses.
Now, through a new partnership with a Bay Area grower called Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc, the BTTR team is shifting away from production, leaving the dirty work to the experts in order to focus on product diversification and development. First down the pipeline: home aquaponics kits, for growing herbs on top of a small fish tank. Aquaponics is a centuries-old, closed-loop method of growing food that utilizes fish waste to fertilize the plants, which then clean and oxygenate the water for the fish. So how did BTTR go from mushrooms to fish tanks?
“Alex and I started really diving into it last spring — we visited Growing Power in Milwaukee and aquaponic farms in LA, and we were just like, this is such a cool concept. It’s the same kind of thing as coffee ground waste to food, just in this case it’s fish poop to food,” he says, laughing. “We design for kitchen counters and classrooms — the smallest systems we found were [huge] and about $400, and we were like, that’s not a home aquaponic system. Since there was nothing out there we figured this was a big opportunity.”
“The thing with Kickstarter: One, it’s financing and marketing; but two, we got a month of condensed feedback from thousands of super passionate, knowledgeable people. If we had just launched into retail, it would’ve taken us years to get that.”
The phenomenal success of the campaign also helped prove that there was demand for their new product. With a reiterated design, thanks in part to donor feedback, the Back to the Roots home aquaponics kits will be released the first week of May.
Made from one piece of acrylic, the kits come complete with five packs of organic Seeds of Change seeds and a coupon for a free fish from Petco. While the team designed the tanks for long life, they are thinking ahead to eventual disposal and have plans for a take-back and reward program.
“Something we’re learning about every day is materials versus products that will last — that’s something we’re being really cognizant of,” Arora says. “There’s an industrial recycling program [for acrylic] — some things you can’t just put in regular recycling, so I think it will be a cool chance to educate people about that, too. We’ll say send us back the tank and get a coupon [for another BTTR product].”
Along with gearing up for the release of their newest creation and fine-tuning a second mushroom kit (they’re planning to offer a double pack of oyster mushrooms and shiitakes for the holiday season), this week BTTR is relaunching the oyster mushroom kits with a new packaging design (pictured above, right) and moving out of their current warehouse space into a new office. “It’s going to be a really fun year with a lot of big changes — we see this huge landscape of potential for what this brand can become, building a brand around education and healthy eating,” Arora says. “We don’t see ourselves as having 100 SKUs — we want to release maybe two really cool, innovative, impactful products a year and then go deep with them.
“Everyone knows us as the mushroom guys, but now it’s about trying to elevate Back to the Roots.”
For more on closing loops and other innovative waste-saving initiatives, check out our Issue in Focus: #WasteNot.