A Good Business Idea Mushrooms

Sometimes you get your best new ideas by revisiting your old ones. That's how Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora got started on their latest venture.They got their first idea back in 2009. While the two were doing their M.B.A.s at the University of California at Berkeley, they learned that old coffee grounds could be used to grow mushrooms. Sensing an opportunity, they launched Back to the Roots Ventures, collecting grounds from Peet's Coffee and using them to grow gourmet mushrooms. They sold their wares to famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and to local Whole Foods stores.Over the next few years, the business evolved and the partners began producing grow-your-own mushroom kits for Whole Foods, Home Depot, Nordstrom and other big retailers. "Our growth has been phenomenal," Mr. Arora says.Then came the next big inspiration. The partners were reading about a former National Basketball Association player who gave it all up to become an urban farmer. Intrigued, they went to see him and were struck by one part of his setup in particular: a system that used fish waste as fertilizer."It was just like that lesson where we learned that coffee grounds can be used to grow mushrooms, it was just so simple and real," says Mr. Velez. "We got really excited about this idea that fish waste could be used as fertilizer for plants, and that the plants would then clean the water and bring it back to the fish."So, says Mr. Arora, "we started thinking: The same way we shrunk a mushroom farm down to a kit, is there a way we can shrink this down to a tabletop experience in the kitchen or classroom?"They took their idea—which they dubbed the Home Aquaponics Kit—to Kickstarter. In April, their campaign raised around $148,000 more than their $100,000 goal in 20 days. Whole Foods has agreed to carry the product, and Petco has joined with Back to the Roots, providing a coupon in every kit for a free betta fish.The partners like the prospects for their new venture. "We used to go to conferences, and people would say, 'Oh yeah, you're the mushroom guys,' " says Mr. Velez, "but this year people have started saying, 'Oh yeah, aren't you the fish-poop guys?'

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