A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Kids Are All Right

(Above: Alex & Nikhil and their 'shrooms)

Once again, I turn to one of my favorite subjects: young people doing really cool things.
This time, it's a pair of 22-year-olds named Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora, whose fledgling business, BTTR (pronounced "better") Ventures, beat 1,500 competitors around the world to become one the top 12 finalists in the 2009 World Challenge Competition For Social Ventures, co-sponsored by Newsweek magazine and the BBC.
Alex and Nikhil are the only American team to make it to the finals.
They met each other last year in a business ethics class at Cal.
"We heard that people in coffee producing countries were using coffee pulp to grow mushrooms to fight malnutrition," says Nikhil. "We thought, 'If they can do that over there, we must be able to do that here in America, where everybody is addicted to coffee.'"
So they went to work figuring out how to make it happen.
"We pretty much stopped going to classes last semester because we were so focused on this project," Nikhil says.
Their first mushrooms were grown in the kitchen of Alex's fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. After hours and hours of research and trial-and-error, they were finally satisfied.
They called Shirin Moayyad, the coffee buyer at Peet's, and asked her if she'd let them have Peet's used coffee grounds instead of throwing them away. And she said yes.
Then they called Randy Ducummon, Northern California regional produce coordinator for Whole Foods, and asked if he'd be interested in buying their mushrooms. And he said yes, too.
Two months ago, they moved the operation out of the Beta house and into a small warehouse in Emeryville. Their day starts at 6 a.m., when they drive to local Peet's stores to pick up the previous day's used coffee grounds.
The grounds first go to the planting room, where they're mixed with the best oyster mushroom seeds Nikhil and Alex can buy.
Then the mixture goes to the incubation room, where it remains for three weeks under rigid temperature, humidity, light, acidity and air quality controls.
Finally, it goes to the fruiting room, where the mushrooms are "fruited" - ie., shocked into sprouting through the soil and growing caps.
"Mushrooms only start to grow when they think they're going to die," Alex explains. "But they reproduce asexually, so they have to produce caps to release their spores."
But just before they can release their spores, Alex and Nikhil harvest them and rush them to Whole Foods in Berkeley. A half-hour later, they're on the shelf. They can be bought at seven Whole Foods and four Farmers' Markets in the East Bay.
And after that, the coffee grounds are finally thrown away, right?
Wrong. The mushroom roots are still mixed up with the grounds, making some of the richest compost around. So the enriched grounds are donated to the Oakland School District to fertilize the herb gardens at some of its elementary schools.
The winner of the World Challenge Competition will be chosen by online voting. It's a David vs. Goliath contest because the other competitors are backed by large corporations or wealthy venture capitalists.
So Alex and Nikhil need our support. Just go to the contest web site at www.theworldchallenge.co.uk/2009-finalists-project06.php and cast your vote. The deadline is next Friday.
It may be David vs. Goliath; but as I recall, David won, didn't he?