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, December 13, 2009

Local Boys Make Good By Doing Good

Remember Alex Velez and Nikhil Arora, the 22-year-old Cal grads 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, Royal Dutch Shell and the BBC?
Alex and Nikhil recycle used coffee grounds from Peet's Coffee, which otherwise would be thrown away, and use them to grow organic oyster mushrooms. They were the only American team to make it to the finals, and among the youngest competitors in the whole contest.
I asked you to vote for them online, and you sure did! Three weeks ago they were notified that they had made the top three! But the final order of finish wouldn't be announced until the awards ceremony on Dec. 1 in The Hague, the capital of the Netherlands.
"We couldn't have done it without your readers," said Alex. "It meant a lot to us to have the support of our community."
So a few days after Thanksgiving they were flown to the Netherlands.
They were met at the Amsterdam airport by a sleek black Mercedes sedan and whisked to The Hague, where they met the other two winners - Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura, a surgeon from Sri Lanka who invented a kerosene lamp that won't accidentally ignite an accidental fire when broken or overturned; and Risa Bhinekawati from Indonesia, who invented a process to turn organic waste from village markets into compost.
They were put up at a posh hotel next to the Parliament Building, a 13th Century brick palace that doubles as the headquarters of the International Court of Justice.
The ceremony itself was held at the City Hall, which Nikhil describes as "an insanely futuristic building right out of 'The Matrix.'"
Alex and Nikhil wore suits for the occasion.
"I can't remember the last time I wore a coat and tie," says Alex. "I think it was a wedding or something."
The ceremony was just like the Heisman Trophy presentation. The three finalists sat in the front row, trying not to look nervous, while a series of speakers, including Achim Steiner, Director General of The World Conservation Union, did their best to milk the suspense.
Finally, the winner was announced. It turned out to be Dr. Godakumbura, the inventor of the super-safe kerosene lamp. Alex and Nikhil were the runner-ups.
"He totally deserved it," says Nikhil. "He's devoted his whole life to this lamp. He invented it because a lot of his poor patients were suffering death or severe disfigurement from accidental fires."
Dr. Godakumbura received a $20,000 check. Alex and Nikhil received $10,000, all of which will be ploughed back into the business.
"We want to automate some of the processes," Nikhil said. "Right now, we're doing everything by hand. For one thing, it would be nice to get a hydraulic lift instead of lugging around those big sacks of coffee grounds."
Alex added, "We'd also like to expand our operation, maybe move to a bigger warehouse. We're currently processing 3,000 pounds of coffee grounds each week, but we'd like to process a lot more."
BTTR Ventures (the name stands for "back to the roots") mushrooms are sold at seven Whole Foods stores and four Farmers' Markets in the East Bay. You can also buy do-it-yourself "Gourmet Garden" packs from their website, www.bttrventures.com.