Back to the Roots: Nikhil and Alejandro Perfect a Niche to Spread Their Fungus

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“True focus is saying no to the things you really want to do, and perfecting one product, refining one skill.” Nikhil Arora

Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez of Back to the Roots have done just that — twice. They perfected the art of mini mushroom farming, and then applied their technique to aquaponics.

The idea originated after a presentation in their Berkeley seminar class.

“The professor said something about growing mushrooms with coffee grounds, and we both asked him about it after class. He put us in touch, and we fed the idea from there.”

This inspired the boys to spend their senior year lugging large sacks of coffee grounds into the back room of Alejandro’s fraternity, where they experimented with different strands and farming techniques.

“The other guys in the house, many of whom had never before cared about the environment, all of a sudden started complaining the amount of electricity we were using for our mushrooms.”

Needless to say, not everyone believed in these boys and their crops from the beginning.

After graduation, they turned down investment banking and consulting to pursue the field of fungus, and began selling at farmer’s markets in Oakland. Their product was a hit, and at height of sales, they were distributing more than 500 pounds of mushrooms per week.

Then, they came up with the kit, and soon after, their product found a shelf.

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“The first time we pitched to Whole Foods, they were like, ‘Get this disgusting thing out of here!’ We were quick to find it’s all about presentation.”

After a few modifications, the Whole Foods in Berkeley accepted, and that carved the path for their current partnerships: Whole Foods, Nordstrom, Home Depot, and Fresh Market. To date, Arora and Velez have sold more than 300,000 mushroom kits.

“Our goal — we want to change the face of home farming. Through beautiful design to ease of use, we want to bring the idea beyond the Berkeley hippie stereotype to the mainstream. We want to build a brand that makes our product accessible to everyone, and sell in stores from Toys R Us to Home Depot.”

After locking down the mini mushroom market, Nikhil and Alejandro applied their sleek, simple design to aquaponics with the AquaFarm–a self-sustaining ecosystem where the plants feed the beta fish, and its waste feeds the plants.
(Photography by Back to the Roots)

“We put the idea on Kickstarter with $100k goal. We ended up with $248k, and more feedback and buzz than we could ever hope for.”

Nikhil describes how he was originally fearful of sharing the AquaFarm on Kickstarter, as others would replicate, but the comments provided by supporters fundamentally changed–improved–his product. Back to the Roots postponed the aquaponics launch from April to June in order to implement all of the Kickstarter critiques.

“If it’s new and innovative, people will try and replicate it. Now, it seems there’s a new one out every month. It’s just motivation to keep improving, and to be first in the market.”

It’s all about doing one thing, and doing it right.

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Today, Nikhil and Alejandro are selling in over 2,000 retailers nationwide. Though they’ve created a consumer product, Arora and Velez realize their success holds obligations to do good. Through a partnership with Revolution Foods of Oakland, with each AquaFarm sold, customers can vote online for an elementary school of their choice to receive a free serving of veggies.

“It’s not about the what of the product — it’s about the why.”

As far as the future, Alejandro and Nikhil plan to continue developing fun and inspiring ways for families to connect to their food, and to continue making change through business.

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Special thanks to Maya Horgan for helping research, write, and edit this story. All photography from Back to the Roots.