Big Ideas Info Session Encourages Students to Pursue Their Passion

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by Luis Flores

“It all starts from one idea,” said Alejandro Velez during the first informational session for the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest. For Velez and his partner Nikhil Arora, that idea came from a lecture with professor Alan Ross. Just three years later, their one idea can be found on the shelves of over 300 Whole Foods stores across the country.

BTTR Founders, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Aurora

Velez and Arora, winners in the 2009 Big Ideas contest, built up their idea to grow mushrooms from used coffee waste into a venture with over 30 employees. Their company, called Back to the Roots (BTTR), promotes urban farming and food consciousness with “grow-your-own” mushroom kits that allow customers to farm gourmet mushrooms sustainably and from home.

“We want to promote the idea that you can learn more about where your food comes from,” said BTTR Executive Coordinator Jared Abbott, “the idea that you can grow your own food even if you don’t have a big backyard.” Social entrepreneurship, Velez later explained to an audience of potential contest participants, doesn’t start with large firms but with big ideas. BTTR is set to collect, divert, and reuse 3.6 million pounds of used coffee grounds this year.

The story of BTTR was one of a simple idea, passionately and creatively pursued. From their first experiments growing buckets of gourmet mushrooms in the basement of a fraternity house to their bold decision to walk into Chez Panisse to get Alice Waters to comment on their mushrooms, Velez and Arora have fueled their idea with excitement and vision.

The BTTR story resonated with students in the audience like Elise Luc, who was inspired by the journey of growing an idea. “I was really inspired by Alejandro’s story,” she said. Luc found it encouraging that social concerns over urban farming and sustainability could grow to become a substantial venture.

This information session was the first of numerous resources designed to guide students with ideas through the Big Ideas@Berkeley proposal writing process. In addition to three information sessions, Big Ideas is also hosting two pre-proposal writing and budgeting workshops (dates posted on the Big Ideas website).

Scheduled for September 18, the next Big Ideas info session will feature 2008 Big Ideas winner Dr. Laura E. Stachel, co-founder of WE Care Solar. Dr. Stachel’s idea for a “solar suitcase” makes essential hospital equipment available to maternal clinics in Nigeria and has already reduced maternal mortality by 70 percent at one hospital. Having just won the “Saving Lives at Birth Challenge” grant from the Gates Foundation, Dr. Stachel’s story will illustrate the far-reaching potential of one idea. The event will be held in 102 Wurster Hall at 6pm.