The last time I wrote about Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Aurora, they had just returned from the Netherlands, where their new business, BTTR Ventures (short for "Back To The Roots") beat more than 1,500 contestants worldwide to win $10,000 in the 2009 World Challenge Competition for Social Ventures.

It all started a year earlier, when Alex and Nik met in a business class during their senior year at Cal. Hearing that Peet's Coffee was throwing out tons of used coffee grounds every week, they approached Peet's with a better idea: "Give us the grounds, and we'll haul them away for free and use them to grow organic oyster mushrooms."

After perfecting the product through trial-and-error experiments in the kitchen of Alex's fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi, they approached Whole Foods, which agreed to sell the mushrooms in its stores.

But as soon as they got back from The Hague, they decided to scrap their successful business model. Instead of growing mushrooms on acres and acres of used coffee grounds, they figured, why not make inexpensive do-it-yourself home gardening kits and empower the customers to grow their own?

So was born the Mushroom Kit. All you have to do is open the box and spray it once a day (sprayer provided), and voilà! You have your very own countertop mushroom garden. That's when business really took off. The Mushroom Kits are being sold practically everywhere, including Whole Foods, Nordstrom, Safeway, Petco, Home Depot and Toys 'R' Us, where you can usually find them near the Water Blasters at the front of the store.


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After starting out with just the two of them, Alex and Nick now employ 12 people at their headquarters in the Oakland produce district and another six at their satellite office in Union City.

"And last April we were able to start providing health care for them, which is really exciting," says Alex.

Along with fortune came fame. Last year, Alex was a contestant on ABC's "The Bachelorette," where he vied with 24 other guys for the hand of the lovely Emily Maynard. (He got eliminated on Week Six but still had a lot of fun.) Meanwhile, Nik was invited to the White House last year not once but twice to be honored by President Obama.

And this year they have a new product: the AquaFarm, a combination herb garden and fishbowl in a closed system. The plant roots clean the water, and the fish poop feeds the plants. All you have to do is add fish food.

The Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm have been honored by Fitness, Family Circle, Forbes and Maxim magazines, ABC News, Rachael Ray, Bloomberg News, Entrepreneur Magazine and Martha Stewart, who had Nik and Alex on her show and named the AquaFarm one of her Top 10 American Made products for this holiday season.

The AquaFarm comes with a gift certificate for one beta fish at Petco and seeds for wheat grass, basil and purple lettuce. But you can use any kind of fish and plants you want.

"People have added shrimp, snails and crabs and made their own ecosystems, which is really nice," says Nik. "And as for plants, we just got a rave review from one of the largest medical marijuana sites on the Internet, Medijane.com."

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.