There's no denying it: Back to the Roots is kind of a weird company. 

At the beginning, it was just two guys, Berkeley classmates Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, growing mushrooms in discarded coffee grounds and selling them by the basket to local restaurants. Arora and Velez pivoted into manufacturing with their first product, a grow-your-own-mushrooms kit. Next, they invented a fish tank, a clever biodynamic one that recycles the fishes' waste as plant food. After that, they diversified into ready-to-eat foods with breakfast cereals, plus another grow-it-yourself line called Garden-in-a-Can.

There's only one way to describe a startup with a product road map so meandering yet connected: Back to the Roots is a model of organic growth.

Now get ready for another unforgivable pun, because the seven-year-old company just raised, yes, a seed round. Led by Tony Robbins and Peter Guber's Agency of Trillions, the $5 million round is a who's who of investors from the overlapping worlds of sustainable food and social entrepreneurship, including Toms founder Blake Mycoskie, Annie's founder John Foraker, and Clif Bar CEO Kevin Cleary. Some $3 million of the money was raised in the form of equity crowdfunding through CircleUp.

Arora, Back to the Roots' co-CEO, acknowledges there's been more than a little happenstance in the path his company has taken. From the moment he and Velez sold their first bushel of mushrooms to legendary Berkeley, California, chef Alice Waters, serendipity has played a big role. "We were just kind of learning as we went and wanted to bring that into our products," he says.

On closer examination, however, that path hasn't been the random drunkard's walk it first resembles. Both the grow-it-yourself products and the ready-to-eat ones are responses to a world in which the growing and processing of food have become hyperspecialized and remote from the end consumer, says Arora. The average American has no idea what goes into what's on his or her plate, whether it's a Brussels sprout or a bowl of Grape Nuts. "The pendulum has swung so far to one side," Arora says. "We see this awesome opportunity to create this unique food brand that connects the growing and the eating."

On the fresh side, reconnecting consumers to food means making it convenient to grow food, not just buy it. The Mushroom Farm and Garden-in-a-Can are just-add-water simple. On the packaged side, it means listing not just the ingredients of cereal but also the exact source of each ingredient and the recipe for making the flakes. "Sometimes you want to grow it, sometimes you just want to eat it, but the underlying trust and transparency should be the same," Arora says. "You shouldn't be buying food from us because it's something proprietary, something we invented."

That puts Back to the Roots distinctly at odds with startups like Hampton Creek and Beyond Meat, which are indeed in the business of inventing and patenting high-tech substitutes for animal products. Arora calls that trend the "technologization of food." "It is oppositional in terms of how the food is made, but the overall goal is the same in that there's a more sustainable, better food system we can all build," he says.

Back to the Roots plans to use its seed funding to grow its team of 14 people, to expand its distribution in retail stores and schools, and to develop 10 new products this year. Seeing as the company already sells corn flakes and fish tanks, you can probably expect a few wild cards in there.

Mycoskie, whose company sells shoes, sunglasses, and Fair Trade coffee, says he sees "a lot of similarities" between Toms and Back to the Roots. "We love Alex and Nikhil's bootstrapping, entrepreneurial spirit," he says. "A core tenet of Toms has always been to be resourceful without resources." His advice for another startup whose eclectic products are united by a sense of purpose: "Fail quickly, and never make the same mistake twice."

Published on: Jan 28, 2016