“It’s something that could be used for good which is just going to waste. If we can use it to create mushrooms, or grow packs, that’s averting the landfill and re-purposing.”

Alex Georgiou is one of three “mushroom growers” at The Espresso Mushroom Company, a small business centred on the concept of upcycling coffee grounds to grow mushrooms.

Alex, his brother Robbie, and Jon are passionate about sustainability and thinking up innovative ways to minimise waste.

Here, Alex tells the IPF what it was like to co-found The Espresso Mushroom Company a few years ago, and the central ideas driving their business model.

Hi Alex, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a bit about Espresso Mushroom Company? What are its aims?

The Espresso Mushroom Company creates grow your own mushroom kits and perfect fresh mushrooms using coffee as the compost. We started off trying to grow mushrooms using coffee ground. We heard about this idea from a guy called Gunter Pauli. We thought it sounded like a great idea. We love mushrooms, and we drink coffee – so it was a perfect match!

So what do you sell?

What we started off creating were the fresh mushrooms themselves that we supplied to local restaurants. In doing that we learnt how to grow the mushrooms, but also realised how beautiful they are. They come in really amazing shapes, they grow fast. They’re amazing to actually watch grow.

We thought, even better than growing fresh mushrooms, is enabling more people to grow their own. That’s how we came up with the grow-your-own kits. It’s great because it also connects people to where their food comes from.

It’s a nice way for people who are slightly losing touch with food, to actually learn about where your food comes from.

I think, when you cook a meal from scratch, you want it to taste better than a takeaway meal. If you’ve actually grown your food from scratch, it has a whole deeper level of engagement. We want to make that as easy as possible for as many people as possible!

You mentioned you were inspired by Gunter Pauli. Could you explain a little about what he said?

I used to work for a fair trade coffee company and I was at a talk about how business can learn from nature, and how one persons waste is another persons resource. He used an example of how some coffee producers in Zimbabwe were using the cherry from the coffee bean, and were using that as a growing medium for mushrooms.

The idea stuck with me. My brother Robbie, was doing Development Studies at Sussex University, and he also happened upon this business example.

Both of us thought, well this is a really interesting idea. We both love mushrooms, both love coffee, so let’s give it a go.

What Gunter was talking about was the coffee producers in origin. The twist we’ve put on that idea is doing it in the United Kingdom using actual coffee grounds, and really trying to make it appeal to everyone. It’s about being environmental, but we want to appeal to anyone who loves mushrooms, loves food, loves cooking.

So this is an all-round idea that brings in sustainability, good food, good living all together?

I think all innovations in the environmental world have to appeal to more than just people who care about the environment, otherwise they’ll never really catch on.

I’m not saying that mushrooms are going to catch on in a massive way, and change the world.

They’ve caught on quite a bit, I’d say!

They’ve caught on a lot more since we started! But I’d say its more of an example of how you can take a waste product and create a viable business from it. Although it took a lot of hard work to get to where we are.

So can you explain the process to me? How do you go from coffee ground to beautiful mushrooms?

Very simple there’s three stages.

You have the inoculation where you mix the coffee grounds with the mushrooms spores, which is like sowing the seed essentially.

And then you have the dark stage. We inoculate the coffee with a few other materials in grow bags in a very clean environment. We keep it in a dark room in carefully controlled temps for around a month.

During that time, the mushroom goes from being a spore to completely taking root in the coffee, so the grow bag goes from brown to white. By the time we send the kit out, its onto the third stage- the fruiting stage, where the mushroom actually grows, having colonised the bag.

When we send our grow kits to customers, they’re ready to grow, which means all you have to do is cut them open, water them and within two weeks the mushrooms will grow out. We’ve tried to make it as simple and reliable as possible… which means we do the complex part.

Did it take a lot of experimentation to figure these stages out?

These stages are a standard for growing mushrooms. The difficult part for us was ensuring that our process was reliable, achievable and overcoming the pitfalls of growing mushrooms- which is contamination basically. There are so many variables involved in growing mushrooms. You need to make sure you get the mix right, the temperature right, and consistently.

And throwing coffee grounds into the mix, did that mess around with that process or was it quite harmonious?

When we started there was very little information about how to do it. There’s a lot of information about the concept and the idea, but there are no actual instructions on what to do and how to do it.

We spent a long time experimenting with that. It certainly is a different process to traditional cultivation techniques, and we’ve learnt that through a lot of trial and error. But we now have a method that works consistently.

And your coffee grounds- where do they come from?

There’s no shortage of coffee ground. We are based just outside Brighton and we partner with a business called Small Batch. They roast their own coffee. The best coffee in Brighton is from Small Batch. If you ever go to Brighton, keep that in mind!

In our peak production time, we take around 200 kilos a week of coffee. That’s only the tip of the iceberg.

There’s a huge issue with coffee waste. Even if our company grew ten-fold, we still couldn’t take even a fraction of the coffee waste that’s produced in Brighton. If you make a cup of coffee, you’re left with all the grounds that aren’t consumed. Most products you consume, you don’t have such a large amount of waste left over. Whereas coffee is a different story. And the grounds themselves are very nutrient rich.

What tends to happen to coffee waste?

It depends how good the café’s waste management is. Generally, they just get sent to landfill. That’s very wasteful, because in landfill they’ll rot and create methane which is a harmful greenhouse gas. It’s something that could be used for good which is just going to waste. If we can use it to create mushrooms, or grow packs, that’s averting the landfill and re-purposing.

The great thing is after you’ve grown mushrooms in the coffee ground, you’re actually left with a very nutrient rich by-product that you can make into a good compost.

So there is literally no waste in your product?

Well, there’s a few bits of waste along the way, but we’re looking to eliminate that as well. In terms of the actual coffee side of things, its really upcycling coffee.

Cool, and you mentioned this is just one example of something you can do. What are your plans for next steps?

So we’ve got loads of ideas that we want to do. We’ve introduced the hot pink, a really pink mushroom. We’ve also grown golden oyster mushrooms, using coffee grounds. The pinks and the golds are the first in the UK. And we’ve also created a range of seed bombs, which are grow your own vegetables using the upcycled coffee compost. We’ve got a lot of other ideas we want to make happen but it all takes time.

Is this a model that could be rolled out on a larger scale?

I think in industry, a lot of the time you do see businesses becoming quite efficient with re-purposing. It’s probably been financial incentives that have driven that change rather than pure innovation. But I guess that’s the way of the world isnt it?

Do you think more needs to be done to change peoples attitudes towards waste?

Yes, there is a massive problem with waste in this country. In the UK, these problems have been well documented. At every step of the chain, there’s wastage at farms, where stock is rejected for bad reasons. There’s problems with supermarkets managing their own supply chains – being overstocked or short shelf-life issues, where they have to chuck food that’s perfectly good to eat.

Then you get problems with consumers buying too much, not eating it and it just going off in their fridge. So yes, there’s a massive waste problem. There are a lot of organisations with different initiatives to try and change that. It’ll definitely take work on all the different touch-points to try and change this.

I think the actual thing that will drive that change the most is the public taking responsibility for what they buy and waste. People need to say to businesses that this is a problem, and not a situation that we want to live in.

Not just here, but other countries where they have less advanced refuse systems, where plastic waste is a massive issue.

How can we as a tiny business change that? Well, hopefully by showing people that there are other things you could do. There are loads of really interesting businesses that do great things with waste.

For example, the Real Junk Food Project has started cafés using short-dated supermarket stock to make really nice food. There are companies that make jewellery from upcycled pencils. Hopefully businesses like these will inspire big businesses. When they see small businesses launching big initiatives, bigger businesses could feel compelled to do something, and as a result, respond. It would be great if they took the lead, but I don’t think they’re driven by those motives.

There are a lot of people out there who want to start an innovative business. What advice do you have for them?

I’d say, its really exciting. You need to have real enthusiasm for whatever you get into.

The path from having an idea and making it happen and making a business from it, is very long. So you really need to be excited enough to stick with it.

You have to be prepared to adapt your vision as you learn. For us, we started off with the idea of supplying fresh mushrooms to restaurants. But we quite quickly learned that there’s a bigger opportunity for impact to sell grow-your-own kits. So we tweaked our model. All the time, we question what we’re doing and if there’s a better way.

So, in summary, its brilliant if you have the drive to make a difference. Make sure you love your idea whole-heartedly. Be prepared to see it through and make some sacrifices along the way. Be open to evolving as you learn.

What has been the biggest challenge for you along the way?

We’ve had a lot of challenges! I think because we want a product that’s ultra reliable and easy to use, we had to pick up all the slack to make sure that’s the case. Understanding demand for products has also been quite interesting.

Essentially, people see it as a really good gift. Its got a really broad appeal, and most products don’t have that. At Christmas we have a huge peak in demand. We have to produce loads of kits, whereas for the rest of the year its much more stable. So dealing with the seasonality has been a real learning curve.

There’s only three of you, right?

Yes. The first few Christmases were pretty full on! Our first Christmas, Robbie got banned from his local post office for going with too many parcels to send in one day!

And finally, what are your plans for the next year?

We have some surprises coming up this year, with a few new products in exciting partnerships. We’re also working on making the production process more straightforward, in terms of making it simpler for us. So watch this space!

To find out more about The Espresso Mushroom Company, visit their website, follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook