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Foodtech Startup BTRFY Finds Magic in Balancing the “Big Picture” with the “Here and Now”

BTRFY cofounders from left: Justin Whitely, Kati Karottki, MBA ’16, and Tyler Huggins.

In a perfect entrepreneurial world, the invention or idea driving a new startup is already established as a real, sellable thing before the company’s launch. But, more often than not, the idea behind a startup is so new and innovative that the entrepreneurs get wrapped up in everything at once.

They must learn how to build a business at the same time that they’re still finalizing their MVP (minimum viable product) or still trying to figure out what the substance of their product even looks like. It’s like being forced to buy window treatments for the upstairs guest bathroom before the foundation’s cement has even dried.

And while this sort of entrepreneurial journey is often chaotic and not at all linear, it is also not uncommon, especially for many tech and science-based startups.

In particular, one young company, which has experienced a markedly paralleled path in their entrepreneurial journey so far, is foodtech startup BTRFY. A recent alum of the Polsky Accelerator and Argonne’s Chain Reaction Innovations (CRI) accelerator program, BTRFY worked tirelessly this summer to perfect both their business and their science simultaneously.

While two cofounders hustled in the lab, perfecting the science behind their idea at Argonne, a third cofounder knuckled down at the Polsky Center to develop their strategy and to articulate their value within the business and consumer world.

At its simplest, BTRFY, pronounced “better-fy,” is a new kind of snack company selling a plant-based, protein-packed, crisp snack. But, the uniqueness of their product and what makes their work so interesting is the magic of something called mycelium. Mycelium is a network-like structure of fine, fibrous roots of mushrooms and other kinds of fungi. Packed with important nutrients, minerals, fiber, and protein, mycelium is incredibly beneficial to human health and grows easily with the right kind of fuel.

The BTRFY team at the Polsky Accelerator Demo Day. From left: Cofounders Justin Whitely, Kati Karottki, MBA ’16, and Tyler Huggins, with intern and current UChicago undergrad Azize Engin and friend Gonzalo Jimenez.

Environmental scientist, cofounder and CEO Tyler Huggins, PhD, explains, “Depending on how we grow it, we can actually tune the nutritional profile, the taste profile, and the texture profile.” And for BTRFY, they discovered that an ideal “fuel” for mycelium is the equally nutrient-rich water left over from brewing beer.

When mycelium is fed this brewery byproduct, dehydrated, and ground into flour, the result is surprisingly delicious. And it’s this brewery-powered mycelium flour (“Mycoflour”) that is the core ingredient of BTRFY’s first product to hit the market in 2019 – the MycoCrisp.

“We don’t want to replace other protein sources like beef and chicken. There just needs to be more options.”

– BTRFY CTO Justin Whitely

While the team sees the sky as the limit for what BTRFY and their mycelium-powered future can achieve, they also know that this is the best place for them to start. “For the snacking industry, in particular, there’s a big hole in the market for foods that are nutritious, delicious and accessible. We feel as though we are particularly suited to fill these gaps – especially when it comes to accessibility – because of our unusually favorable unit economics. Since a large portion of our “raw costs” are upcycled food byproduct, when at scale we can have great margins and can sell at a lower price point compared to other similar snack competitors,” says cofounder, CMO, and Booth grad Kati Karottki, MBA ’16. Karottki was also the one who initially encouraged her scientist cofounders to pursue the food industry, given her background and understanding of the opportunities and current landscape.

BTRFY CTO Kati Karottki, MBA ‘ 16 (left) presents alongside CEO Tyler Huggins.

Material scientist, cofounder, and CTO, Justin Whitely, PhD, elaborates, “We don’t want to replace other protein sources like beef and chicken. There just needs to be more options. And we believe in snacking.”

“We’re creating a much more sustainable food production process.”

– BTRFY CEO Tyler Huggins

This idea of addition versus replacement is an important focus of the BTRFY team. They are actively not trying to replicate or substitute for already existing protein sources. Instead, at their most fundamental level, BTRFY is simply working to provide a more sustainable option for both the snacking industry and the protein industry, an option that anyone – vegan or red meat aficionado, environmentalist or everyday shopper – can appreciate and enjoy.

And best of all, in the eyes of the BTRFY cofounders, these MycoCrisps are truly just the tip of the iceberg of their future plans. “10,000 foot view?” Huggins says, “We’re creating a much more sustainable food production process.”

And their dual-program start has been invaluable to helping them see both the big picture and the smaller, immediate one.

Huggins explains the important dichotomy of their training, “Argonne is a Department of Energy-funded lab with national exposure. They’re looking for game-changing technology that you can’t just go to your basement and develop. The teams they selected for CRI needed to have Argonne’s resources to succeed. And so, they expect a large-scale impact and we’re trained to talk and think in those sorts of terms.”

He continues, “So, when we work with the Polsky Center and they push us to focus on the market and the individual consumer, it really brings our thinking to a whole new, much more immediate level. We’re forced to consider how we can use this technology to solve a real pain point in the lives of an individual right here, right now.”

BTRFY’s first products, MycoCrisps, are in open-beta phase of development. Learn more about their journey now, as well as the Polsky Accelerator, a 10-week summer accelerator in which teams are awarded a $10K stipend, dedicated workspace, coaching, and mentorship from experts across industry and specialty.

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