Michael is the Founder and CEO of Bios, an impact startup from the first cohort of Maze X.
Can you tell us who you are and a little bit about your background?
I’m a collection of multiple identities and skills. I don’t really like that question. I think it’s too linear. Like, who are you? I’m the one from Australia. I’m now in Portugal. I’m a PhD student at MIT Portugal and Instituto Superior Técnico. I’m the CEO and Founder @ Bios. I’m a very good leader and manager. I’m good at working with people, understanding humans, their behaviour, and how we can have a collective impact. Which is why I’ve decided to go after a very ambitious attempt to show the world how we can have our multinational corporations reverse the impact on the environment and climate change and global warming through their buildings.
What is Bios?
Bios develops low-carbon technology using software. We’re not a hardware company or manufacturer. We are taking the wasted energy of buildings, and we use that turning into food. Why are we doing that? Well, we are passionate about demonstrating that technology can help our urban areas, preparing for what cities and access to food need to be by the time we get to 2030. The same technology being developed to build integrated agricultural units for installations on Mars, so that we can hit aerospace by 2030, can be used to help heal our cities. So, our team of founders came together around two problems, one with energy and one related to agricultural technologies. From there, we found an innovative way to work with integrating our technology into buildings so that we can capture the wasted energy and use it to grow food.
Michael Parkes at the launch event of Maze X at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in May 2019.
How did you meet your co-founders?
I had been researching agricultural technology for the last four years. Very cool, very expensive, and uses a lot of energy. So not so sustainable. As part of that, I wanted to explore how we could use it in urban metabolism around the circular economy and city. How do we think about using urban agriculture as a circular economy intervention at the social level, but also at the environmental level in cities? I went to MIT, here in Portugal, and got into the PhD program and through that process, I found my co-founders. Our chief cultivation and horticulturalist is Paulo Pereira who I met research modern greenhouse technology. He is our expert horticultural designer, and he’s been working in the industry for ag-tech, design, using indoor hydroponics and controlled environment agriculture for the last sort of 10 years. Our chief engineer is Antonio Santos. He’s in the PhD program with me.
Why does Bios matter?
Bios matters because it is creating a way for our cities to produce food. At this point, we eat, and the value of food is 50 cents for a lettuce. The value of food around what we eat has been maligned to this place where food is just an “energy in” equation and “energy out” equation for the human body. When it’s simply not true. People don’t think about their food at this point, and the real impact it has on health and wellness. The food system is destroying humanity. So we talk about all the investment that’s going into R&D for serious illnesses or how we can reduce carbon footprints. When the reality is we need to be able to encourage people to have access to local food in their region so we can have a fresh profile of food that we know how it’s grown, has got a decent nutritional profile and no chemicals.
The other end of the equation is energy. Somehow in 2020, we’re still subsidizing coal, and we’re still subsidizing gas for energy production. These buildings in cities are growing and consuming more and still wasting the same amount. So for us, that became an obvious resource of energy. We need to make energy and electricity, and we can use what we produce better. I think that’s what we’re really after. We want to show that we can have buildings produce things that support the social, nutritional support of communities. Buildings must be able to offer us more than just a roof.
Why did you apply to Maze X?
Because I really, really liked the metaphor of the maze.
I founded the team a year ago; before that, I did the four years’ worth of research. Through the first year of the Masters, I secured the founding team. And then 12 months ago, we started the team, formally. Through the end of last year, we built a good profile, we did our initial product runs, and we engaged with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to co-finance our prototype. At the same time, we built a good partnership with IST, Instituto Superior Técnico, and, also, with EIT Food. When Maze X came out, we were one of the first ones to apply, not only because of the networks that we were connected to but also because it was the time to run the maze.
So, for us, we needed to understand the ecosystem of not only the philanthropic arms but also the real impact of the ecosystem around investment and funding. I didn’t want to play the normal startup game because we don’t need the economic growth that other Venture Capital funds, and other fundraising accelerators, are trying to drive their startups to achieve. Through MAZE, we’ve been really able to deepen our connections from an impact investment profile perspective and start to understand how we are placed to be environmental and socially impact-driven. Through these networks, we can actually find money and fundraising that is geared towards the environment over and above economic gain. That’s the most important thing.
What was the main challenge you wanted to tackle throughout Maze X?
Fundraising. The challenge for us is that we were in an R&D phase which is a virtual simulation phase, and then from there into a piloting and location phase. So, the real challenge is when you’re dealing with pitches and dealing with communications for fundraising. It’s complicated because everyone seems to be focused on the scalable question. But that’s become more of a signal for us that we don’t really need to continue talking about them. Because if they have slowed down enough to understand what our project is about, we don’t need that. Every day is about slowing down enough to work on what is the next most important step.
Michael Parkes, Founder and CEO of Bios, talking with Adam Jagelewski, Lead Executive at MARS Centre for Impact Investing, António Miguel, Managing Director of MAZE, and Emily Avila, executive couch at the Demo Day of Maze X in July 2019.
Which startup surprised you the most in the last year?
I wasn’t really surprised, they were all very obvious. The innovations or the things that people are sharing have not been new to me.
Where do you find wisdom?
Nature’s the first. Then, advisors. And I don’t mean good advisors that make you feel great and cute and cuddly. It’s very hard to find people that will authentically challenge you but aren’t just there trying to make you feel good. It’s very easy to find a lot of people to get hugs from. This world is full of people pretending. It’s outrageous.
We need advice in this psychological domain. We need to examine ourselves in relation to our first family. We need to have advisors in the spiritual dimension. Some people use religion, and some people have other belief systems. Some people use a whole heap of different types of advisors, health and wellbeing body advisors.
We have to continue to explore what’s really happening in this physical domain. The last and most important is advisors in leadership. Because otherwise, we need the reality check of what part is me and what part is my role in an organization and what is my role as a founder, what’s my role as a CEO. Just because I’m having my own spiritual awakening or my own exploration in my body, doesn’t mean that that’s the work of my company. So, my advisor in leadership is more important to keep orientated around what the work is that I have to do in my role as a leader.
Maze X was conceived and initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations and MAZE, with the law firm PLMJ joining as a founding corporate member and BNP Paribas, Hospital da Luz Learning Health, Casa do Impacto as partners.