The Mushroom That Strives to Get Out of the Box
David Minařík is truly a renaissance man – originally a painter with a degree from the Royal Academy in Copenhagen and a promising art career in Denmark, he has (with a stopover as cider and lemonade producer) become a mushroom tamer aka the CEO and co-founder of the biotech start-up Myco.cz.
David was initially drawn to mushrooms by his interest in their medicinal benefits, which he researched during sleepless nights in an attempt to help his sick daughter. Eventually, this mycological fascination merged with his nerdy penchant for science and the artistic instinct to make something with his hands; the result is a company that seeks to replace disposable packaging plastics with 100% natural materials made from mushroom mycelium and waste from agricultural and woodworking industries. What started as a bathroom experiment is now a growing company, attracting substantive investor interest – which is not surprising once you hear David enthusiastically muse about the endless beauty and business potential of fungi.
Words by Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Pics courtesy of David Minařík and Myco.cz
I consider you a very versatile person - you have a degree in painting, a few years of law studies before that, you made Stebou ciders, now I suppose you are very busy with Myco... Do you still have time for painting?
Honestly, I don't. I would like to and I'm looking for ways to get back to it, but there's not much time for that now, besides, we're rather ending the cider project. It's quite hard to combine family and startup life.
Are you the kind of person who likes to get projects off the ground or more of a maintenance type?
Definitely a kick-off type. But the important thing is that I don't start the projects myself, I don't find it interesting. On the contrary, I enjoy connecting with people who offer excellence and added value in other fields - as was already the case with cider, and now Myco wouldn't be where it is without Honza Ostrezi, a former automotive manager who has experience in the big industry, and thanks to him Myco can bring that way of working and thinking to the life sciences.
You often use the phrase "naive ecology" and - like me - you perceive that the word ecology still has a somewhat pejorative connotation in the Czech Republic. How can we change this attitude? How can we get ecology to stop being "naive" and start changing things in a big way?
I would erase the figure of Svejk from our history - as a culture, we have this subversive jester deep inside us, we make a joke out of every screw-up. This allows us to shake it off and move on, but at the same time, it gives us a natural distrust of big topics. We are unable to come together as individuals and respond to these challenges. I was recently at the UN conference in Helsinki, where, quite naturally, claims like 'The future will be circular and it will be green, or there will not be a future' was heard and resonated. Such a sentence would have fallen flat here; people would have taken it as either too alarmist, making fun of it, or downplaying the message.
I think it has something to do with our low self-esteem - we don't appreciate what we have in the Czech Republic, our history and geography, which I think is a shame because we live in an area that is objectively beautiful and environmentally still quite safe. I will give an example that I saw many times when I was living in Denmark - when a Danish family goes on a picnic, they put up Danish flags around them. It is hard to imagine that happening in Czechia, but they simply have an appreciative relationship of their kingdom and their history. Anyway, I think it's important to stand your ground and not be afraid of big words and saying big truths, even if they sound trite.
How do people react when you stand your ground like that?
I think it's a great people filter. My experience in dealing with investors, i.e. typically people who gained a lot of experience and success in running their own business, is that they appreciate the banality, directness and simplicity of bold statements, it raises curious and relevant questions. But I live in different circles, of course, and from conversations e.g. in a village pub I get more of the feeling that people seek attention by being negative. As if one makes oneself feel more interesting by contradicting, without necessarily believing their opinion. And it's easy to build an antagonistic response to those so-called banal big truths, those simple bold claims. So I'm often considered an embarrassment, but I have a huge advantage in my artistic education - embarrassment is the mother of every artist, they say... And I don't care that I'm embarrassed. I work now, among other things, at the Institute of Global Change Research at the Czech Academy of Sciences, where I think it's our duty to create PR for the topic of global change. And that's controversial and can be embarrassing, but it's necessary. That's just the way it is.
Do you think that some regulation and government incentives are also needed to help develop "greener" behaviour? Whether we are talking about positive or negative nudges, e.g. taxes on plastics.
I think regulation is a necessary part of the solution – and in any case, within six years there will be a huge push from the EU in exactly that direction. At the same time, I want to say that we at Myco are not dogmatically against plastics, we are rational. Plastic is a great material, with certain properties that make sense when used in the right places. Therefore, I think it's important to be sensical when setting the regulations – get rid of unnecessary waste, but not be militant.
I'd also like to note that legislative motivation is important, but the big industry is primarily cost-based, it "runs on money", to put it bluntly. So at Myco, we're mainly showing that our product can be optimised - not that we're making the prettiest packaging on the market, but we're trying to make it in quantities that are recognisable to the industry. When something is created in a volume of thousands of cubic metres, it starts to create a meaningful competitor to plastic, and that's exactly the point where you stop being a naive ecologist, but instead, you're creating something with a real chance of taking a chunk of the market away from plastic packaging.
Does it mean that design is not a priority in your case? In one of the interviews, you mentioned that the aesthetic aspect was sometimes a problem in the beginning.
Every product application has different aesthetic demands, and user experience in the packaging market is of course an important thing. In some use cases, it's more important than in others, and right now for us in my opinion, it's not a priority. Also, if the three of us had been mixing styrofoam in the garage like we used to "mix" mycelium, it would have looked much worse – and on top of that, we probably would have gotten cancer by now. Plastics as material have had some 60 years of optimisation and development, and we're going to be catching up with that for a while yet. But our advantage is that the fungus has had millions of years of optimisation behind it... So now we have to catch up with the fungi and learn how to get along.
Speaking about working with the fungi, are there any unpredictable moments?
A billion of them [laughs]. It's like when you think about beekeeping – having bees is a great thing, but in the end it's you keeping ten thousand insects in a box, each one with its own head and its own little stingy butt, its own diseases and problems, and you're trying to keep it in line somehow so it doesn't escape from the box. And fungi are just like that – we have our methodologies of course, we are constantly working on the manufacturing process, but before you get to an optimised form, it's still one fuck up after another. Which is commonplace in the startup scene anyways.
Is it possible to use grape pomace, i.e. a waste product of winemaking, in your packaging production instead of the usual sawdust or paper?
I don't know if it would work for boxes, that would have to be tested. For example, the Sonnentor tea company asked us to make boxes from all sorts of their waste products, and it worked. We are always trying a lot of things in our workshop, there's everything from paper to hemp to sawdust. Now, for example, we are making a lot of fences against wild animals for growers and winemakers.
But otherwise, you could definitely send the pomace to a guy who has a huge vermicomposter here in South Moravia and makes a great compost. Or maybe combine it with a mushroom in another form and return it to the vineyard - there are studies that when a mushroom genome appears in an ecosystem, even if it is "dead", the plant develops an immune reaction to it, so theoretically you could vaccinate the plants against fungal diseases this way.
What do you think is the future of packaging material? Or the future of manufacturing as such?
I haven't thought about it for a long time, but I guess the traditional answer would be "unspecified production", i.e. more designers and more individual demands for smaller batches, which are then resold online, so each product has its own story... However, I don't think we'll ever get rid of "big industry" completely, I don't think any of us will be able to design and make our own car in the foreseeable future. Maybe it will become polarised in the sense that there will be fewer mid-size manufacturers, a few large very specialised ones with huge production volumes, and then a long tail of small ones.
You must have a much wider range of interests, what else are you interested in doing and exploring?
Studying theology would be fun, but that's more of a retirement agenda, I guess... I'm really into mushrooms right now – we're in a time when any kind of circularity is in demand, so it makes sense to me, and it's an extremely broad topic. For example, there's a small forgotten research on a Czech antibiotic that could be used as a fungicide, and so on. And it makes sense to me to do PR for something good, like the aforementioned Global Climate Change Institute. I think good things are often poorly marketed and yet those things deserve our effort and attention.
Are you fighting for a better world?
Oof... I don't know if I'm fighting for a better world, but I'm definitely trying to do things that I think are meaningful.
I love synergies, overlaps, cross-pollination with people outside of my field/country/culture/usual mind patterns. In fact, I make wine partly because it's a proven and user-friendly way to reach such people, and I enjoy this sprawling creative network and its exciting flow of new ideas and concepts. So much so that I wanted to share it with other people, too. So, Mycorrhiza* was born – a series of interviews with inspiring people across different industries, giving each other new impulses and "nutrients". I don't know who is the fungus and who is the plant in this metaphor, but I'm 100% positive that this symbiotic exchange is just as essential to our lives as the one taking place in the soil beneath our feet.
*Mycorrhiza is a mutualistic association between fungi and plant roots that exists in almost all plants. The plant supports the fungus by providing carbohydrates needed for fungal growth, while the fungus helps the plant by increasing its root surface area The importance of mycorrhiza has long been underestimated, but recently it has been shown that 70-90% of all plants are mycorrhizal. Therefore, mycorrhiza has a very large impact on plant life.