Impact One Founder and CEO Mikolaj Sekutowicz seeks to cut through the general confusion and skepticism surrounding the 3-letter acronym that has come to define sustainable investments, ESGs. While having guidelines for impact investments are important, Mikolaj invites those concerned with the topic to reduce the concept down its simplest building block for creating a more sustainable future on this planet: wellbeing.
“We cannot view or continue trying to solve persistent global challenges like we have in the past. Wellbeing establishes an intrinsic link, promoting an aspirational concept beneficial to all. This idea has guided me in conceiving and collaborating on projects where wellbeing is a focal point,” Mikolaj stresses. “Our work is focused on four fundamental verticals: Wellbeing Infrastructure, Ecosystem Wellbeing, Health and Wellbeing and Wellbeing Culture.”
Moreover, the prominent business leader has developed a long-term strategy to cement “wellbeing infrastructure” as a new asset class centered on the notion that ecosystem restoration and nature are critical infrastructure.
“Seeing nature as a solution can help tackle multiple challenges simultaneously, like alleviating poverty and crime, human health, and climate change,” Mikolaj asserts. “Infrastructure and the built environment are critical entry points for cultivating nature-positive and wellbeing-centered cities.”
Between now and 2030, 1.5 million people are expected to arrive in urban areas every week, he continues, and by 2050 at least 75 percent of the Earth’s population will be living in cities, as compared with 56 percent today. From Mikolaj’s purview, urban ecosystem restoration should be considered more broadly, and designed and built with an integrative approach that places environmental impact at the forefront.”
Impact One’s approach also centers largely around culture: “The cultures in which we immerse ourselves shape our mindsets and values and have guided how we interact with the world around us. If we are committed to social transformation and a greener future, we also need to work towards reshaping individuals’ behavior, consumption patterns and interactions with their physical environments,” Mikolaj details. “Culture has the power to drive the transformational behavior and policy change needed at the individual and community level.”
For the passionate innovator, his role at Impact One is rooted in imagining and realizing sustainable urban development and represents the culmination of a lifetime of learning.
After studying philosophy and sociology in Hamburg, Mikolaj completed training as a lawyer at Berlin’s Humboldt University. In 2009, he joined legendary German innovator Josef Wund – one of the few creatives who revolutionized the real estate and infrastructure industries before the digital revolution took hold – in the development of what would become Therme Group, a leading global wellness company, unprecedented in its fusion of wellness and entertainment elements that continue to transform the health arena. Mikolaj has served on the board of Therme Group since its creation, overseeing business strategy and culture and developing the company’s entry into the North American market, among others. Further, he initiated Therme Group’s cultural component, Therme Art.
The role of Therme Art is to design and catalyze a debate about art, architecture, sustainability, and the future of city planning. As part of Therme Art’s identity, Mikolaj has also initiated and overseen the creation of an advisory board comprising some of the most well-regarded figures from the fields of art and design and has developed partnerships with prominent institutions worldwide – including a strategic investment into experiential art trailblazer Superblue.
As part of the experience economy, both Therme Group and Superblue cater to a shared appetite for experiences and meaning, rather than consumption. Superblue and its roster of artists are working to redefine the role art occupies within the fabric of the city and society, as visitors undergo an act of immersing themselves into experiences addressing the pressing issues of our times, rather than acting merely as spectators. In much the same way, Therme Group facilities are designed to provide visitors with memorable experiences and, taking it a step further, provide healing benefits for the body and mind.
Therme Group’s wellbeing facilities welcome millions of visitors to its properties each year and, in doing so, nurture their guests’ physical and mental health by offering a dip into social infrastructure – combining the traditions of global thermal bathing with an indoor tropical ecosystem.
Taking the concept of healing through experience even further, Impact One and Therme Group have partnered with neurotechnology leader MindMaze, to develop the first evidence-based neuro wellbeing centers, under the name MYND. Designed as species-specific environments providing all the health-promoting parameters our bodies need, MYND Centres provide healing through preventive health therapies and mental health training. Having launched with a series of art activations, including the presentation of a collaboration with media artist Refik Anadol titled Sense of Healing, MYND is already carrying through its mission to increase mental health awareness and accessibility through art and to bring new environments of healing into our cities. Yet there is much more of the globe to cover, and Mikolaj and his team make it clear that they are merely just beginning.
“The problem with our cities today is that we are completely removed from nature, our natural environment that our bodies became accustomed to over millions of years of evolution,” he says, pointing out that the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a good example of how the virus spread much more violently through large cities at the onset. “The fact that we have created cities where we live 90 percent of the time indoors and our skin doesn’t have enough sunlight nor exposure to produce all the necessary vitamin D, the hormone that regulates our cell functions including our immune system, caused the severity of the pandemic.”
To address the breadth of problems that have brought about environmental and social crises globally, the One Health Research Centre was founded by the Therme Group, under Mikolaj’s lead. The research center operates jointly with the involvement of the University of Greifswald and IKEM, and is dedicated to researching the interdependency between human and environmental wellbeing, towards the development of evidence-based, integrative solutions addressing the global challenges of rising civilization diseases, rapid urban growth and climate change.
Mikolaj explains that with poor air and water quality and a lack of sun exposure in congested cities, the medical sector will only crumble under the weight of disease and demand. With the input of the One Health Research Centre’s findings, Impact One hopes to provide some perspective and equilibrium to that grim reality as it endeavors to create the world’s most advanced sustainable buildings, fusing the latest cutting-edge technologies, bringing together hundreds of companies, both in local markets and from around the world.
Impact One’s approach to sustainable infrastructure is built on consideration of a building’s impact, across its full lifecycle. The construction of an edifice carries social and environmental implications starting with its ideation and funding phase, across the span of its existence, through to its post-use phase and dismantling. Not only is it crucial to use modular compensation mechanisms for the emissions emitted by the construction and use of the building; but we actually need to think about how our built environments impact our health and that of our ecosystems.
“If you want to summarize our goal, it is to create an infrastructure and environment that is recreating the optimal conditions for the human body on one side, but also contributing to the restoration of the ecosystem,” Mikolaj enthuses. “Each (location) will be rolled out with a positive impact on the human environment. So, on the public health side, reducing many chronic and rare disease triggers. And on the other side, to have for that afforestation, a system that allows us to be positive for the environment, while still building and expanding.”
Such a vision also entails shaking up the way the back end is typically done, emphasizing the need for investors to reframe how they view impact agendas and their effects on company returns. In Mikolaj’s words, this will ultimately require a shift from a world of financial shareholder primacy to broader stakeholder capitalism, beset with trade-offs that business leaders must navigate.
“There are two sides to this that make it very profitable. One is the public-private partnership element, which gives us very cheap additional equity,” he conjectures. “And we are receiving a long-term service agreement that supports the profitability of the investment on the side of the private equity. The other element that makes us very profitable is cutting off the middleman. So, if you have a shopping mall, for example, the shopping mall creates its revenues for tenants, and the tenants need to sell their goods. In our case, we are not only building this infrastructure but also operating it. We fully control the cash flow created for this infrastructure.”
Typically, tax breaks are also part of the plan, given that Therme is developing new zones, and Mikolaj highlights that his team is “always privileged when we’re working with public entities.”
However, disrupting the market isn’t always smooth sailing. The business challenges vary from difficulty in creating policy frameworks that will enable them to adequately assess environmental impacts to crippling inflation levels and supply chain dilemmas.
“Now, we have a lot of disruption within the supply chain. But the problem of the supply chains is also self-made. We can replace (building materials) with much more holistic and interconnected ways of sourcing materials, for example, by creating a forest that will remove the timber we need with utmost efficiency. Nature is permanently growing; it is an amazing supply chain,” Mikolaj proposes.
From an outside perspective, one cannot help but question whether the driving of an impact agenda does, even in a small way, mean sacrificing company returns. However, Mikolaj assures that impact investment funds are not lower than those of traditional equity funds. On the contrary, he explains that returns can even be higher than on broad base indices.
“Even so, investors should not discount the value that an active impact agenda grants companies in terms of the license to trade — the right to operate a business, which governments and regulators grant,” he cautions. “Impact investing could also be reframed as an investment in the company’s future. The shift from a world of financial shareholder primacy to broader stakeholder capitalism encompasses a far-reaching agenda. These aspects of the ESGs are beset with trade-offs that business leaders must navigate.”
Whatever potholes linger on the path, Mikolaj remains steadfast in Impact One’s dream, underscoring that business leaders across the board need to focus on impact design and a system of thinking that applies to how the economy will be shaped in the future — not just how it is structured today.
“We believe that all cities will be completely integrated with nature in ten to twenty years. We need to overcome this kind of idea that the city is the antithesis of the natural environment; it needs to completely incorporate nature. Nature needs to be everywhere; we need a strong element of cohabitation,” Mikolaj advocates. “At the beginning of the last century, the statistic was that one of 20 people would be diagnosed with cancer. When I was born, already 25 percent of the population were at risk of being diagnosed with cancer. Today, 40 percent of people will be diagnosed with cancer. And in another 25 years, that number will likely increase, if we continue doing business as usual.”
He pauses, taking hold of the dark outlook, reminding us that it does not have to be this way.
“It comes down to strengthening the resilience of global urban centers is a matter of urgency for humanity, the economy and the earth’s stability,” Mikolaj adds.
And that is precisely Impact One’s unrelenting mission.