INSIDE TRACK: Where the deep future is familiar territory: EUROPEAN INNOVATION: Flying robots, time machines and 'intelligent' clothing are among the ideas that have emerged from Starlab, the Brussels-based 'blue sky' research centre, says Dan Bilefsky:
Financial Times; Apr 2, 2001
By DAN BILEFSKY
Tucked away in a 19th-century former hospital in Brussels, whose modernist interior could rival the starship Enterprise, a group of scientists are teleporting themselves to the year 3001.
A Russian physicist is calculating the mathematic algorithms necessary to build a time machine; a Turkish engineer is designing a virtual reality "Matrix" programme that will enable you to enter Einstein's brain; and a Belgian artificial intelligence specialist has dreamed up flying robots that can double as canine companions.
The projects may smack of Hollywood science fiction but Starlab - part cult company, part "blue sky" research centre - is no celluloid fantasy. The brainchild of Walter De Brouwer, a 43-year-old Belgian mathematician-turned-businessman, Starlab is a "thinkubator" where 70 scientists from 33 countries are casting their brains into the deep future.
Funded by a mix of venture capitalists, national governments and multinational corporations, Starlab is hoping to emulate the success of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's celebrated media lab. As a European centre for innovation, it aims to combine US-style entrepreneurial spirit with science that is out of this world.
"At Starlab 100 years means nothing," quips Mr De Brouwer, repeating the centre's motto that appears on the lobby of its sprawling headquarters. "I have set this up as a Noah's Ark of brilliant scientists and recruited the crew I would need one day to go and colonise another planet to jump-start civilisation," he says.
In 1996, as Silicon Valley venture capitalists ploughed their dollars into internet start-ups, Mr De Brouwer, a former magazine publisher and self-confessed uber-nerd, decided that science was an unexploited goldmine. His idea was to import some of the world's best brains to Brussels and let them work on projects that were off the intellectual radar screens of university science departments or corporate research and development teams.
Starlab's researchers work on an eclectic range of disciplines, called Bang (for bits, atoms, neurons and genes). The laboratory employs researchers in fields that include quantum consciousness, nanotechnology, underwater robotics, genomics and finger-painting. Researchers are urged to cross over into other disciplines and it is not uncommon to find a biologist coaching a virtual reality specialist on how to make a fish control a robot.
"We are aiming for science without boundaries that mixes all time horizons. It is that mix that will create the spark that leads to freewheeling thinking," says Walter Van de Velde, director of science. Mr Van de Velde's pet project is to build an artificial brain of nearly 100m neurons that could control the behaviour of a life-size automated kitten.
Starlab aims to commercialise its research by creating spin-off companies and joint venture consortia (where members pay Starlab a fee for a stake) and by putting together think-tanks to serve public and private sectors.
It is perhaps not surprising that rather than turning to Isaac Newton or Bill Gates for inspiration, Mr De Brouwer cites the pop star Madonna as Starlab's muse. "For 20 years she has not ceased to amaze me. She goes in her limo to a creepy street on the margins of a city, steals the coolest idea she can find - whether it's bras or cowboys - and delivers it to the mainstream. That's what we want to do - only with science," he says.
One of Starlab's quirkiest projects is Spitters.com - a human DNA database that analyses thousands of saliva samples from around the world. To get a stake in the company, would-be shareholders are asked to complete a medical questionnaire on the web and mail in a saliva sample. Spitters will analyse the saliva's DNA in an effort to find links between genes and diseases such as cancer, asthma and diabetes. Revenues are expected to be generated from access agreements with the pharmaceutical industry.
But Mr De Brouwer admits that the laboratory cannot rely on saliva for its revenues. Instead, the centre aims to get the bulk of its funding from strategic alliances with companies interested in exploring science or technology too "far out" to develop in-house.
For example, Starlab's "I-Wear" consortium - backed by companies including Levi's, Adidas, Samsonite and France Telecom - produces intelligent clothing that uses sensors to assess the wearer's mood, reminds you to turn off your mobile phone or plays music to calm you down.
Corporate members pay about Euros 10,000 (Pounds 6,140) a month for five years in return for non-exclusive rights to the research. Some Starlab ideas are spun off in a matter of months; others, like the time machine, are not expected to make money.
Ronald Schrooten, 32, an artificial intelligence expert who helped develop I-Wear, says: "Our role is to show the feasibility of crazy ideas. Starlab is a crazy company where you can realise crazy things without limitations. You can get people to back an idea without worrying about whether it will fit a particular business plan. At Starlab there is no risk of being conservative, because we are inventing the future."
In order to attract "the world's brainiest nerds", Mr De Brouwer says he has applied the rules of the stock market to the laboratory. Researchers who think of an idea for a spin-off receive a 10 per cent stake in the company. Scientists can spread their risks by swapping stakes with other scientists they think will be successful.
And in an incongruous mix of futurism and old-style family values, Mr De Brouwer routinely offers researchers' spouses (including his own) a job on Starlab's marketing or sales team in the belief that the family is the most effective business unit. "Who better to sell their husbands' work than the wives?" he asks.
Mr De Brouwer says he hires only researchers who have spend some time working in the US. "People's ambitions usually correspond to the size of their populations and I want my scientists to think that anything is possible ... Americans make business plans - Europeans make holiday plans," he says.
However, generating revenues from robotic cats and dogs will not be easy. In spite of its professed commercialism, Starlab has yet to turn a profit. Mr De Brouwer's belief that serendipity leads to scientific discovery means the laboratory eschews the kind of contract research that usually allows research centres to pay the bills. Only a few of several hundred Starlab projects are successful, in line with its philosophy that a few big hits can fund a hundred flops.
Beyond the financial hurdles, the centre's determination to fund offbeat projects such as the Foundation of Affordable Mysticism - an association of artists and technologists exploring new modes of artistic expression - has prompted some critics to question whether Starlab is a group of pranksters masquerading as serious scientists. Time machines and teleportation modules may have great implications in the deep future but few realistic applications in the here and now.
But Starlab scientists are not deterred by such scepticism. "We are a collection of believers. We come here not because we see it but because we believe," says Mr Van de Velde.
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited