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Lights Out at Starlab

2 July 2001 10:00
By Tornado Staff

They were calling it a new kind of incubator, one that would marry a world of wacky research projects with a new kind of commercialism. Brussels-based Starlab, under the direction of CEO Walter De Brouwer, claimed to be researching a whole gamut of topics including time travel, wearable computers, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, and finding innovative new ways to fund them.

But in mid-June, the much-ballyhooed company quietly shut its doors for lack of funds. Starlab had been all but set to conclude an 8 million euro funding deal, according to Johan Konings, investment manager with Pythagoras, one of Starlab’s seed investors. (The other investors are management and MIT guru Nicholas Negroponte). But the deal collapsed when the lead investor for the transaction — whom Konings declined to name – pulled out.

Though efforts for alternative financing were sought, there was not enough time to save the company, Konings said. The incubator declared bankruptcy on June 12th, and is now in the hands of the solicitors, who are reportedly talking to the Belgium government about a possible rescue plan.

“Once you get inside the firm, you see that what they are good at is marketing, but not much good at getting things done,” said a former Starlab employee, who asked not to be named. One problem, he said, was a lack of resources for individual research projects. Even though there were some 70 research scientists working at the company, the topics that Starlab claimed to be researching were almost as many. “That means there was one person for each topic,” he said.

“The work that was being done there was real and efficient,”, counters Konings, pointing to the fact that the Belgian government is putting efforts into saving it. “Whenever you have a project geared to research and far-away ambitions, there is a chance things will not work. When things go bad, it’s easy to say it was bad…. That’s the European way of dealing with failure.“

Starlab was pursuing a number of business models, including licensing its technology, undertaking dedicated research for companies and governments, and building consortiums with companies that would inject cash into individual projects. But none of these was yet sufficient to cover the company’s current costs, said Konings, who added that, had the financing succeeded, the company would have been restructured and a new chief operating officer brought in.

Founder de Brouwer Monday told Tornado in an email that he still believes in the concept of Starlab. "This idea is going to come back, because it was too big. It will not be me, it will not be the ex-starlabbers perhaps, but someone will pick up that idea again and make a killing IPO based on Deep Future research. And I will be there in the audience clapping. Perhaps in order to succeed, Starlab had to fail. Damned shame though," he said.

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