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Starlab, a Brussels-based research institute, wants to turn robot kitties and talking jackets into cash.

BRUSSELS--Starlab wants to turn robot kitties and talking jackets into cash.

Founder Wouter de Brouwer, a 43-year-old Cambridge University graduate, knows all about starting companies. By his counting, he has set up 18 and sold them off to such buyers as IBM and Dutch publisher VNU.

Brussels-based Starlab is his biggest venture yet, an attempt to build an intellectual playground that will lead to the creation of new companies.

Starlab, founded in 1996, is one of several "blue sky" research centers working on new products or technologies that might not be immediately--or ever--economically viable. His team of young scientists even hopes to add antigravity and teleportation to its list of projects.

Related sites include Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, which invented the computer mouse, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory, founded by Nicholas Negroponte.

Starlab's projects have backing from such companies as Energizer Holdings, France Telecom and Samsonite, as well as from the European Union and Brussels regional government. Starlab gets about half its revenue from government grants.

Other revenue comes from 10 companies, including Adidas-Salomon and Levi Strauss, that each pay about $100,000 a year to belong to Starlab's "i-Wear" research program, which is dedicated to developing "intelligent clothing."

Electronic nag
i-Wear, a five-year program with 12 researchers, is one of Starlab's most advanced projects. Its goal is to incorporate electronics and lightweight batteries into clothes without making them bulky or inconvenient. Walter Van Beirendonck, a fashion designer for the rock band U2, is advising the project.

Possible applications include a jacket that warns wearers if they forget their keys or a jogging suit that monitors one's heart rate, keeps track of an exercise regimen, and even serves as a personal cheerleader.

"One of the motivations behind i-Wear is to get rid of all the stuff we're carrying around," said Walter Van de Velde, Starlab's research director and former director of an artificial intelligence center at the University of Brussels. "Think about clothes as a repository of resources. A mobile phone could be reduced to a card you put in your pocket."

In return for their cash, Starlab's corporate sponsors have the rights to develop products using the technology.

The companies are also hedging their bets. Levi's and Royal Philips Electronics recently announced plans to start selling jackets that include wearable MP3 players and mobile phones. Those products, however, aren't related to Starlab research.

Starlab also plans to build an artificial brain for use in, at first, a robot kitten. The project received a cash infusion of $1 million in August from the Brussels regional government. Hugo de Garis, a researcher, will develop the "Robokitty" brain.

The project already spent about $500,000 on Genobyte's "CAM-Brain" that simulates the evolution of intelligence. De Garis said he will use it to create an artificial brain with about 100 million cells, which he thinks would be enough to control the kitten. A human brain has about 10 billion cells.

Starlab's future
De Brouwer and other Starlab managers own 88 percent of the company. Other investors include MIT's Negroponte, who owns less than 1 percent. Employees own the rest.

The company expects to record its first profit in the second half of 2001, spokeswoman Katrien Van Gerven said.

Starlab doesn't plan to design, manufacture or market any products. It's leaving that for business partners and the companies it sets up. Instead, it wants revenue from grants, research contracts and selling stakes in companies so its researchers can focus on what they do best: thinking.

Sixty of the company's 70 employees are researchers. Most have doctorates, and the majority are between 25 and 30 years old.

Starlab hopes to lure more investors by showing that it generates cash by setting up new companies and selling stakes in them as well as from research contracts and government grants.

"Some of the ideas are absolutely too crazy. There's no way they'll result in anything viable in the next five years, but it's a way to motivate the researchers," said Johan Konings, a partner at Pythagoras, a venture capital fund with an 8 percent stake in Starlab. "They can talk about things you generally don't get to talk about."

Copyright 2000, Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.