BARCELONA--"If you can put a lot of money and let scientists work together and give them a lot of time, they can develop the technology of the future."
That's the hope of Spain's successful private research and development company Starlab, though in the crisis there is much less money. Co-founder Ana Maiques tells SmartPlanet about how this unique-for-Spain scientific research company came about and the way they're moving Spain and Europe technologically-forward in both the public and private worlds.
"We both started this adventure ten years ago, when we were called by Starlab to join them in a castle in Belgium with 100 scientists." Maiques is speaking of herself and her husband Guilio Ruffini, a physicist and mathematician, when they were asked to join other scientists in various fields of European scientific research to create a non-governmental entity. Barcelona was chosen as the location of the second lab. However, after about a year, the Belgium company went bankrupt.
"The lab here in Barcelona was meant to close as well, but we decided to buy the company from Belgium," Maiques says. Starlab has evolved into a think-tank that then creates new companies that commercializes and sells the products to the healthcare and space industries, for home use, and more. The European Commission and the European Space Agency fund much of their research projects, although Starlab is an entirely privately-owned small company, of 35 employees.
"(We) create from scratch, incubate technologies, then release to public. Once it gets traction, then we create spin-offs to commercialize," Maiques says. "We want to transform science into products and services."
Some of their most engaging development is in neuroscience. Exampled in the included video is Enobio, which is kind of like a high-tech swim cap that wirelessly monitors brainwaves and allows a solid brain-computer interface. "You put your helmet on and you think right, and you try to command that to your computer. So we don't have to use mouses or any other advice to control our computers or machines, but simply only by thinking," Maiques says. They are currently certifying it for medical uses, like sleep disorders, where observation done in centers are not always the truest representation of the disorder. With Enobio, "you can sleep with it at home and take back to the center."
The newest evolution of Enobio is the StarStim, which sends electrical impulses to the brain and can be used in pain management and stroke rehabilitation.
It's not all about the science or medicine, they've got to make a buck or two, too.
"We are a private R&D company, therefore we need to make sure that what we research reaches the market to pay the bills," Maiques says. A lot of the steady profits comes from simple data processing, taken from photos and algorithms gathered in research. Starlab works often with the European Space Agency, developing sensors for satellites. Starlab uses their satellites in space to take pictures of snow on South American mountaintops, so the energy companies can know how they can more efficiently integrate hydropower.
"We are launching a new service that's called SmartIrrigation. We are providing some probes together with some satellite information, and we are telling them the soil moisture so they can plan to better irrigate," she says. With Spain enduring a seemingly-endless drought, irrigation remains a crucial area of innovation in agriculture.
In Barcelona, Starlab technology is being used to monitor water quality for swimming, as well as generating estimates of the presence of jellyfish. Tourism is one of recession-ridden Spain's only legs to stand on. If hotels can provide this information to their clients, it becomes another draw to the beautifully-sunny beaches.
Tourism is growing in Spain, but the Iberian Peninsula will never regain its economic footing without broader investment in R&D.
"I don't think there is a cultural bet on technology in this country. And politically, I don't think there's a serious bet either," Maiques says. "I don't think, in general, (Spain) is a very good place for science and technology. But, if you think of things as global, it doesn't matter."
As the only female on the list of the 20 Most Influential People in Spain under 40, as well as a mother of four kids under ten, Maiques is also worried about what it means for Spain's children. "We need to create references: 'I want to be like that person'." Maiques says a lot of children dream of growing up to become the next Messi, FC Barcelona's football prodigy, but that Steve Jobs, "for Spaniards, looks like a very far-away role model. We don't have garages."
"I think that there are a lot of entrepreneurs in Spain, but we don't show them. We need in the media more because we don't show the next generation. We won't inspire them," Maiques says.
The new, more conservative Mariano Rajoy-led People's Party government is marking 100 days this week with the passing of a "very, very austere budget." The European Union is demanding another 20 billion euros in "recortes." According to The Economist's numbers, that equates to 1,166 euros per citizen.
The labor reform act does not aim to create new jobs for the 24-percent unemployed. What little grants the Spanish government is giving out seems to target technology-focused business plans, but it certainly isn't enough.
Austerity measures may assure the Spanish continue to receive E.U. support, but until technology and innovation become a priority, this country will not begin to stand on its own again.