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The Web site that wants your spit
(TIME.com Europe) -- Brussels, BELGIUM -- Spitters.com wants your saliva -- now. And it's willing to offer stock options to get it.
Brussels-based Spitters intends to create a human DNA database open to both academic and commercial research.
Revenue will come from access agreements with the pharmaceutical industry, DNA will come from the million or so saliva samples the company hopes to receive by mail over the next 10 years.
If you would like shares in the firm, just complete a medical questionnaire on the Web (www.spitters.com) and send a saliva sample to Spitters, which will use the DNA extracted from your spit to scan the human genome for links between your genes and specific diseases.
Spitters.com guarantees strict anonymity and with its bank of great expectorations is determined to make some lucrative discoveries.
Spitters is just one of the many unusual scientific and business ideas coming out of Starlab, a blue-sky research laboratory with facilities in Brussels and Barcelona, founded by 42-year-old Belgian serial entrepreneur Walter de Brouwer.
In 1995, when Dutch publisher VNU bought a clutch of successful computer magazines from De Brouwer's Riverland Publications, at the time the leading publisher of IT magazines in the Benelux, De Brouwer had enough money to do what he always wanted to do -- research.
Fed up with the pathologically short attention spans of investors and policymakers, De Brouwer -- who has a background in mathematics and reviews popular science books for Amazon.com in his spare time -- set out to establish a European rival to MIT's famed Media Lab, a research facility that mixes commerce with cutting-edge science.
"You can't just take something American and drop it into Europe," the bespectacled De Brouwer says.
"Europeans tend to think in longer time frames and I wanted to create a lab of last chance for important but risky ideas."
In addition to quirky business plans like that of Spitters, De Brouwer backs investigations into esoterica like quantum consciousness and supports groups like the Foundation of Affordable Mysticism (FOAM), an association of artists, technologists and researchers exploring novel modes of cultural expression.
Naturally, neither of these ventures is likely to see profits anytime soon.
But it's not just blue skies in Brussels. The lab receives most of its revenue from consortiums in which it teams up with the European Commission or multinational corporations to explore potentially viable products and technologies.
Starlab also runs its own spin-off factory where, according to De Brouwer, "ideas with market potential get the best minds, the best partners and the best money -- fast."
The next big thing
De Brouwer compensates his researchers -- currently about 60 scientists from 28 countries working in fields as diverse as nanotechnology and time travel -- along the lines of professional athletes.
Salary packages consist of signing bonuses, transfer money and, if you come up with a winning idea, knowledge bonuses.
The families of new recruits are welcomed, too, with spouses often finding jobs at Starlab.
And, of course, every employee is also a shareholder. Launch a viable spin-off and you also get 10% of that company.
About 20 young firms are being nurtured at the moment in the spin-off factory. Starlab scientists tend to spend about six months with the fledgling firms before returning to research.
"If you leave them there any longer," De Brouwer remarks wryly, "they destroy the company."
One such start-up is working on the ultimate financial tool, called business genome software, which De Brouwer says will be able to "crack the value code by analysing proposed mergers to see if they will work, picking winning stocks and advising investors on when to sell and when to hold."
Another idea in the works is VC Screeners, a Web site offering venture capitalists advice from biotechnology experts. "In the future, VCs will actually have to know something," De Brouwer says.
So if some seemingly mad scientist approaches you with the Next Big Thing in biotech, don't fret. Call VC Screeners, and for a modest $5,000 you'll get two independent scientific reviews of the project within a week.
Starlab is also backing Freemedschool.com (www. freemedschool.com), a Web site providing free medical education to students in the developing world.
Candidates take basic courses in chemistry and biology and, with the sponsorship of a pharmaceutical company or university, travel to the U.S. to take exams.
"Big inventions are usually made by accident," De Brouwer says. "If you bring enough brain power together, something will happen." Given the brain power assembled in Brussels, Starlab is nothing to spit at.
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