While every technology entrepreneur wants to bring new things into the world, Alejandro Fernandez is just as interested in hatching endangered birds, using his own cash and help from companies such as GlaxoSmithKline Plc. (GSK)
Fernandez, co-founder of Fractalia Remote Systems, which makes device-management software, has spent about 500,000 euros ($657,000) on a zoological research lab 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) from central Madrid. The FIEB Center for Research in Ethology and Biodiversity has 21 buildings on a plot about the size of 18 soccer fields.
The facility already houses mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and has capacity for 100 to 200 species at risk of extinction. The lab, scheduled to be fully operational next summer, will use audio, video and sensor technologies so biologists worldwide can study the animals remotely at low cost.
“Researchers from, let’s say Australia, will be able to monitor and study their animals from their homeland,” said Fernandez, 38, whose goal is to make it one of the most advanced facilities of its kind.
Radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips have been placed on turtles’ shells so the animals’ behavior can be studied by monitoring their movements in groups and as individuals. And audio-recognition technology similar to that used by Shazam Entertainment Ltd., the U.K. maker of song-identification software for mobile devices, is deployed to detect when species are ready to mate.
“This is a terrific opportunity for us because it’s extremely difficult to find the right infrastructure out there to carry out our investigations,” said Diego Gil, a biologist at the National Museum of Natural Science of Spain, who’s studying the zebra finch through FIEB.
Other animals being studied include the endangered European mink, a carnivorous mammal weighing as much as 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). This species is suffering from competition from the bigger and more aggressive American mink, which is commonly farmed for its fur.
European mink at the park are fed with live mice, crabs and trout, Fernandez said. He uses 3D video to monitor the animals’ level of stress and aggressiveness based on their movements, how much they sleep, and the time they spend in their nest.
The budget for the mink is about 70,000 euros this year, and it will rise to about 100,000 euros in 2014 when the population should grow to between 15 and 20. Part of the funding comes from the Biodiversity Foundation of Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
Researchers working remotely will have online access to information such as biochemical analysis of blood or hormones, as well as data such as the size of tails or bones measured by the veterinarians at the park, and the movement or noise of animals caught by sensors in the cages.
The facility was initially built by a Spanish tycoon to breed exotic birds for sale. Fernandez bought the property in 2010 after that venture was shut, with an eye toward using his startup background to transform the site into a research lab.
“I wanted to mix my entrepreneurial spirit with my passion for animals,” said Fernandez, who declined to say how much he paid for the facility.
The hundreds of creatures at the center include hawks, parrots and eagle owls. In the coming weeks, Fernandez expects about 200 more animals to arrive from about 20 species such as chameleons, turtles, frogs, and exotic birds.
The Banco Santander Foundation and Acciona SA (ANA), a Spanish infrastructure company, are providing funds to cover salaries, food, and other operational costs. Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline donated molecular biology equipment, while Groupe Adeo SA helped with gardening tools. Fernandez is now looking for private investors to finance projects with animals such as primates and raccoons.
Fernandez has agreements with Spain’s National Research Council, known as CSIC, and Madrid’s Alfonso X el Sabio University. He’s also in talks with other research centers and schools around the world, such as the George Mason University in Virginia and Germany’s Max Planck Institutes.
“As soon as I’m done with work every day, I jump into my car and come here,” Fernandez said. “I can’t help it.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Manuel Baigorri in Madrid at firstname.lastname@example.org