In Spain, a Tech Park That's for the Birds, Frogs, Turtles
It’s the goal of every tech entrepreneur to hatch new ideas. Alejandro Fernandez is just as interested in hatching endangered birds.
The co-founder of Fractalia Remote Systems, a maker of device management software, has spent about a half million euros of his own money to build a high-tech zoological research lab with the capacity to support up to 200 species of birds, mammals, amphibians and other creatures at risk of extinction.
The FIEB Center for Research in Ethology and Biodiversity, located 35 kilometers (22 miles) from central Madrid, has 21 buildings and 300 huge cages – some as large as 200 square meters and 5 meters high – on a plot about the size of 18 soccer fields.
The lab, due to be fully operational next summer, will use audio, video and sensor technologies that allow biologists from around the world to 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 the lab one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world.
For example, Fernandez has placed chips with radio frequency identification, or RFID, on turtles’ shells to monitor their behavior. And he has deployed audio recognition technology similar to that used by Shazam Entertainment, the U.K. maker of the popular song-identification mobile app, to detect when species are ready to mate.
He also uses 3-D video and thermographic cameras to study the European mink, an endangered semiaquatic carnivorous mammal. Scientists can even monitor the mink's stress level, based on the animal's activities, how much it sleeps, the time it spends in its nest and body temperature. Fernandez says the mink are fed live mice, dead chicks, crabs and trout, and that the project will cost about 100,000 euros next year.
Researchers working remotely will have online access to a variety of data, including the biochemical analyses of blood or hormones, measurements of animals taken by veterinarians, as well as the animals' movements and noises, which are recorded by sensors installed inside 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 shuttered, 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.
In addition to the hundreds of animals there, including the eagle owl, hawks, harriers, parrots and finches, Fernandez expects to add about 200 more in the coming weeks from about 20 species, such as chameleons, turtles, frogs and exotic birds.
Running a lab of this size and scope isn't cheap. Fernandez is getting funding from the foundation of Banco Santander, Spain's biggest bank, and Acciona, a Spanish infrastructure company, to cover salaries, food, and other operational costs. Fundacion Biodiversidad, a foundation of the country's Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry, is providing money for the mink project. Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline has donated molecular biology equipment, while Groupe Adeo has helped with gardening tools.
"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 Sciences of Spain, who is studying the zebra finch through FIEB.
Fernandez has partnerships with Spain's research agency, 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 George Mason University 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."