Antwerp’s star-studded tech event SuperNova offers a glimpse of the future


Both a playground for tech professionals and a festival for the public, SuperNova spotlights cutting-edge technologies for today and those that will only be possible decades from now

Thinking ahead

The famous character Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey seems more human than machine, and if Flemish scientist Angelo Vermeulen has his way, biology will indeed mix with technology in future interstellar travel.

Vermeulen is one of the speakers at this week’s SuperNova event in Antwerp. Kicking off today, SuperNova showcases innovations that will shape the future and provides entrepreneurs with both inspiration and concrete opportunities to expand their initiatives.

Antwerp’s trendy Eilandje district, between downtown and the port, has been transformed into a festival zone where professionals and the public are invited to experience the impact of – mostly technological – innovations that are changing society.

Activities are taking place at sites such as Waagnatie and the MAS museum, but there is also a temporary floating pavilion right on the water. With support from the government of Flanders, the ambitious event is organised by Flanders DC, which supports the Flemish creative industries, and, devoted to the development of scale-ups (companies that have outgrown the start-up status).

Who’s who of tech pioneers

During the weekend, the free Expedition will surprise visitors with more than 120 interactive installations at 16 locations. There are also performances, hands-on workshops and talks, all focused on a vision of our future.

Visitors will discover how virtual reality will change sports at home, how 3D printing will improve our overall quality of life and how ‘smart’ mirrors will make shopping for clothes a lot easier.

The first two days of SuperNova cater to the needs of professionals like entrepreneurs, researchers and investors. The Investor Pitching platform even has the ambition to become the largest pitching event for scale-ups in Europe.

The Flemish scientist envisions ideal spaceships as a hybrid mix of technology and biological systems

Around 50 scale-ups will present their initiatives to some 150 venture capitalists, with the goal of obtaining additional funding. Among them are about 10 from Flanders, like Ontoforce, which created Disqover, and intelligent search tool that helps researchers find data more easily. “We want to have a concrete impact, deals will be made at SuperNova,” says Pascal Cools, managing director of Flanders DC.

SuperNova will also bring job-seekers in contact with employers through the TalentBuzz platform, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to match the profiles. The event includes a large Tech Fair as well, where about 80 game-changing companies will showcase their solutions in sectors like AI, gaming, marketing and health.

The programme is further packed with lectures by international speakers, including the influential American marketing expert Seth Godin and British-born Neil Harbisson, the world’s first cyborg artist.

Homegrown heroes

On the Flemish side are Philip Inghelbrecht, co-founder of the popular music app Shazam, and Charlotte D’Hulst, who aims to establish the first-ever digital database of smells with MouSensor.

Angelo Vermeulen, meanwhile, originally from Sint-Niklaas, made international headlines in 2013 when he was crew commander of the Hi-Seas Mars mission simulation in Hawaii, funded by Nasa. At SuperNova, he will stress the important role that biology can play in future space travel.

Vermeulen, a biologist and space systems researcher, envisions ideal spaceships as a hybrid mix of technology and biological systems, so they can adapt more easily to changing circumstances. They would also increase the possibilities for astronauts to survive long missions in deep space.

The distances are too great to come back to Earth. You have to adjust to new challenges during the journey itself

- Angelo Vermeulen

These ideas are part of his PhD on interstellar exploration at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and are inspired by his decade-long collaboration with the MELiSSA initiative. A project of the European Space Agency (ESA), MELiSSA develops regenerative life support systems for long-duration manned space missions.

Vermeulen believes that spaceships should have a modular infrastructure, with parts that can be added or re-arranged – sort of like working with Lego blocks. 3D printing would make the creation of new parts possible.

“If you travel to other stars in our galaxy, the distances are too great to be able to return to Earth for repair or maintenance works,” he says. “So you have to adjust to new challenges during the journey itself.”

Sci-fi now, reality later

In Vermeulen’s concept, the spaceship would be attached to an asteroid. The asteroid would provide the resources, like metals, with which the infrastructure can be altered or expanded, as well as function as a shield against space particles.

Vermeulen also develops computer models of the MELiSSA bioreactors, which convert the astronaut “waste” into vital resources – for example CO2 and urine into oxygen and water. “These ideas are also useful for solutions to live more sustainably on our own planet,” he says.

Vermeulen tests his concepts through computer simulations as interstellar travel is not yet possible. The distances are too great to be achievable with current methods of spacecraft propulsion.

But the biologist is also working on projects in the here-and-now, including a collaboration with enterprises such as IPStar, an ESA spin-off, to develop practical applications of current space technology. He is also preparing a new project with West Flanders University College and Brussels non-profit Gluon, which will examine the cultivation of crops in space on the International Space Station.

Photo top, courtesy SuperNova
Photo above, Evolving Asteroid Starships by DSTART (2018), design by Nils Faber, courtesy Angelo Vermeulen