Mes­sage for start-ups is ‘Don’t stop’

Lon­don con­fer­ence hears of en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ments for those aim­ing to hit en­trepreneurial trail in Greece

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NICK MALKOUTZIS

ANAL­Y­SIS Peo­ple start­ing busi­nesses in Greece over the last few years have re­quired the kind of fear­less­ness that one usu­ally as­so­ciates with ex­treme sports. The coun­try’s long­stand­ing prob­lems in fos­ter­ing en­trepreneur­ship along with the chal­lenges gen­er­ated by the cri­sis have com­bined to make Greece a test­ing place in which to do busi­ness.

Nev­er­the­less, Greek start-ups con­tinue to sprout amid this bleak land­scape and some man­age to flower im­pres­sively. Ear­lier this year, Ger­many’s Daim­ler bought out the Greek start-up Tax­iBeat for a re­ported 43 mil­lion eu­ros. An even more re­cent suc­cess story, this July, was the sale of In­noet­ics, a Greek tech firm which spe­cial­izes in text-to-speech (TTS) tech­nol­ogy, to Sam­sung.

It was no sur­prise, there­fore, that In­noet­ics co-founder Aim­il­ios Cha­la­man­daris should be one of the main speak­ers at a re­cent event in Lon­don aimed at pro­vid­ing greater in­sight, as well as con­tacts, for bud­ding Greek en­trepreneurs.

“The key take­away of our ca­reer is per­sis­tence,” he told the au­di­ence at “The Un­stop­pable Gen­er­a­tion: Hack­ing En­trepreneur­ship into a Cul­ture” con­fer­ence on Oc­to­ber 28. “We were an 11-year-old start-up with lots of ups and downs. We had to do what­ever a text­book for start-ups de­scribes: from piv­ot­ing, to big de­ci­sions… and not to be afraid to com­pete against big­ger com­pa­nies,” he added.

The con­fer­ence was or­ga­nized by Reload Greece, a char­ity in Lon­don that aims to pro­vide prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance to Greek start-ups, from men­tor­ing to con­nect­ing them with po­ten­tial in­vestors. The event pro­vided a hope­ful mes­sage for bud­ding Greek en­trepreneurs.

Gor­don Innes of Bloomberg As­so­ciates had some en­cour­ag­ing words re­gard­ing the ef­forts be­ing made in Athens to de­velop an en­trepreneurial ecosys­tem. Bloomberg As­so­ciates has been work­ing with the City of Athens since 2015 and one of their goals has been to pro­vide the build­ing blocks for the city’s en­trepreneurs.

One of these was the cre­ation of the Athens Part­ner­ship. With sup­port from the Stavros Niar­chos Foun­da­tion, the non­profit en­tity sup­ports in­no­va­tive pub­lic pro­grams in the Greek cap­i­tal. There have also been at­tempts to en­hance pub­lic spa­ces in the city cen­ter and draw en­trepreneurs back into down­town Athens. The city’s dig­i­tal space has also been tended to as Athens ap­pointed a chief dig­i­tal of­fi­cer, Con­stanti­nos Ham­bidis, for the first time this year.

“He is re­spon­si­ble for the co­ordi- na­tion of the city’s dig­i­tal strat­egy, en­gag­ing with stake­hold­ers – the busi­nesses, the uni­ver­si­ties – look­ing at open data, bet­ter ser­vices for com­mu­ni­ties and bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties for start-ups,” said Innes.

Ham­bidis is sup­ported by the also newly cre­ated Athens Dig­i­tal Coun­cil, com­pris­ing ex­perts from the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors, which was es­tab­lished to “ad­vise the city on in­no­va­tive ways to har­ness tech­nol­ogy for the ben­e­fit of Athe­ni­ans.”

Athens has also set up its first dig­i­tal lab. The aim is for Ham­bidis to iden­tify some of the key chal­lenges faced by the city, such as clean­li­ness, park­ing and space man­age­ment. Mo­bile phone com­pany Nokia will pro­vide the space, equip­ment and men­tors needed. And, to­gether, they will iden­tify the en­trepreneurs that can solve these prob­lems.

“The city will get the so­lu­tion for free, Nokia will get the so­lu­tion to sell through their global net­work and the en­trepreneurs will be able to re­al­ize their ideas and cre­ate busi­nesses out of them,” ex­plained Innes.

How­ever, Innes stressed that while gov­ern­ments (lo­cal or na­tional) can be an im­por­tant “feeder” in the de­vel­op­ment of en­trepreneurial ecosys­tems, by stim­u­lat­ing agen­das, de­vel­op­ing pro­grams and chang­ing poli­cies, they can­not lead the process.

“Many peo­ple think that the gov­ern­ment should be the leader but it can only ever be a feeder to the ecosys­tem,” he said. “The lead­er­ship has to come from a crit­i­cal mass of en­trepreneurs.”

A good ex­am­ple of the kind of vi­sion and drive needed came from Diana Voutyrakou, a 22-year-old ro­bot­ics stu­dent at the Na­tional Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity of Athens (NTUA), who co­founded Unique Minds, a start-up that pro­vides aca­demic ori­en­ta­tion for Greek se­nior high school­ers.

Voutyrakou ex­plained that the idea for the pro­ject was prompted by the way the Greek ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem does not help teenagers choose what they want to study, lead­ing to many opt­ing for cour­ses for the wrong rea­sons and quickly los­ing their mo­ti­va­tion and in­ter­est after en­rolling.

“These stu­dents are usu­ally the ones that do not show up to lec­tures, that find them­selves get­ting bored and who strug­gle to pass the course each se­mes­ter,” she said, adding this of­ten leads to the van­dal­ism and ap­a­thy seen at Greek in­sti­tu­tions. This prompted her to con­vince the NTUA to hold an open day so high school stu­dents could visit and learn about its nine de­part­ments.

A sub­se­quent trip to uni­ver­si­ties to the US, where she saw the dif­fer­ence that can be made if stu­dents are mo­ti­vated, prompted her to co-found Unique Minds, which is the first non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Greece that pro- vides aca­demic ori­en­ta­tion to teenagers by putting them in touch with univer­sity stu­dents through a va­ri­ety of meth­ods. Al­most 3,000 high school pupils have ben­e­fited from the scheme.

For Greek en­trepreneurs with bright ideas and the pas­sion shown by Voutyrakou, there is en­cour­ag­ing news on the fund­ing front. The con­fer­ence in Lon­don heard that the Euro­pean In­vest­ment Bank (EIB) and the Euro­pean In­vest­ment Fund (EIF) are con­tribut­ing cap­i­tal to Equi­fund, an in­vest­ment plat­form that will start with 260 mil­lion eu­ros, which is ex­pected to rise to more than 400 mil­lion eu­ros once the pri­vate sec­tor gets in­volved, and which will in­vest eq­uity into Greek com­pa­nies over the next five years.

“Po­ten­tially, it will take Greece from right down at the bot­tom of the league ta­ble in terms of ac­cess to eq­uity for start-ups, for growth and for tech trans­fer right up to the top,” said Ni­cholas Jen­nett, the head of the EIB’s in­vest­ment team for Greece.

Yian­nis Tsakiris of the EIF said that around 80 mil­lion eu­ros of the funds are likely to be used to fi­nance star­tups in Greece. He es­ti­mates 200 to 300 fledg­ling com­pa­nies will ben­e­fit. In terms of vol­ume, Equi­fund prom­ises to be sev­eral times larger than the pre­vi­ous plat­form, which helped a num­ber of Greek start-ups, such as on­line re­cruit­ment firm Work­able, to break out. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Tsakiris said that the aim is to pro­vide fund­ing for all the stages of com­pa­nies’ growth, from seed cap­i­tal to growth cap­i­tal, and along with that “re­vive the eq­uity ecosys­tem in Greece, which is al­most dead.”

While there may still be many rea­sons not to start a busi­ness in Greece, there are signs that av­enues are open­ing up for in­no­va­tors to be re­warded. As is al­ways the case with ex­treme sports, it is a ques­tion of who is will­ing to take the plunge.

The con­fer­ence was or­ga­nized by Reload Greece, a char­ity in Lon­don, that aims to pro­vide prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance to Greek start-ups.

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