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 coordination 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 co-founded 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 provides 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 start-ups 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.