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From Prometheus to Tesla’s planned Athens hub

How the pioneering American electric car company discovered a great talent pool ahead of opening a research department in Greece.

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SPECIAL REPORT 30.03.2018 • REPORTING: YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOSPHOTOGRAPHS: ALEXIA TSAGKARI

In a corner of the Laboratory of Electric Machines on the campus of the National Technical University of Athens in Zografou lies the engine that Kostis Laskaris designed as part of his thesis, to convert his conventional Smart car into an electric vehicle. Years after completing his studies, his name is often mentioned by professors and students. Last time he visited, close to Christmas, he was not in a position to tell them the great news.

NTUA's Electric Machines lab.

The news was finally announced a few days ago. Although Greece has struggled for years to attract (or retain) investments, the innovative American electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla is planning to create a small research and development division in Athens, which will probably consist of a team of around 10 members. It will be housed in the Science and Technology Park at the Demokritos National Center of Scientific Research and will focus on the design of electric engines.

To find out how the project came about, Kathimerini went to the NTUA’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Behind Tesla’s choice lie the stories of students and teachers who took initiatives, put their leisure time to good use and were not content with the narrow limits of the theoretical academic approach. A spokesman for the American company admitted that there is a large pool of talent in Greece.

At the vanguard

Professor Antonios Kladas was fortunate to see first Laskaris and then three more former students join Tesla’s engineering team. “Kostis represents the vanguard,” he told Kathimerini.

"It was obvious that he will go far," he added.

He spoke without pauses, obviously excited, about the past and the present of the Laboratory of Electric Machines, where he works. He explained that, initially, Laskaris had shown an interest in telecommunications, which offered great opportunities in the 1990s due to the liberalization of the market. So when he proposed that he would focus on electric power in his thesis, Kladas had felt uncertain about his choice. “You aren’t very energy-focused,” he had told him back then.

Kostis Laskaris in NTUA's lab in 2009.

That wasn’t the first time his student surprised him.

Laskaris focused on permanent-magnet motors, today found in most electric vehicles. He completed his dissertation in three and a half years. In 2008, Laskaris co-founded the Prometheus Research Team at the NTUA. Participation was and remains voluntary and does not guarantee grades. In their spare time, students build entirely electric-powered vehicles to take part in the Shell Eco-Marathon Europe competition, in which student teams around the world design, build, test and drive ultra-energy-efficient vehicles.

They participated for the first time in 2009. A last-minute mechanical failure in the engine power supply system left the team out of the competition because they could not get the necessary spare parts in time. After this baptism by fire, however, they returned stronger, and scored successes in the coming years.

The team members, including Kostis Laskaris, who competed for the first time at the «Shell Eco Marathon».

“He created a group of people who, along with their educational activities, can also do research. The school honors this excellence and progress,” said Kladas.

Three years later, Laskaris moved to Palo Alto in California, and has since been working as the head of the Tesla’s electric engine design team. Vasilis Papanikolaou first met Laskaris at the NTUA and was on the Prometheus team with him. After completing his own postgraduate studies in the Netherlands, he also joined Tesla in December 2014.

At first Laskaris’s team was small, consisting of three Greeks and one American. New members joined them later. Papanikolaou remained with the company until November 2017, when he left to turn his attention to artificial intelligence.

Papanikolaou worked at Tesla from 2014 to 2017.

“I was impressed by how committed they all were to their goal. I really liked the way we worked, how much trust there was between the company and every employee. How much responsibility we were given, but also the chance to do something new,” said Papanikolaou, now 29, when we met him at his home in Kifissia, northern Athens.

He remembers that working hours in Palo Alto were flexible, oriented toward the essence of the work. “Nobody cared how many hours you worked,” he said, adding that the company had open-plan offices where all staff had direct contact with all the executives. Even the office of the company’s chairman and CEO, Elon Musk, was open, he added.

The new model

Papanikolaou helped to design Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, which was released a few months ago. “I worked on machine modeling, the software we developed and the design,” he told Kathimerini. The standard Model 3 has a range of 354 kilometers, while the most expensive version can travel 498 km before it needs recharging. Its maximum speed exceeds 200 km per hour and the cost of the basic model starts from $35,000.

“It was made to be more affordable and at the same time to have a performance the same as or better than a car with an internal combustion engine. And the way of driving is also quite different, without being too strange,” said Papanikolaou.

In 2019, Tesla plans to start production of its first electric truck with an 800 km range. The innovative company, however, is not limited to building vehicles. Among other things, it has created rechargeable lithium-ion battery stationary energy storage products for use at home.

Musk has also entered the space race. Recently, SpaceX launched its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, sending a model of Tesla’s Roadster out toward the asteroid belt. Musk’s vision is to send people to Mars in the future.

The inspiration

Now 40, Laskaris is keeping a close eye on the new homegrown talent. He regularly visits his old school at the NTUA, gives talks and advises the new members of the Prometheus team. He is credited with the vision of creating a Tesla research center in Athens, and has put a lot of effort into making that happen.

“Kostis, like the other members of the company, never left the university. They stayed very close to the Laboratory of Electric Machines, inspiring the next generations,” said Nektarios Koziris, dean of the NTUA’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, which recently celebrated its centenary. For him, Tesla’s investment is “a vote of confidence” in the work done at the university.

"That combination of research and education creates alumnis who can produce new technology and think out of the box," he said.

On February 22, Tesla’s Greek branch was registered in the general commercial register as a one-person private capital company based at the Demokritos Technology Park in Aghia Paraskevi, northern Athens. Kathimerini contacted company executives in Europe and the US, who were only willing to divulge that the engineers in Athens will cooperate closely with their Tesla partners in the US. Planning for the design of the offices is already under way.

Preparation for the race

These days in the Laboratory of Electric Machines, the new 20-member Prometheus team is hard at work up to eight hours a day on the new Pyrforos II vehicle.

Kostis Laskaris (left) working on the vehicle with other NTUA students.
This year's Prometheus team.

The Pyrforos II is being constructed by undergraduate students and doctoral candidates. Aerodynamic in shape, it is powered by 48-volt lithium-ion batteries and can travel 17 km at an average speed of 30-35 km/hr. The engine it still incorporates in its rear wheel was built in 2011 by Laskaris.

The Pyrforos II vehicle.

“Through this program you learn how to operate as a real engineer, you deal with difficulties that bring you close to the profession,” said Iakovos Kyriakos, a participating student. “Former members of the group now work in important positions in the auto-making industry and this shows the level of knowledge they managed to attain,” said Giorgos Papatheodorou, a fellow student.

Both are excited about the establishment of a Tesla division in Athens. “I don’t want to go abroad. I would like to work on electric mobility here in Greece,” said Kyriakos, a student in his fourth year.

"The creation of Tesla's R&D center in Greece gives us hope."

Reporting: YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

Photographs: ALEXIA TSAGKARI

Greek to English translation: HARRY VAN VERSENDAAL

For Kathimerini and ekathimerini.com.

Friday 30.03.2018

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