The hall of the Hilton Hotel in Austin, Texas, was jam-packed. Comedian James Adomian, best known to the 30-something generation for his imitations of former US President George W. Bush, was hosting the South by Southwest (SXSW) awards for creative innovation as part of the world’s biggest festival of music, film and new technologies, bringing together some 72,000 participants in March.
Dr George Koutitas, aged 34, was in attendance for the second time. The former academic and research assistant at the International Hellenic University emigrated from Thessaloniki to Austin less than a year ago, starting a company, Gridmates, which was among the 25 finalists in the New Economy category.
The idea for Gridmates came to Koutitas two years ago while he was watching a show on Greek TV about families living without electricity in the crisis. Thinking of ways he could help, and with the assistance of his engineer father, he built an innovative device that combines photovoltaic energy with used car batteries. He soon realized that this would not generate enough power to run an air-conditioning unit or an oven, so he came up with the idea for the company.
“As I looked at the battery I had the idea of creating online energy packages that people can donate,” said Koutitas.
Initial research showed that there was nothing similar around and that, given the lost revenues of energy companies from unpaid bills, a platform where consumers can swap energy could solve a lot of problems.
“It’s a simple way of reducing energy poverty as well as the costs of suppliers,” explained Koutitas.
A large part of the company is back in Greece, together with his co-founder and four programmers. For Koutitas, though, there is no going back.
“Something like this could not work in Greece. There is only one energy provider holding the lion’s share of the market. Here there are around 3,000. If one doesn’t want it, you knock on another’s door,” said Koutitas.
In fact, Austin is being promoted as one of the premiere destinations in the United States for start-ups like Gridmates, as at least $500 million dollars are invested every year in local businesses, and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US right now.
Angelos Angelou is also from Thessaloniki and is involved with Gridmates. He was sitting beside Koutitas at the awards ceremony. He went to the US 40 years ago at the age of 17, without knowing any English. After learning the language, he got a job with the biggest bank in Texas and for more than a decade served as vice president of economic development with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
“At that age you don’t have fear of failure,” he said of when he first went to the US. “You are excited by the opportunities America gives you to succeed and the way that people welcome you into their homes and help you in any way they can,” he said.
Angelou is as good as his word: He took in Koutitas when the young man first arrived and helped him develop his idea. Helping other companies interested in getting a foothold in Austin is also what he does through International Accelerator, an incubator for new businesses. Through his firm AngelouEconomics, he also advises cities in different parts of the US, as well as countries such as Portugal and Austria, on how they can attract foreign investment.
What about Greece?
“I don’t look for work in Greece,” he said. “You hear so many unbelievable stories. I have tried before to deal with government officials, not of one party but of all parties, and I have not seen results. And I honestly believe that there are not a lot of people in Greece who are thinking about Greece. They are thinking about themselves and feel that if they’re OK, then Greece will be OK. That’s not how it works. You need to take care of the country first. The private sector does not have time to waste. Every minute counts. I decided that all my efforts would be to help Greek entrepreneurs.”
Back in Athens
The graffiti-tagged entrance to the building that is temporarily housing the Athens Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEin) of the Athens University of Economic and Business is in a dark alley behind Victoria Square, in a rather squalid part of the capital’s center.
On the top floor, however, everything functions like clockwork. One of the coordinators of the program, Stavros Lounis, explains the itinerary of the SXSW trip to the heads of the groups he has selected to participate in the festival. The groups were carefully picked with the help of Angelou and the Hellenic Initiative of diaspora Greeks, who also funded a large part of the mission for 20 Greek business groups, among them those from ACEin.
“Part of what SXSW is doing is bringing Greek entrepreneurs so they can meet capital. It’s not just about investing money. It’s also about inspiring people, creating a culture, a ‘fronima,’ of entrepreneurship in Greece and giving them the kind of encouragement and inspiration that the entrepreneurs in the diaspora can bring because of their tremendous success,” says Mark Arey, executive director of the Hellenic Initiative.
“We try to spend money in Greece constructively and to inspire other disapora Greeks and philhellenes to invest in Greece. There are a lot of people overseas who love Greece; a lot more than you think.”
Four more Greek start-ups were funded by the American Embassy in Athens to make the trip to Texas.
“This initiative is part of a series of programs run in cooperation with Greek agencies to help Greece’s professionals and foundations establish contacts with others in America and lead to an exchange of know-how and possibly cooperation in the future,” explained Eleni Alexaki, cultural and educational program adviser at the US Embassy in Athens.
“Our aim is to help young people with new business proposals to stay in Greece, to work there, to develop what they’re doing and possibly to give other young people the opportunity to work.”
One such person is Alexandros Nikolaidis, founder of the platform Tapely, which allows users to create and share online “mixed tapes” around the world. He came up with the idea while working for a well-known consultancy firm because he wanted to avoid sharing music with his friends on platforms that he found garish or too visually cluttered with irrelevant information. This simple idea compelled him to spend his nights teaching himself computer programming. He eventually quit his job – in the middle of the crisis – and dedicated himself entirely to his project.
“I had to bet on my idea,” he said.
And it worked. Today Tapely has 30,000 playlists compiled by users from 150 countries, 50 percent of whom are Americans. It is also looking for new associates to help the three already working at the company’s new offices in central Athens.
Queues for movie premieres at SXSW often stretch around the Austin convention center and Greek producer Giorgos Karnavas (“Wasted Youth,” “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” etc) from Heretic was at risk of not finding a seat.
The delay, however, was worth it because as he was leaving a lecture earlier he ran into an important industry player, who happened to be on the panel, and who gave the Greek producer the time to introduce the English-language project he’s currently working on.
“I don’t even know if this guy goes to Cannes, but here it was very direct, very easy to meet him,” said Karnavas.
The set-up and overall vibe at SXSW helps people meet and exchange ideas, and not just in the convention center but all over the city as well.
“When you’re sitting on your couch getting stoned, talking about the movie you’re going to make, the TV show you’re going to have, or the radio show you’re going to do, or the book you’re going to write, or the play you’re going to put up, get the hell up and go do it. There’s no reason not to do it. The world is yours,” SXSW co-founder Louis Black told Kathimerini.
A lot of the Greek participants at the event did just that.
Anastasios Diolatzis of Reworks, an annual international music festival in Greece which draws music fans from outside the country’s borders, managed to book an artist to perform at this year’s event in Thessaloniki and is in talks for another act thanks to the contacts he made in Austin.
Anna Kassimati was the only member of the Greek mission who managed to get the contact details of tech guru Guy Kawasaki, after he made a reference in his lecture to her home island Chios, giving her a pretext to approach him.
The acquaintance may prove especially profitable for the 28-year-old Greek as she, together with her two partners at the company isMOOD, developed an algorithm that can be used to conduct research into social media.
Zoe Gavri is an electrical engineer who has developed a method for improving the quality of certain MRI tests. She hasn’t managed to get any official support in Greece but following her trip to Texas two American hospitals are already evaluating the software developed by her company, TomoTECH.
Angelou also invited the company to join International Accelerator and one of the three founders to move to Texas.
“The point is to give young people hope,” said Angelou at a mixer at his home for the members of the Greek mission and potential investors.
“As soon as we came in we met business consultants who want to branch out into different fields,” said Lida Mantzourani of Culturplay, a company developing a strategic video game based in ancient Athens.
Although she knows how difficult it is to get funding, she’s optimistic because even before she made it into the living room she got talking with the head of Microsoft’s gaming department, who just happened to have been invited as well.