Greek-American business guru helps startups back in the homeland

Greek-American business guru helps startups back in the homeland

She was still a postgraduate student at MIT studying mechanical engineering when she and a group of fellow students founded one of the first 3D printing companies in the world back in 1994. Z Corp went on to generate turnover of $30 million before joining the Contex Holding A/S group of companies in 2005. Ever since, Marina Hatsopoulos has acted as an angel investor in several tech firms and sat on the boards of dozens of listed companies and startups.

In the last two years, the Greek-American businesswoman has been traveling between the States and Greece as an adviser of MIT Enterprise Forum Greece, which supports young new entrants in IT and science-related fields.

Why do you invest in startups?
It’s like an addiction. It’s a lot of fun being part of a creative process from the start and seeing a new business take off with a new product that responds to customer demand.

Isn’t it very risky?
Sure, the risk is very high because the majority of startups do not ultimately succeed, but in theory at least, an angel investor has adequate experience to assess the prospects of a startup and consult in the early stages.

Have you lost or won as an angel investor?
No doubt I have come out on top.

What kind of businesses do you choose to invest in?
Tech and engineering equipment firms, which normally develop at a slow and steady pace. I am personally not looking for the exception that will turn into a billion-dollar market – like Facebook – and the simple truth is that most companies will never be that big. Right now, for example, I’m investing in a Zurich-based company, Levitronix, which makes magnetic-driven pumps for semiconductors.

What about in Greece?
I have invested in a great startup in Greece, the Internet platform Codebender. I love those guys.

Would you invest in Greece if it were not for your Greek heritage?
The truth is that I may never have gone to Greece to invest if I were not a Greek. But I have visited startups in Athens, Thessaloniki and Patra, and I truly believe that there are some great opportunities in this country.

Do you think other American angel investors could be interested?
There is some initial reservation but I believe that the interest of foreign investors will grow when these companies prove they can make it. I would advise any startup looking for foreign investors to open a company in the US as well.

Does that mean you think all Greek startups should move to America?
No. In my opinion, the creative teams need to stay in the country, where there’s so much untapped potential. Greece could follow the example of Israel, which has made amazing progress in the area of startups by reducing red tape and providing incentives to foreign investors. I think that there are a lot of similarities between the two countries: an independent way of thinking and business mentality.

Doesn’t red tape present a serious obstacle to doing business in Greece?
A lot needs to be done in Greece. First of all you need a strong judicial system that moves fast on patenting. You also need to be able to hire and fire easily, and mainly to protect businessmen from being held personally accountable if the business fails. But I’m not really worried because I believe that the more the startup economy develops, the more powerful businessmen will become, allowing them to bring about the changes that are needed.

What do you look for in a startup before investing?
The team is number one. If the team isn’t good, it will not be able to find solutions and create a good company.

Did you always want to become a businesswoman?
My father was a professor at MIT and founded a huge company, Thermo Electron, with revenues of $4 billion. Growing up, I’d tell him that I would create a company that would buy out his company. That didn’t happen.

Do you think you sold your business prematurely?
Maybe. I already had four children and was very tired. I needed a break. With a startup you think of work 24/7. On the other hand I don’t think that 3D printing technology will really become a part of our homes except as a game for children. Nowadays you can buy almost everything you want at a relatively good price and have it delivered to your home in a few hours. Why would you want to produce it yourself?

Do you believe that women have as good a grasp of technology as men?
I think so, yes, but it will take a bit more time before the situation is balanced between the genders. My daughter’s class at MIT, though, is 50 percent women.

How is your relationship with Greece?
I love it and the older I get, the more I appreciate the spiritual connection I feel exists between the people here.

* This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine K.

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