Science, Tech & Environment

Hi-Tech May be a Bright Spot for Greece

Photo12.jpg

Credit: Picasa

Many projects, such as this, target solar energy. (Photo: Jonathan Fildes)

Leontios Stampoulidis sits in a small office, surrounded by computers and micro-electronic equipment. Like many Greeks these days, he calls the economic crisis his country is going through "an obsession," particularly for people in their mid-30s.

Player utilities

"We have to fight for three generations," Stampoulidis tells me. "We fight for ourselves, and for our kids. We don't want to hand over a country that's collapsing to them. And we also have to fight for our parents, because people on pensions were the first to take the heat when the crisis came."

Such stories are part of the fabric of life in Greece these days. Jobs have been axed, wages and pensions slashed, and social safety nets have almost completely broken down. Homelessness and suicides are both on the increase. Young people, particularly those who are educated and talented, seem to be crowding the exits, looking for the next flight out. And despite the approval of the latest bailout, many Greeks feel that the worst is yet to come.

But Stampoulidis and his business partner, Efstratios Kehayas, are bullish on Greece, especially when it comes to the role that technology might play in helping in the country's recovery. The two entrepreneurs, who met while completing their PhDs at Greece's National Technical University in Athens, founded a company called Constelex a few years ago.

Constelex makes light amplifiers for fiber-optic networks. Giving the light a boost and extending the range of the network, the co-founders tell me, has applications in telecommunications, remote sensing, aerospace and medicine.

Both Stampoulidis and Kehayas could have taken their knowledge and skills and gone elsewhere to look for work, or start a company. Like many of their friends, they could have left Greece's economic woes, its stifling bureaucracy and corruption, far behind. But they did not.

"For us, it was a no-brainer," Kehayas says. "We wanted to build something in our country, and then offer something back in the form of new jobs, and new products that can be exported."

Cluster feed

That is music to the ears of Vassilios Makios, Professor Emeritus at the University of Patras, and General Director of Corallia, the Hellenic Technology Clusters Initiative. Makios himself left Greece in the 1960s to study electrical engineering in Germany. For years after, he taught at Carleton University in Ottawa before returning to Greece in 1978.

His time in North America convinced him that he needed to kick-start technology entrepreneurship in Greece. In the ensuing years, he sent more than 600 Greek students abroad in the hope that they would return to Greece with new ideas about technology and how to do business.

He watched new Greek tech companies spring up, only to fail because of funding problems, bad business plans or because they failed to patent their ideas. What these start-ups needed, Makios thought, was a little bit of a push in the right direction, and a whole lot more cooperation.

And so, in 2006, he joined forces with two other Greeks who had worked at the famous Bell Labs, and asked for some seed money from the Greek government and the European Union to start Corallia. He is now at the forefront of a push to get the Greek government, and budding Greek engineers and technologists, to see the value in clustering, an idea popularized by Michael Porter at Harvard Business School.

The idea is pretty straightforward: you put groups of complementary start-ups together in the same building, and they all start feeding off one another to develop new ideas and new products. In 2006, Corallia, with that seed money from the Greek government and the European Union, tried this clustering idea with 13 micro-electronics companies in Greece.

There are now more than 60 companies and 30 universities involved in the micro-electronics cluster. Together, they are responsible for more than $260m in exports, according to Makios. The products range from sensor networks and mobile technology to solar energy equipment and micro-chips for studying DNA.

Corallia itself is a non-profit. It leases the building, and rents out spaces to start-ups. It provides these small companies with internet connections, teleconferencing facilities and meeting rooms. There are in-house experts who can give companies advice about filing patents, making business plans, and pitching venture capitalists.

"I call it a facilitator for the high-tech sector," says Costas Meimitis, CEO of a small start-up called Antcor, which licences wi-fi software for the chip industry. Antcor only has 12 employees, and Meimitis says that if they had to deal with IP attorneys, accountants and auditors they wouldn't have to time to work on their technology.

"Corallia's help puts me in the right mind-set," he says.

'Death warrant'

It is people like Meimitis — along with help from universities and Corallia - that Makios believes can "change Greece".

"Yes, Greece is in a difficult situation right now, a real mess, but I'm confident that we can come out of this mess because of these technology prospects," he says.

"This cluster," Makios emphasizes, "will create a small, but positive, Silicon Valley in Greece."

For now, the promise of a "Silicon Valley for Greece" might be stretching it a bit. Economist and venture capitalist Aristos Doxiadis does, on balance, think that tech can be a viable sector in the new Greek economy, but he says that he doesn't "see a huge number of jobs being created," at least in the short term.

"The fundamentals, and by that I mean the people, are here," Doxiadis says. "But the bureaucratic obstacles are still immense." Add to that, Doxiadis tells me, that a whole generation of Greeks is still coming to terms with the fact the decades-old system of steady, government jobs with inflated wages and generous pensions is crumbling.

"There is no free lunch anymore," Doxiadis says. "We have to figure out how to be productive."

And that, says Vassilios Makios, is exactly the message he's giving to Greek students coming out of university these days.

"I tell them this: 'If at the age of 25, you want to become a civil servant, they already have a coffin ready for you. You're dead.'"

It was a message that resonated strongly with Constalex's Efstratios Kehayas. "Personally, I decided that I wanted to build things, that I wanted to mingle with top researchers and entrepreneurs. I wanted the rush. If you put me in an office, and made me do the same thing over and over for 25 years, that would kill me."

Constelex got its first sales, and its first patent, last year and the company is now working on a way to modify its technology to better treat cancer.

As for Corallia, it has started two new clusters, one for start-ups working on technologies related to space, and the other in gaming. There is no reason, Vassilios Makios says, that the same idea can't apply to other industries such as bio-engineering, or even to Greek wine-makers.

"We can brand it all 'made in Greece,'" he says, beaming. "And make it a standard around the world."

Comments