ATHENS — Over the past three years, the European country most affected by the global economic crisis is without doubt Greece. Today, almost six in 10 young people are unemployed, 58.8% of those under 24. Many have also moved abroad since the country has struggled to recover from the recession. The “troika” (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission in Brussels) returned to review the country’s progress in Athens earlier this month, keeping the pressure on for Greece.
“If we leave, what will be left of Greece when it comes out of this crisis?” asks Georges Spanoudakis. The 29-year-old heads up Pinnatta, a flourishing startup created barely three years ago. “I used to run an enterprise in the Silicon Valley, when I realized that there was a huge market for electronic greeting cards. At the time, the industry was valued at 8 billion euros, and experts estimate that it will reach 36 billion in the next three years.”
Spanoudakis therefore decided to return to his country and, with six collaborators, developed a smartphone application that allows users to instantaneously send personalized greeting cards accompanied by custom messages.
“After only four months, Russian, Chinese and American investors chipped in $350,000,” he says. “In August 2012, a new application for funds allowed us to raise another $300,000 from American investors. To date, we have received $1.5 million.”
And what about the brand new offices in an old abandoned factory of trendy Athens, with an outdoor game zone and relaxation corner? “Obviously, I’ve been inspired by businesses I’ve seen in California,” the young man explains. The 16 technician team members are in Greece, but marketing and finance are managed from the small town of Sunnyvale.
“When we raised our first capital, our investors were worried about the economic, political and fiscal instability here,” Spanoudakis says. “Setting up in the States seemed a good solution, but it was even more interesting to recruit good engineers here. They are cheaper, and there is less competition to steal them away,” he admits unashamedly.
Businesses helping businesses
In a similar vein, an initiative called Corallia that promotes the development of Greek technical “clusters” hopes to reassure and encourage investors to put money in Greek startups, despite the fact that the country is in its sixth year of recession.
The cluster, or competitive hub, is still a new concept in Greece, and its based on the model of Sophia-Antipolis (Alpes-Maritimes) in France, and on the Silicon Valley in the U.S. “It’s a perfect tool for putting companies into contact with each other, so that they exchange, collaborate and become mutually beneficial contacts in a sector and therefore more competitive in the global market,” explains Vassilis Makios, director of Corallia.
This former professor of the renowned technical University of Patras laments the hemorrhaging of talent that he has witnessed. “Over time, I’ve seen more than 600 students who have found success abroad, and now I want to create the conditions and economic environment to allow them to stay here and produce money and jobs for their own country,” Makios says.
European funds finance half of Corallia’s annual budget of 10 million euro. “Now we are experiencing real success, notably in the nano and microelectronic cluster,” the company’s financial director, Jorge Sanchez-Pasaspiliou, notes with delight. “For example, Samsung has bought Nanoradio, a Patras startup, the giant Citrix bought out Bytemobile, and the Siva group has invested in Antcor.”
Antcor is a business founded in 2004 that creates wifi processors for tablets and mobiles. These products are moved on to microchip producers. In 2012, it recorded a growth rate approaching 70%. In this year alone, its staff has grown from 15 to 20 employees.
“We are not suffering from the crisis that is affecting the rest of the country because our clientele isn’t local, it’s global,” says Costas Meimetis, Antcor’s president and cofounder. “What’s more, we’re avoiding the widespread issue of poor cash flow linked to the banking sector’s collapse in 2008, as our investors are also international.”
Taxibeat going international
Another example of extensively covered success is the smartphone app Taxibeat. This service allows the consumer to quickly find a taxi, pick their specific preferences (type of car, services on board) and then review their experience. Launched in 2011 in Athens, Taxibeat has since expanded to France, Mexico and Brazil, and should soon be introduced in Peru and Colombia. “The service works particularly well in countries that have a security or quality problem, because the client can now choose their taxi from a trustworthy source,” explains Spyros Dovas, manager at Taxibeat.
Dovos, a laid-back businessman in his forties, was tempted to emigrate in 2010 when Greece plunged into the economic crisis, but now he’s glad he stayed. “It’s really rewarding to participate in a venture that pays off,” he says. “It proves that the youth of Greece have a capacity for innovation, are well-educated, and when they put themselves out there they turn out to be shrewd businessmen and very competitive in their operations.”
All of these startups belong to the information technology or general electronics sectors — and are now being pursued by American, Russian or Israeli investors.
“Europe has allocated significant funds to support this growing sector in Greece. The benefit of information technology is that we can start a business without much capital,” says Aristos Doxiadis, economist and partner at Open Fund, a company whose objective is to finance emerging IT companies and is itself funded by a 7 million euro grant from the European Investment Fund. “We get involved by buying shares in the capital — anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000. After that we are interested in the businesses’ development,” Doxiadis explains. He also underlines the necessity of educating other sectors of the economy about this type of program. “Lots of entrepreneurs outside of IT are still completely without financing, and they should become more determined.”
Penny Vomva is just that. This 33-year-old trendsetter opened her own studio and shop called Rien in June 2010 without a loan or a single outside investor. Now, still without any outside financing, she is launching an online store and has opened a second boutique on the island of Mykonos.
“If it worked during the worst times of the crisis, the only way is up,” the enthusiastic young woman says. The business may not be as widely known as IT startups are, but it clearly illustrates the will of thousands of young Greeks under threat of unemployment to create their own jobs — and a future for themselves.