In spring of 2009, Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou graduated from law school in the United Kingdom. Having lived in Kent for three years, the 21-year-old could only watch as his country, Greece, spiraled into crisis. The little eurozone country’s “fraud” made big international headlines: 350 billion euros in sovereign debt, more than 160% of its national wealth. For years, the country where democracy was invented had been dressing up its public accounts to meet the Maastricht criteria, plagued by an underground economy and by major tax evasion. Greece, now a danger to European stability, plunged into a global economic crisis.
But in the United Kingdom, this wasn’t what worried Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou: “I had just discovered TED conferences and TEDx, which allowed volunteers around the world to organize their own events. Right away I thought it would be great if Athens had these kinds of events as well, to share ideas and important stories.” When he returned to the capital in May, he and some friends scraped together the first TEDxAthens conference. In a still-nascent tech scene, 100 people responded to the call. The law student was sure he’d just laid one of the first stones in his country’s reconstruction.
Athens, from bad boy to model student
On 6 November 2018 in Lisbon, Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner of Research, Innovation and Science, took the stage at the Web Summit. That year, the European Commission took advantage of the world’s largest technology fair to announce the new “European Capital of Innovation,” along with a 1-million-euro reward from the EU’s Horizon 2020. With Aarhus (Denmark), Hamburg (Germany), Leuven (Belgium), Umeå (Sweden) and Toulouse (France) all in the running, Athens was chosen to follow Paris, praised for its efforts in “experimenting with new ideas, new technologies and new methods for involving citizens in the transformation of their city.”
At the podium, Carlos Moedas highlighted the “multiple challenges” the Greek capital had passed with flying colors. “Thanks to innovation, Athens has set a new course to leave the social and economic crisis behind. It has proved it’s not the difficulties that count, but the way you overcome them,” he said. Brussels once deemed Greece’s austerity application too late, scolding the country as “not ready” for the task — those days seemed long ago now. Arriving to take the check from the EU in Lisbon, Athens mayor Georgios Kaminis addressed his citizens, sharing with them a “prize that belongs to us all. And above all to the citizens that have remained positive, and who have worked hard with the city to dig Athens out of crisis.”
In a few years, Athens chose to dedicate a large portion of its policy to innovation. Several unique projects have made the city stand out: POLIS², which aims to repopulate abandoned neighborhoods by giving small grants to residents, businesses and creative communities; the Serafeio Cultural Center, an innovative space that hosts events like Athens Digital Lab and Athens Culture Net; the initiative Curing the Limbo, which bridges the gap between residents and refugees and gives refugees the chance to learn the country’s language and to invest themselves in the community; and the renovation of Kypseli in one of Athens’ most cosmopolitan neighborhoods. The 90-year-old building, once a food market, was classified as a historical monument in 2005. Closed to the public, it was progressively reinvested in by residents, who organized a host of cultural activities there. The municipality now hopes to transform it into a new social entrepreneurship market that can host expositions, shows and events.
Teaming up with the private sector
It’s precisely in this Kypseli neighborhood, once so unattractive, that the “beehive of tech innovation” Found.ation chose to embed Start Project, an educational center dedicated to minority groups and lead jointly by the city of Athens and Microsoft. Children, students, elderly people, everyone is invited to come learn the skills necessary in the digital era. Launched in 2011 as a coworking space and business incubator, Found.ation slowly established itself as a key partner for businesses hoping to accelerate their digital transformation. Behind this platform, one can find Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiuo, founder of TEDxAthens.
The famous conference now brings 2,500 people each year, and the young man, now 31 years old, is one of the rising figures in innovation in Athens. His associate at Found.ation, Filippos Zakapoulos, was part of the TEDxAthens volunteer team. “TEDxAthens is one of the main organizations fighting for change and leading people toward innovation and social equality,” he says. But this 38-year-old “technophile” highlights above all the fruitful collaboration between “the city of Athens, private and public entities, and businesses.” Filippos Zakopoulos gives all the credit for the European Capital of Innovation prize to one man: Konstantinos Champidis, director of digital technologies for the Greek capital, and the first person named to such a post, in 2017, in all of Europe.
Hand in hand, Konstantinos Champidis and mayor Georgios Kaminis are working to put the city back on the right track through public-private partnerships. Together, they’ve launched the Athens Digital Council, a strategic advisory body bringing together the directors of the largest telecommunication companies in the country, as well as prominent university professors.
Another “remarkable” example of successful public-private partnership in Athens, according to the lifestyle magazine Greece Is, is “the contribution of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which generously donated 10 million euros for the development of several pioneering urban projects. Included in these are the flourishing program Open School, which offers free cultural and educational activities to citizens in 25 school buildings across the city (…) and Athens Partnership, an organization that helps form partnerships between the public and private sectors.”
A new hub for startups
But limiting the Athens renaissance to actions by the city would risk erasing a criticial side of the capital’s dynamism: its flourishing ecosystem of startups and young entrepreneurs. The scene has been growing since its birth in 2010. “The crisis left a lot of people unemployed, and left young graduates without any way to start their careers. Instead, they turned to entrepreneurship,” Dimitris Litsikakis says. Having gone like many Greeks to study in the UK, the IT project manager has long directed the “Athens” branch of Startup Grind, an international network of startups backed by Google for Entrepreneurs. Each month, the organization designs events to connect young business leaders with one another, as well as with potential investors.
For Filippos Zakapoulos, “the financial crisis obviously accelerated the tranformation of Athens into a hub for new startups. But to be truthful, the potential for a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was already there for some years. Greece has a reservoir of highly educated talent, is located at a geographic crossroads offering cultural links to Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and is democratically stable. And plus, the Greeks have always been entrepreneurs and merchants!”
Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou, his associate at Found.ation who also developed the talent-matching platform Tech Talent Jobs, clearly sees the buzz of this “local startup scene” with optimism. “I believe that because Greek entrepreneurs operate in a more unstable environment than London or Berlin, they’ve developed unique skills. We’re slowly but surely in the process of building a technological innovation project in Athens, which proves that world-class technology companies can come from here.” Notable early successes include the voice synthesis company Innoetics, bought in 2017 by Samsung, and the local taxi app Beat, which now belongs to the automobile company Daimler.
Even still, Athens remains a fragile capital, with unemployment rates nearing 20%. As for Greece, it only “officially” left its crisis in August 2017, freed from financial supervision of Europe and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after eight years of bailouts and austerity. “We still have work to do to reach the level of maturity of the UK or Spain,” Dimitris Litsikakis admits.
But the last barrier to the development of international companies — access to capital — has been crossed. Since the beginning of 2018, Greece has had the strength of the EquiFund venture capital fund, created by the Greek Ministry of Economy along with the European Investment Fund. “Out of nine investment funds, totaling 400 million euros, six are focused on startups at different stages of development,” Filippos Zakapoulos says excitedly. The sinews of war, then, and yet another reason to believe in the comeback of Greece and its capital.