Witnessing The Rebirth Of The Greek Startup Ecosystem

Thousands of years ago Greeks plied the waters of the Mediterranean as traders and merchants. They were, perhaps, amongst the first ever entrepreneurs. But somewhere along the line between then and now that history faded.

Admittedly, inklings of that spirit remained in the world famous Greek shipping industry – but a reliance on government jobs and European Union subsidies did its best to quell the age-old spirit of entrepreneurship.

Four years ago, TechCrunch held its first ever meetup in Greece, appropriately enough by an Athens beach. Four years ago the startup scene there had only a tiny community of technologists to draw upon. But last Friday it packed a hall of just over 500 people and proved that at last the Greek entrepreneurial mindset was well and back home where it belongs. The event was standing room only.

Packed in the Benaki Museum (350 seated and about another 150 standing in the aisles) the event broke every record turnout for other Greek tech events. The audience heard from startup founders, community organisers and investors about how their community was beginning to emerge and take its place on the international stage (the video recording of the event is here). To think that 5 years ago Open Coffee Athens started with just 10 people. The event has created a plenty of media coverage in Greece since.

Organised by Silicon Valley’s Niko Bonatsos, co-founder of SV Greeks & Greekamericans and VC at General Catalyst Partners, and Alexia Tsotsis co-Editor of Techcrunch (and with some panel chairing by Mike Butcher, TechCrunch’s European Editor) the event was able to showcase how the Greek startup community is gradually breaking out of “The Crisis” and showing that even more growth can come, even in the midst of adversity.

In many ways Greece faces the quintessential problems of many European countries: plenty of talent, but a dearth of sources of funding for startups; limited markets at home and the difficulty of reaching out to large international markets like the US. Time and again panelists pointed out some of the obstacles that need to be overcome, such as a mismatch in university computer science courses with modern tech startups, and a moribund academic world. That said, it also acted as a showcase for success stories emerging from Greece that hope to show that there is plenty of talent just waiting to be unleashed.

Panels covered Greek Founders, Ecosystem and Investors and the event itself was sponsored by OpenCoffee, Microsoft Greece and Amazon.

The first panel of Founders was moderated by Alexia Tsotsis, and featured Panos Papadopoulos (BugSense), Alexis Pantazis & Emilios Markou (Hellas Direct), Nikos Drandakis (Taxibeat) and Ioannis Doxaras (Warp.ly). They talked generally about the Greek market and the obstacles and opportunities for success.

While some bemoaned the fact that at times the Athens startup scene seemed to have more events than actual tech companies, Panayiotis Papadopoulos of BugSense hit a reality check note, saying there was not no secret about the recipe for success. Simply that is was “Work, travel and network! There is no panacea!”

The second panel was chaired by Mike Butcher and took in those who are building the community of developers and engineers on the ground. This included Stavros Messinis (CoLab), Yorgos Koutsoyannopoulos (the Union of Greek Industries Semiconductor (HSIA) and semiconductor maker Helic), Dio Synodinos (Greece JS & InfoQ), Fotis Draganidis, (Microsoft Innovation Center) and Bill Vatikiotis (Ruby Euruko). It also added Christina Plakopita from Netrobe, a woman entrepreneur who bases her startup between Athens and the international hub of London.

The panel covered how Greek universities are not addressing the needs of startups right now with the kind of engineering skills startups need. It was concluded that initiatives like CoLab are planning to get into the kind of skills-based offered by General Assembly might offer. Another topic touched on was the low percentage of women who create or work in startups – but then again this is an issue the world over, as we all know.

Another issue raised was physically being near other startups. The CoLab initiative is one of 5 coworking spaces in Athens, but not many are near each other. The point was made that things happen faster when startups cluster in one area, as they did in Silicon Valley or the SOMA area of San Francisco.

A brief fireside chat between Niko Bonatsos and CEO of Upstream, Mark Veremi, went into how he started the highly successful Upstream. He outlined how in the past most Greek engineers simply wanted to work in big tech companies, but that they were now coming around to the idea of working in startups.

The third and final Greek Investors’ Panel panel was chaired by Niko Bonatsos and featured George Kasselakis (Openfund), Vassilis Theoharakis (PJ Tech Catalyst), Spyros Trachanis (Odyssey) and Dimitris Kalavros-Gousiou (HackFwd). This covered how Greek investors are hoping to attract foreign investors to co-invest with Greek startups and even the prospect that there was now more money chasing only a limited number of startups in Greece, indicating the that lack of funding was gradually being solved. For instance the OpenFund announced – straight from the stage – its second fund and a €100,000 investment in Incrediblue and €600,000 in Workable HR.

Some wondered, as founder Taxibeat founder Drandakis did out loud, if the Greek and foreign media had lately made entrepreneurship look too easy and ‘glamourous’. Then again others said they’d rather see that than the old days of discouraging people from starting up. Indeed, Koutsogiannopoulos marveled at the growth of the scene and the plethora of new faces.

Marcos observed that what the scene need was a more exits and success stories: “We need our own PayPal.” Papadopoulos wanted to se more Greek startups focusing on international markets such as Asia, India and China.

Doxaras echoed this, saying, that the Greek ecosystem had powered ahead in the last wo years and proved it would work together. Pantazis noted that while the scene was still at an early stage, “Due to the financial crisis, people find it acceptable to start a startup”.

Of course, “The Crisis” reared its head many times during the evening, but most agreed that it presented an opportunity for startups addressing the concerns of real consumers, such as working out how to get better and cheaper goods and services – a real opportunity.

Niko Drandaki of Taxibeat noted that with “no money from the state or family” startups had to work out how to be innovative. Doxaras added that plenty of talent was coming out of large corporations and government into new companies. Taxibeat, for instance, had solved a problem that wouldn’t have occurred in more developed markets, turning the taxi app into a marketplace where you could actually pick your driver based on previous ratings.

Was this event truly the “rebirth of the Greek tech startup ecosystem,” as one panelist put it? It’s hard to say. We’ll have to find out in a few months and years time.

But at least one person pointed out that the Greeks had fought their way out of a tight corner before: “Look at the 300 Spartans!”