In her prominent work on entrepreneurial clustering and the growth of Silicon Valley, AnnaLee Saxenian makes a case for the ‘new Argonauts’, i.e. foreign-born entrepreneurs, who similarly to the Argonauts in Greek mythology, ventured across the seas to meet their call.

In this case the new Argonauts did not wander towards Colchis in quest to find the Golden Fleece, but towards Silicon Valley aiming to find new opportunities in a booming tech industry. Even though Saxenian particularly mentions the examples of Indian, Chinese and Israeli communities of entrepreneurs, two more recent examples can be added to this list.

Young innovators from Greece and Cyprus, two nations that share a plethora of common traditions and history, found ways to fight back during the worst economic crisis their countries have ever faced. How so? In the recent years, both Greece and Cyprus sought the organic development of entrepreneurial ecosystems that consist of fast growing and promising startups; incubators; investors and other facilitators that make entrepreneurship and innovation, grow. Foremost, these ecosystems have already started to connect to Silicon Valley.

 

“The Greek case”

In the last decade most European countries tried to introduce their young entrepreneurs to the ecosystem of Silicon Valley in order to gain access to both know-how and Venture Capital. Greece was not an exception to this rule. The attempts to connect Greece with Silicon Valley started in 2008 upon the initiative of the Greek students of Stanford, and were subsequently supported by other Universities, Institutions and startup companies. A few months later, various Greek-American investors joined their efforts to found the Silicon Valley Greek Seed Funding Group via which they began to fund Greek startups. All of these initiatives had the support of the small, yet actively engaged, Trade Office of the Greek Consulate. Moreover, there were also numerous business missions, academic visits, conferences and workshops.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic in Greece, numerous incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces were being created. These initiatives however had a different format, funding and goals.

To mention a few:

  • Corallia is the first unit that was established in Greece for the management and development of Innovation Clusters.
  • Open Fund is a seed venture capital fund, targeting innovative business ideas around software and the web with a mission to help them turn their innovative ideas into globally-aimed, disruptive start-ups, and make them succeed.
  • Endeavor Greece, which is a nonprofit organization that supports entrepreneurship, counted 144 of those companies as entrepreneurial startups.
  • Orange Grove is a flexible workspace where young Greek and Dutch entrepreneurs can work on their business, where they can network and learn.
  • The Egg, is a holistic entrepreneurship acceleration program, reaching out to young teams with creative and innovative ideas.
  • Found.ation is a technology hub, creating nationwide acceleration programs like COSMOTE Startup and Entrepreneurship Hubs, supporting startups throughout their development and hosting a variety of events, targeted on the ecosystem’s needs.

Other incubators, accelerators or co-working spaces in Greece include: Metavallon, Microsoft Innovation Center, IQbility, The Cube, Romantso. All these initiatives and the efforts of young entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams, have produced a number of success stories inside and outside of Greece such as Bugsense (a Greek startup that has been acquired by Splunk), TaxiBeat, Workable, and Pinnatta.

Greeks and Greek origin entrepreneurs and investors, who live and work in the Valley, such as George Zachary (CRV), Andreas Stavropoulos (DFJ), Evangelos Simoudis (Trident Capital), Tasso Argyros (founder of AsterData that has been acquired by Teradata for $263 million) and Tasso Roumeliotis (founder of Location Labs that has been acquired by AVG for $220 million), have become role-models for many young people back home. Indeed, these success stories, alongside with efforts to simplify certain bureaucratic procedures have been instrumental towards the establishment of a friendlier business and startup ecosystem.

 

“The Cypriot case”

In parallel, the Cypriot entrepreneurial ecosystem is relatively younger and generally at its infant stages. Yet, its age does not compromise its unprecedented organic growth. If you attempted to explore the Cypriot startup scene three years back, you would mostly find entrepreneurs with a vision to connect to like-minded people in their country. One can find angel investor organizations such as CYBAN; accelerators such as Chrysalis Leap; enterprise enabling organizations such as Junior Achievement Cyprus, the Cyprus Association of Research and Innovation Enterprises, the Cypriot Enterprise Link, which amongst other initiatives introduced Hack Cyprus – the first series of hackathons and first code schools in Cyprus; and of course university incubators such as Diogenes, Entice and Helix. This nicely tuned engine is also enhanced by entrepreneurship events such as the Cyprus Entrepreneurship Competition, StartUp Weekend Cyprus, Hack Cyprus Insights Tech Conference and so forth.

All of these initiatives support a rising wave of Cypriot-based and/or Cypriot-founded startups, which have received commendations and positions at the world-renowned Web Summit in Dublin, national Championships at the European Business Awards, and raised seed-fund rounds from local and international investors. Startups like ENERMAP, Avocarrot, Cocoon Creations, Pollfish, Teach’n’Go, Diyful, Funifi, StudentLife, Instaplace and AtYourService, Social Airways are some of these champions.

The story continues with young Cypriots making their way to Silicon Valley. Michalis Rossides, a 25-year old Cypriot software engineer at Twitter, describes:

“There are a lot of successful Cypriots in Silicon Valley; working for tech giants, small startups or even starting their own companies. Most of them pursued their university degrees in the US, which made them realize early on, how fierce the competition is and put them in the right mindset to set ambitious goals and strive hard to achieve them”.

 

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“A transatlantic sail”

Some of the key differences between Silicon Valley and European-based startup clusters are usually found in the ways that risk is perceived and startup failure is dealt with in each side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless this dogma has faded over the recent years, as a more entrepreneurial Europe is on the rise. Startup clusters in Europe are actually increasing in size and numbers. One example amongst many is the United Kingdom, which recently sought the development of the government and industry backed ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in London, and has been benefiting from the innovations spinning out of the Cambridge cluster (known as the Silicon Fen) for the last 50 years or so. As our article discusses, such ecosystems are now in development in Greece and Cyprus as well. Indeed, it is still early to compare these two examples to the older and more developed entrepreneurial ecosystems in Europe or Israel – let alone Silicon Valley that has been growing exponentially for more than half a century. Nonetheless, the ecosystem growth in both the cases of Greece and Cyprus is interesting to say the least. The two nations are now enhanced with a growing network of expats in Silicon Valley, as well as the potential of future knowledge and skill-transfers deriving from such links. According to Niko Bonatsos, Principal at the Palo Alto-based venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners:

“The last 3-4 years numerous young Greeks made their way to the Bay Area in order to work, invest or just get the experience of the Valley. That way many Greek startups manage not only to take their businesses global but also to create new links between Athens and San Francisco”.

Jason and the Argonauts had to fight against mythical creatures (not much different to the ones you can find at a ComicCon) and extreme natural phenomena before they got back home. Their stories reveal the persistence and the passion that kept them moving no matter what came their way. The growth of the Greek and Cypriot entrepreneurial ecosystems is not a walk in the park either. Similar to the journey of their ancestors, modern Argonauts are progressing to their goals slowly, gradually and by overcoming a plethora of hurdles.

 

Editor’s Note: The article voices the personal thoughts, experiences and research of its authors. It is not an extension of Professor Saxenian’s research and outstanding work. If you would like to find out more about the story of the ‘New Argonauts’ by AnnaLee Saxenian, consider her book “The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy”.