Filippos Zakopoulos the Executive Director of the Found.ation, discusses the evolution of the start-ups ecosystem in Greece and the Balkan region and how the European Union is supporting and enabling further growth.
The Digital Post: How the Found.ation operates to help tech startups build?
Filippos Zakopoulos: Found.ation has been a key player in the startup scene since 2011. Starting as a co-working space and then acting as an incubator, it has provided a great number of startups with valuable advice and access to a big network of key players of the startup ecosystem, such as mentors and investors. Also, having some of Greece’s largest companies as its clients, Found.ation has contributed in organizing acceleration programs, innovation competitions and hackathons, thus contributing in creating more opportunities for Greek startups, as well as startups from the greater Balkan region.
Looking more specifically into the acceleration and incubation pillar, a number of the companies that have taken part in Found.ation’s programs have raised 6M Euro in funding from local and international VCs. This corresponds to 15% of all VC-backed technology companies in Greece during 2013-2016.
Moreover, Found.ation acts as the local touchpoint for many international institutional investors, VCs and accelerators. Found.ation events have hosted so far Seedcamp, TheFamily, T-Ventures, Hub:raum, Axel Springer Plug&Play, Eleven, Launchub, Kompass Digital, Mojo Capital, 212 Ventures and the European Investment Fund, among others. Since 2015, Found.ation signed an exclusive agreement with the European open innovation organization EIT Digital, under the Arise Europe Program, with the objective of strengthening the Greek startup ecosystem, through the implementation of common, well-structured initiatives. The aim of the collaboration is to foster the ecosystem, support startups, give them faster access to the wider European market and hook them up with potential investors.
TDP: What are the plans for the forthcoming future?
FZ: Found.ation originally established in 2011 as one of the first co-working spaces in SE Europe, but has evolved also as a digital transformation consultant for corporations and a tech education hub. Our team strongly believes in the interaction between established corporations and startups. One of the key roles of Found.ation is to highlight these opportunities for cooperation between these two polar opposites and we already work with companies and organizations such as COSMOTE (Greece’s top telecommunication provider), Eurobank (one of the country’s largest banks) and the Municipality of Athens to make this happen. But startups are not the only ones to benefit from this kind of cooperation. Incumbents need to transform in order to stay agile and competitive and Found.ation helps them design innovative digital strategies, by teaching them how to adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset.
TDP: How do you see the European startups ecosystem evolving?
ZP: Europe is still far from becoming a new Silicon Valley, but on a more local level there are a lot of cities emerging as mature hubs, providing fertile soil for entrepreneurial bloom, like Amsterdam, Paris and Stockholm, among established spots like Berlin and London. The rest of the European countries are following their lead –Hungary and Estonia are emerging nods–, although they have yet a lot of distance to cover. Even in Southern and Eastern Europe, where the financial situation poses a significant barrier for prosperity, one can see optimistic signs of progress.
TDP: Is the European Union doing enough? What further actions should be taken in your view?
ZP: The first step towards solving a problem is identifying it. Europe has understood that it needs to take action and help local startup ecosystems in order for them to help boost their countries’ economies. A good example in this direction is the launch of EquiFund in Greece, part of the Commission’s Investment Plan for Europe. The new €260m Fund-of-Funds program, managed by the European Investment Fund, aims to boost entrepreneurship, by attracting private funding to all investment stages of the local equity market. But unlocking the equity potential in the market is only one part of the equation. The next step is to create policies that will enhance survivability and strengthen the ecosystem, such as tax and regulatory incentives. These measures need to be applied in local as well as pan-European level.
One of the most remarkable crowd-fuding stories of the last years comes from Sweden. The Digital Post talks with Minut co-founder Marcus Ljungblad about how his project Point made a splash on Kickstarter.
The Digital Post: Behind “Point“ there is an outstanding crowd-funding story. Tell us more.
Marcus Ljungblad: Although we founders, Nils Mattisson, Martin Lööf, Fredrik Ahlberg and I are all from Sweden, we actually started out in Shenzhen, China. By the time we arrived in China we had put together a working prototype of a connected fire alarm. But no first prototype survives contact with user testing.
On the ground in Shenzhen, we were able to utilise the enormous eco-system to rapidly prototype and test different ideas—those who survived ultimately lead to Point. We knew we were on to something when, during a customer interview, the customer asked to buy one of the products then and there.
At that time we didn’t even know if it could be mass produced, let alone had we given Point its name. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and we launched on Kickstarter.
Over the next 30 days we raised almost 5x our goal and had received customers from every continent all across the world.
After the crowdfunding campaign ended we headed back directly to Shenzhen to get to establish the supply-chains we needed and to get Point to production. Today we are shipping our first batch, which is all sold out, to more than 2000 customers and we are a week from producing the second batch.
The Digital Post: What is Point about? How does it work?
ML: As apartment owners ourselves we felt there is a disconnect between us and our homes when we weren’t there. How can I know everything is OK at home when I’m away? Point is camera-free option to stay informed about the important things when you are away.
Did my fire alarm go off? Has there been unexpected noise? Or, if I rent out my home, how do I know that no one is smoking inside or staying quiet during late hours? Point uses a range of sensors and combines a lot environment data to inform users when something is amiss.
Everything is computed on Point, so no sensitive information ever leaves your home. It’s dead-simple to install and is designed to blend-in into any home.
The Digital Post: What should be improved in Europe to help young startups?
ML: Make it easier to offer shares and options to the earliest employees in the company. It is not only the founders who contribute to a company’s success, your first hires and are equally important and you want to reward them accordingly. While starting out, however, it is often expensive to compensate on salary only.
Shares and options offers a way to reward your employees if the company does well. A reward they are rightly entitled to! We’d love to see governments in Europe make it easier for startup founders to share their success with their employees.
The Digital Post: Can Europe match the success of Silicon Valley and Shenzen? What should be the ingredients?
ML: The aim should not be to compete with Silicon Valley or Shenzhen, these are unique ecosystems and they are extremely good at what they do already. Rather, Europe as a whole, should spend its energy doing what it does best: nurturing companies that start global from day one.
Sweden is an important market for us. Users are connected and it has an tech friendly culture. But it is too small on it’s own. If we want to truly affect users relationships with their homes we need to look beyond Sweden.The EU should continue to focus on lowering the barriers to entry to other European markets.
Soon every new company will be ready to take on the much larger, and much much more diverse, global market. And it can do so faster than it’s American and Chinese counterparts. Europe is small, diverse and open, we should use that to our advantage to compete—not to become another Silicon Valley or Shenzhen.
Photos Credit: Iwan Gabovitchhttps
We have great minds in Europe, highly-qualified young people, good infrastructure, financial resources, strong industries. And yet not a single world tech champion has emerged in Europe in the last 30 years. A specific StartUp initiative within the Digital Single Market Strategy is the right way to address these concerns.
European StartUps expect the European Commission and policy-makers in Brussels (and across the EU) to deliver an ambitious and clear signal that the Digital Single Market Strategy will address their needs and expectations. And this for one single and clear objective: be able to grow and scale in Europe.
However, this cannot happen by magic, nor by chance.
We have great minds in Europe, highly-qualified young people, good infrastructure and financial resources. I see this everyday in our activities with the European Young Innovators Forum in our more than 16 hubs across Europe.
Yet, our best people are leaving – or willing to – to StartUp ecosystems that are more welcoming to their ambitions. We have a world-leader automotive industry, yet the automated cars are coming from Google or Apple.
We have strong industries but not a single world tech champion has emerged in Europe in the last 30 years. I believe that a specific StartUp initiative within the Digital Single Market Strategy is the right way to address these concerns.
The European StartUps Initiative would see a set of measures addressed specifically to support highly innovative small companies and create the conditions for the emergence of a strong pan-european tech scene.
Such an initiative would send an unequivocal message to the emerging –and everyday stronger – European ecosystem, but not only. It will also be a signal to foreign investors that something is changing in Europe and there are more opportunities and potential deals to be concluded in this continent. The story-telling is as important as the content.
Moreover, such an initiative would not only be symbolic but would have an concrete effect: unlock startups growth and scale capabilities. How do we achieve this?
One key measure –and highly symbolic – would be the creation of a European Statute for the highly-innovative small companies.It’s nice when European leaders and policy-makers talk about regulatory simplification. It would be even better if they actually do it.
One statute, that would enable European StartUps to operate in the Digital Single Market without any obstacle and burden would be a great step and would definitely attract investment for young entrepreneurs and innovators.
Investors want simplicity and certainty. Such a statute would also facilitate the emergence of a true European Venture-Capital Market where capital flows more easily to different startups ecosystems.
Finally, copyright. We need to adapt it to the Digital Single Market. It’s a shame that Spotify had to leave Europe due to regulatory issues to be able to grow and scale.
A StartUp initiative would not be successful if we do not work on the ecosystems and people’s skills. It goes together. One supports the other. Making the European startup ecosystem stronger means supporting the diversity of actors who act as the enablers and builders.
It is through them that young entrepreneurs and innovators could access better mentoring and training opportunities, improve their digital skills and be connected to other innovators and entrepreneurs in Europe and the world.
On February 18th, the European Young Innovators Forum organized a European StartUp showcase at the Global Innovation Summit in the Silicon Valley as part of its Disrupt Europe Year activities.
I can tell you that American investors were seduced by the bright European minds and ideas. And you just need to visit the Silicon Valley to discover that there are more Europeans entrepreneurs than any other nationality. It’s great time that Europe seize the opportunity, the innovation train is leaving, and we shouldn’t be the losers of the digital boom.