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Recovering Greece

How do you cure a distressed economy? One startup at a time.
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Marina Hatsopoulos
Marina Hatsopoulos
Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Enginering

In early June, Marina Hatsopoulos SM ’93, an investor and entrepreneur, threw a networking party at her Boston condo. Over sushi and cocktails, 10 young Greek technology entrepreneurs pitched business ideas to 50 Boston-based Greek and Greek-American investors and business leaders. “We didn’t know each other at all,” says Hatsopoulos, “but one thing about the Greeks — we can become best friends overnight.”

This event began a week-long series of business-building opportunities, engineered by Hatsopoulos. In addition to networking, the aspiring Greek CEOs would attend an international technology startup bootcamp run at MIT. If everything clicked the way Hatsopoulos hoped, the entrepreneurs would leave with their business dreams much closer to reality.

As she knew well, entrepreneurs sorely lacked such prospects in Greece, a nation paralyzed by financial crisis, rampant unemployment, and political turmoil. In her frequent travels to that country, Hatsopoulos had been struck by the level of “emotional despair” gripping Greek citizens.

But a visit last October gave her a different view. In Athens to address the two-year-old MIT Enterprise Forum Greece (MITEF Greece), she was surprised to see “a great interest in entrepreneurship,” which she calls “a radical shift in aspiration” for a country with a tradition of public-sector jobs. “I had just visited Israel, and seen how they created a start-up economy in 50 years, with rockets firing at them,” says Hatsopoulos. “A light bulb went off: If Israel could do it in such a difficult environment, why not Greece?”

It also dawned on her that she was “uniquely situated to play a tiny role” in helping spark such an economic turnaround. “One thing Greeks are missing is a connection to the rest of the world,” she says. “They are so isolated, and don’t have access to everything a networked entrepreneur has, whether investors, suppliers, partners, or customers.” Who better than Hatsopoulos, with her own entrepreneurial background, networking expertise, MIT roots, and cultural and personal links to Greece, to forge that connection?

Hatsopoulos soon found enthusiastic partners on both the Atlantic and Aegean coasts. With the help of the MIT Enterprise Forum global office based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she began to gather Greeks and Greek-Americans in Boston to strategize how to help Greek entrepreneurs. Through the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, where she serves as a catalyst, Hatsopoulos learned of a newly reorganized international technology startup bootcamp to be held in the spring. She worked with MITEF Greece chairman Vassilis Papakonstantinou SM ’97, in the midst of running a startup competition in Athens, to channel his top talent into the Cambridge bootcamp.

“Creating something from nothing is such a rush for me,” says Hatsopoulos, who vividly remembers bootstrapping Z Corporation, her 3-D printing startup. Today, as a private investor and mentor for emerging tech talent, she continues to relish “putting programs in place where there’s no roadmap, and things are ill-defined and fuzzy.” Improvising approaches for helping Greek entrepreneurs satisfies this need, she suggests.

With financial support from the Hellenic Initiative, eight semifinalists of the MITEF Greece startup competition and two other Greek entrepreneurs arrived for the June bootcamp, led by Luis Perez-Breva, MIT research scientist and co-director of MIT Innovation Teams. “It was not the usual textbook business teaching,” Hatsopoulos says. The entrepreneurs’ first assignment during the week at the Stata Center was to negotiate for something — a discount, a free item — at the MIT Coop.

They also refined their business plans and honed their pitches. “They were so excited and couldn’t wait to tell you about their ideas,” says Hatsopoulos. Plans included a 3-D-printed avatar for precisely targeting radiation therapy in cancer patients; a smart economic news analysis and reporting platform; and a cloud-based software service for processing MRI exams.

Mentoring by Hatsopoulos, and her Boston-based entrepreneurial network during the bootcamp, and in subsequent months, has already begun to pay off for the visiting Greek entrepreneurs. Three participants of the bootcamp won top honors at the MITEF Greece startup competition in July, and other groups have found potential investors and collaborators.

“For these startups, the costs are so low, and they have access to really good and affordable talent, which is a huge advantage,” says Hatsopoulos. “I want to continue to work with MITEF Greece to help them out, and the next step is to make the U.S. network more cohesive and provide these entrepreneurs access to funding.” Her ultimate objective, she says, “is to increase employment in Greece.” Although the Greek crisis persists, Hatsopoulos remains optimistic, not least because of her experience with this group of emerging entrepreneurs. “They are so totally different in spirit from the country overall,” she says. “They have this amazing excitement and energy. They see only upside.” 

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