Leontios Stampoulidis sits in a small office, surrounded by computers and micro-electronic equipment. Like many Greeks these days, he calls the economic crisis his country is going through "an obsession," particularly for people in their mid-30s.
"We have to fight for three generations," Stampoulidis tells me. "We fight for ourselves, and for our kids. We don't want to hand over a country that's collapsing to them. And we also have to fight for our parents, because people on pensions were the first to take the heat when the crisis came."
Such stories are part of the fabric of life in Greece these days. Jobs have been axed, wages and pensions slashed, and social safety nets have almost completely broken down. Homelessness and suicides are both on the increase. Young people, particularly those who are educated and talented, seem to be crowding the exits, looking for the next flight out. And despite the approval of the latest bailout, many Greeks feel that the worst is yet to come.
But Stampoulidis and his business partner, Efstratios Kehayas, are bullish on Greece, especially when it comes to the role that technology might play in helping in the country’s recovery. The two entrepreneurs, who met while completing their PhDs at Greece's National Technical University in Athens, founded a company called Constelex a few years ago.
Constelex makes light amplifiers for fiber-optic networks. Giving the light a boost and extending the range of the network, the co-founders tell me, has applications in telecommunications, remote sensing, aerospace and medicine.
Both Stampoulidis and Kehayas could have taken their knowledge and skills and gone elsewhere to look for work, or start a company. Like many of their friends, they could have left Greece's economic woes, its stifling bureaucracy and corruption, far behind. But they did not.
"For us, it was a no-brainer," Kehayas says. "We wanted to build something in our country, and then offer something back in the form of new jobs, and new products that can be exported."
That is music to the ears of Vassilios Makios, Professor Emeritus at the University of Patras, and General Director of Corallia, the Hellenic Technology Clusters Initiative. Makios himself left Greece in the 1960s to study electrical engineering in Germany. For years after, he taught at Carleton University in Ottawa before returning to Greece in 1978.
His time in North America convinced him that he needed to kick-start technology entrepreneurship in Greece. In the ensuing years, he sent more than 600 Greek students abroad in the hope that they would return to Greece with new ideas about technology and how to do business.
He watched new Greek tech companies spring up, only to fail because of funding problems, bad business plans or because they failed to patent their ideas. What these start-ups needed, Makios thought, was a little bit of a push in the right direction, and a whole lot more cooperation.
And so, in 2006, he joined forces with two other Greeks who had worked at the famous Bell Labs, and asked for some seed money from the Greek government and the European Union to start Corallia. He is now at the forefront of a push to get the Greek government, and budding Greek engineers and technologists, to see the value in clustering, an idea popularized by Michael Porter at Harvard Business School.
The idea is pretty straightforward: you put groups of complementary start-ups together in the same building, and they all start feeding off one another to develop new ideas and new products. In 2006, Corallia, with that seed money from the Greek government and the European Union, tried this clustering idea with 13 micro-electronics companies in Greece.