Jim Armitage: Technology entrepreneurs who are changing the script of Greek tragedy
Global Outlook: Athens now has four venture capitalist houses – a couple of years ago there were none
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Saturday 24 August 2013
Eric Parks could easily be taken for yet another Silicon Valley tycoon. You know the type: big personality, broad American accent, talks in colourful tech jargon and calls you Dude.
But, in fact, this 38-year-old is one of a small but growing clan – the Athens technology entrepreneur.
Mr Parks was brought up in the city then globe-trotted through universities in the US and the UK, before settling down to work in America.
He explains: “I was working in Colorado and just woke up one day and realised: I’m 1,500 miles from the sea. I’m half Greek. This is just not going to work!”
Back in Athens, he and his web-savvy friends founded a messaging app called Pinnatta. With no venture capitalists to speak of in the city, they had to head to Silicon Valley for funds, tapping Sequoia Capital among others.
That was in 2011. This year, the latest venture he’s involved with, Pollfish, secured its full, €300,000 (£ 257,886) seed finance entirely from Greek venture capital.
Thanks to a mixture of EU and private funding, plus red-tape cutting for start-ups demanded by “the Trokia” – the EU, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank – and the launch of collaborative workspaces offering support and guidance for young entrepreneurs, Athens has developed its own nascent silicon scene. It now has four venture-capital houses in the city where a couple of years ago there were none.
“A few years ago you had to almost emigrate to get funding but now we have a vibrant environment. It’s a big psychological change,” Mr Parks says. “And, crucially, here I can hire brilliant engineers of Silicon Valley quality for a quarter of the price.”
It isn’t just Pinnatta and Pollfish set to benefit from the new environment. Other Athens digital startups include Bugsense, Taxibeat and Incrediblue – a kind of booking.com for boats and yachts.
It is the kind of story the Greek government desperately needs to get out to its increasingly desperate and disenfranchised youth.
So far, the political narrative – and the reality in people’s pay packets, pensions and redundancy notices – has been of cuts, cuts, cuts: forced upon it by the Troika in return for bailout funds. Not to mention big rises in their tax bills.
Mr Parks evangelises about how his country needs to find a new story – one in which entrepreneurs lead the way to an economy in which the brightest want to start businesses, rather than get easy, well-paying jobs in the state sector.
He is a fine antidote to the easy German cliche of the tax-dodging Greek layabout. There are more tech-savvy folks like him in the city, who could quite easily up sticks for San Francisco or London to make themselves rich but choose to stay.
The fear has to be that, if the conditions imposed on Greece get any worse, even these hardy souls will quit. A Grexit would make such an exodus inevitable.
Less is definitely more for Russian computer nerds
Eric Parks says Greece’s graduates make bright, and cheap, programmers. But at Goldman Sachs, it’s Russian boffins they’re after.
So says the Muscovite maths genius Sergey Aleynikov, the former Goldman algorithmic trading programmer convicted of stealing computer code from the bank last year. In this month’s Vanity Fair, as well as protesting his innocence, he describes how more than half the programmers designing Goldman’s super-fast algorithmic trading programmes were Russians.
The reason? They’re the best on Wall Street. Mr Aleynikov says that, for his generation at least, this is because their badly-kitted out universities don’t allow them much time on computers.
“In Russia, time on the computer was measured in minutes,” he says. The result being, he claims, an unmatched skill in creating programs that work first time without the need for constant rewriting to eliminate the bugs.
Given the events on Wall Street this week, featuring not one but two major episodes of major computer glitches, one wonders: did the programmers involved at Goldman and Nasdaq spend too much time on their computers at college?
Georgia’s new leader has the West worried
When you’ve got $6bn (£3.84bn) in the bank, it’s easy enough to speak your mind. But Georgia’s billionaire newish prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili should perhaps be more circumspect.
The man who made his fortune in Russia before deciding to turn his mind back home won a bad-tempered coalition drive to push out the pro-Western party of outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili, pictured left, last year.
Some in Western governments fear he wants to turn the country’s allegiances back to mother Russia. He counters that he wants to be friends with east and west and still wants Georgia to join the EU and Nato.
But his government has detained dozens of Mr Saakashvili’s officials on corruption charges. Yesterday he said Mr Saakashvili himself could face the same fate for presiding over a country “smothered by corruption”.
The US has already voiced concern at the arrests and will be rightly concerned by this latest outburst.
If he is serious about keeping ties with the West, he should stop threatening to use the courts to silence his opposition. Such talk may wash with Moscow, but Western capitals might take a different view.
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