A U.S. Visit Helps Ideas Grow Into Businesses in Greece

Anna Garcin recently and "by accident" discovered that Greece produces high-quality and underutilized silk. Anna is one of the entrepreneurs behind five new startups in Greece that visited the U.S. last month. For many of them, this was their first visit. They are all finalists in the first Startup Series organized by Metavallon ("bringing change" in Ancient Greek), an organization that accelerates ideas and new ventures in Greece.

"I was at the metro in Syntagma last winter," she recalls. "There was an exhibition of Greek products. I was not in a hurry so I stopped: there was a booth with a couple from Soufli, selling silk."

Soufli is a small town in the northeast corner of Greece, where sericulture, or silk production, flourished in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Production of cocoons dropped significantly in recent decades with the invention of synthetic silk, automated production and competitive Chinese silk.

"I never heard of Soufli but I immediately saw their silk was beautiful! I asked many questions, and went online as soon as I got home...A few weeks later, I went to Soufli, met the producers, saw their capacities, and this is where I decided to start my company."

Anna is launching ANNA TSALDARI, an affordable luxury silk clothing accessories brand. The venture includes a social impact goal: earn profit while generating income for the local community and keeping alive local know-how and tradition.

Andreas Litis and Constantine Leimonis also want to help local communities. They came up with the idea for during a visit to meet friend in Brussels: "We were strolling for a couple of hours with a traditional waffle in our hands and seeing some 'ordinary' tourist attractions. Then our friend suggested we go to a nearby city called Brugge. He took us to a place called De Garre, where the locals go and do one thing: they drink Garre, a locally produced beer that you can only find there. The most exciting part was that although it was situated in a very touristy place, it was very difficult to find the entrance." Formerly Greece Insiders, seeks to match travelers with trusted residents to facilitate unique and local experiences based on the particular interests of all involved.

For Manolis Nikiforakis a kite surfing hobby and the "major disappointment" resulting from inaccurate wind forecasts led to an idea. "As an engineer I wanted to do something about it." He and Stefanos Apostolopoulos co-founded WeatherXM, which will aggregate weather forecasts and crowd-source weather observations to not only improve the kite surfing experience, but to "to accelerate the progress of weather forecasting and promote the prosperity of our weather-sensitive economy and life."

The entrepreneurs' trip to New York City and Silicon Valley highlights the value of international exchange and partnerships in bringing ideas, creativity and innovation to life.

"Experiencing a thriving and potent entrepreneurial ecosystem is not only inspiring, it is an essential spark for our minds to grasp and envision the potential of our ideas, talent, and efforts," says Metavallon founder Alexandra Choli. "It is more than hope or aspiration of what may be; it is actual realization and the onset of planning for action towards what can be."

At the conclusion of the Silicon Valley visit, Metavallon announced a new partnership with Mozilla's WebFWD ("Web Forward"), a program to support entrepreneurs and products that promote openness and innovation on the web. The experience also had a direct impact on each venturer:

"The environment, people and sheer creative energy in the atmosphere are unique," says Stefanos. "Go to a cafe, meet a stranger and chances are she or he is working on some IT project. People approach you to pitch their ideas and ask for feedback. The synergies created this way are invaluable."

He and Manolis received some advice during a chance meeting. "On our last day, outside an Apple Store, we bumped in to Yiannis Varelas and Katerina Stroponiati, creators of Weendy, a Twitter for watersports app...they provided us some great tips for our revenue model, based on their experience and investor feedback."

"I think the entrepreneurs in the U.S. are more confident and ambitious," observed Gloria Konstantoudaki. Driven by her own desire for healthy, affordable and fast food options, Gloria, a biologist, yoga instructor and food enthusiast, is launching Trozato, a healthy food and beverage chain of takeout stores. Through the stores and healthy living courses, she aims to help people achieve a healthier and more conscious way of living.

The New York visit included a presentation and networking reception with individuals from the Greek-American community and others, organized by the Greek Press Office and the Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.

The Fellows agreed that the Greek-American community and Greece can help aspiring and startup Greek entrepreneurs by supporting accelerators and incubators like Metavallon. They also encourage more educational trips to the U.S., and internship opportunities for Greek youth in large companies.

Yiannis Gkoufas and Stratos Theodorou suggest the community organize "meet-ups with successful Greek startups both in Greece and in the U.S. to offer their valuable insights and advise [young people] to the right direction." They founded Reethm, a web platform to bridge the online and offline activities of music enthusiasts - DJs, music venue attendees, venue owners - and enhance the social interactions around music experiences.

According to Stefanos, the economic crisis exacerbated the risk-averse culture already prevalent in Greece and pushing against entrepreneurship. "People will look down on you for leaving your job to focus on a new, unproven idea. Failure is considered career-ending and the result is that most people are forced into the role of a follower rather than a trailblazer."

As an antidote, Yiannis and Stratos urge people to motivate youth to think outside the box and develop exciting and innovative ideas.

"Don't be afraid to talk about your idea," Gloria advises aspiring young entrepreneurs. "The feedback you get is valuable. If you feel it go for it, and the ecosystem will follow."

Metavallon also has its eye on the broader ecosystem. It supported this year's STARTup Live Athens event focusing on Social and Cultural Entrepreneurship as a mentor and award partner, and participated in Global Entrepreneurship Week Greece activities.

Metavallon's Startup Series is a comprehensive program to educate, mentor and support aspiring entrepreneurs in their path from idea to business launch, securing funds, and first venturing footsteps. It is currently reviewing applications for its second Startup Series.