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Lessons from Greece: University incubators bridge the gap between research and business

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Examples of successful ventures that have started as academic research spin-offs prove that entrepreneurship and university life go hand in hand and that a significant innovation value stems from combining the two. According to the 2020 World Benchmarking Study of UBI Global that aims to identify the common best practices that characterize the biggest innovation hubs worldwide, the best university business incubators are situated in the UK, Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands. Even though the SEE region has not yet ranked in the study, some universities are making significant progress in instilling an entrepreneurial mindset in students and building the future regional innovators. Established and operated by the Athens University of Economics and Business with the support of the Athens Municipality, The Athens Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEin) helps young local founders and researchers to turn their innovative ideas into ventures with sustainable business models. The ACEin has a mission to bridge the existing gap between valuable insights and outcomes coming from scientific and academic research, on the one hand, and their transformation into commercial solutions, on the other hand. 

“The education systems in Greece have been for a long time concentrated in training the students to become executives because business success used to be associated with working in an international company,” shares the Network Manager and Entrepreneurial teams’ and development strategist of ACEin Elli Diakanastasi. She elaborates that these long-lasting trends are now starting to change, but Greek founders are still risk-averse and afraid of failure. “That is why we should focus on making the Greek entrepreneurial education more focused on developing the types of skills and mindsets that would allow Greek young entrepreneurs to embrace risk and perceive failures as opportunities to grow,” explains Diakanastasi. 

Navigating the innovation cycle 101

The university incubator supports the teams by connecting them with mentors from the ACEin network that consists of leading experts and innovators from the Greek local and diaspora communities such as Nikolas Afordakos, who is the Global Head of Technology and Audit at Revolut, and the BizDev Manager of Palantir Technologies, Pieris Christofi. The organization uses a toolbox of various initiatives that cover the full innovation cycle – from providing aspiring entrepreneurs with inspiration and education to offering already established teams support in incubation and acceleration and engaging startups with working solutions in market validation through corporate innovation. 

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The ACEin holds regular startup and innovation competitions between universities across the country and so far, it has incubated more than 90 teams, 15 of which have reached the point of closing a successful fundraising round. To offer the startups from its portfolio a chance to validate their products and apply them to solve real-world business challenges, the Center organizes annual 8-months Open Innovation programs that connect corporate innovators with tech talents and research teams. Examples of startups success stories that have their beginning in the ACEin are the 3D and AR startup that allows businesses to offer 3D customer experiences online and offline Placeme, the centralized database for land evaluation Solar Energy Land and the Marine Remote Sensing Group (SciDrones) that develops solutions for the visual representation of marine geospatial data. 

Why is failure necessary to thrive?

 Elli Diakanastasi highlights that in order for the Greek innovation ecosystem to reach the next level, more students and faculty from polytechnical schools should meet and collaborate with students and faculty from business schools. “Researchers should not be afraid to bring their research outcome to market and heavy legal requirements should be reduced to make it easier for them to start a business and to attract investors,” she concludes. 

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Elena is an Innovation Reporter at The Recursive, an online media dedicated to the emerging tech and startup ecosystems in Southeast Europe. She is keen on sharing the innovation stories that shape the regional ecosystem and has a great interest in fintech, IoT, and biotech startups. Elena is currently finishing her Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and Political Science at the American University in Bulgaria.
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