Opportunities in South East Europe?

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Greece has played a major role in science and technology in the past, if not recently, giving us the earliest scientists, much of the language of science, and as many people giving presentations about nanotechnologies never hesitate to remind us, the words ‘nano’ and ‘technology.’

I was in Athens this week on a non nano related mission and managed to find a free morning to spend exploring the Acropolis where much of western culture was founded, from democracy to philosophy. Although I did flush out a new nanotube company, my visit was more concerned with advising various institutions on commercialising technologies than scientific tourism. Many of the lessons learned in attempting to find ways to connect nanotechnologies with their eventual markets are applicable across a broader range of technologies, and I find a growing proportion of my time is being spent giving seminars in which I attempt to pass on this expertise, especially in rapidly developing economies.

In many respects, Greece has similar issues to the rest of southern Europe. The links between research and industry are tenuous, financial institutions are highly risk averse, and despite government initiatives which include everything from giving expert help to prepare your business plan to providing matching funding for any investment obtained, the engine of technology transfer is still spluttering.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between southern Europe, and countries such as the United States and United Kingdom is in the expertise in getting technologies to market. Universities such as Cambridge and Stanford have a long tradition of spinning out companies, and as a result there are role models, angel investors, and no shortage of technology management expertise. Across southern Europe, none of this exists, and while governments are becoming more business and technology friendly, there is little experience to draw on.

What I do see at the southern and eastern fringes of Europe, from Romania to Cyprus and from Greece to Portugal, is a growing number of technology opportunities that lack one or two elements that would enable them to evolve into viable businesses. There is certainly no shortage of talent or enthusiasm; the big question will be whether this can be harnessed effectively. If it can, then there will be a range of new opportunities leveraging these fast growing economies. On the other hand, the nightmare scenario is if these countries have to make the same mistakes as north western Europe before they gain the expertise to fully capitalise on this burgeoning talent pool.

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