- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2011

ATHENS — A few Greek entrepreneurs perch in front of laptops in bare offices above a ground-floor supermarket, a five-minute walk from the Athens square convulsed by riots two months ago over the country’s economic crisis.

“Innovate,” a wall slogan exhorts. “Originate.” A bowl of fist-sized plastic balls sits on a table, ripe for the plucking.

Sure, the touches are geeky. But if there is hope for debt-laden Greece, which has just been bailed out again by the European Union, there is a glimmer of it here. A small enterprise called CoLab Workspace rents space to tech-savvy startups on the theory that the more they mingle, the more they thrive.

This nascent pocket of dynamism won’t make much of a dent in a culture of freeloading and favor-trading that burrowed deep into the Greek psyche, but it is a symbol, however rarefied, of fresh thinking.

For the problem is not just the numbers, the dots that connect a picture of economic collapse. Unemployment, austerity measures, bailout funds and the slumping stock market are one thing.

Modern Greece, whose ancestors laid the foundations of art, democracy and individualism, also is reckoning with ingrained habits of dependence, accompanied today by a yawning sense of betrayal and hopelessness, that block its path to recovery.

“It’s extremely difficult. Here, in general, innovation never existed. The majority of the companies, they relied on the state, on the government. It was a totally wrong approach,” said Vassilis Nikolopoulos, a computer engineer whose information technology startup, Intelen, aims to help firms monitor and curb their energy consumption.

He recently shifted his operations to CoLab Workspace from a conventional office that cost more.

Declaring that “the state is dead,” in that it has no money to support projects, Mr. Nikolopoulos said he has raised about one-third of the roughly $300,000 needed for initial funding from private investors and that his seven-member company plans to export services even if it entails failure, a rite of passage for any aggressive entrepreneur.

“We only consume,” he said of the passive culture of Greek business. “There was no need to create something, because you would sell to the state.”

Educated in several European countries, Mr. Nikolopoulos registered his company in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus to attract foreign investment from traders who give Greece a wide berth, and to avoid the shackles of Greek business culture, including corruption, bureaucracy and heavy taxation.

Mr. Nikolopoulos is the picture of a smart corporate executive, with the jargon to match — he says he will “attack the market” — but he draws inspiration from some unexpected sources.

Outlining his business philosophy, he evoked Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary vision and praised the prime minister of Turkey, Greece’s historical enemy, for firm leadership while presiding over his country’s economy boom.

Many of Greece’s brightest minds, however, feel they have no choice but to build careers abroad, anticipating an opportunity drought that will last a decade.

Nikos Georgiopoulos, a 29-year-old former employee of the International Monetary Fund, recently found a job in the insurance industry in Vienna, Austria. His sister, a biologist, failed to find work in Greece and got a job in Switzerland. His father imports auto parts but is struggling to keep his small business afloat.

Story Continues →