The Orange Grove initiative is a Dutch-Greek start-up which aims to stem the brain drain and reduce youth unemployment, writes Maria Vasileiou.
It might sound like an initiave to stimulate citrus farmers in Greece, but Orange Grove is actually a start-up incubator in Athens launched with the help of Dutch money.
At the flexible workspace of Orange Grove, a typical example of crowd funding initiated by the Dutch embassy in Athens, around 80 young Greek and Dutch entrepreneurs get together, work, network, learn, meet like-minded people and follow master classes and lectures by experts from Dutch multinational and Greek companies and university professors.
Among the companies involved is Heineken’s subsidiary in Greece (Athenian Brewery), which is the main sponsor of Orange Grove, Interamerican, Philips, KLM and Coco-Mat. Academic experts offering master classes to the young entrepreneurs come from Dutch and Greek top-ranked universities.
‘Orange Grove is very much a group effort. Many people and institutions with a link to both countries contribute,’ explains Jan Versteeg, the Dutch ambassador in Greece. ‘The bill is almost entirely paid by Dutch and Greek companies. Many of them are very important players in the Greek economy.’
The idea was first conceived on board a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Athens in February 2013, after Versteeg had visited a similar incubator in Groningen. The next steps involved discussions with alumni of Dutch universities living in Athens and Greek students in the Netherlands, but also with Dutch ministers.
When foreign affairs minister Frans Timmermans visited Greece in April last year the ambassador raised the idea with him. As he says: ‘the minister exploded with enthusiasm’.
Two months later Eurogroup president and Dutch minister of finance Jeroen Dijsselbloem also encouraged the embassy team to push on with the project. Academics and business leaders then came on board.
The Orange Grove initiative aims to stem the brain drain and youth unemployment issues in Greece. Six out of 10 Greek young people are currently jobless. But those who are selected to join Orange Grove are given the opportunity to create their own start-up company.
‘Our aim is to help turn brain drain into two-way brain mobility. We offer help to young entrepreneurs, so they can stay here and work on their innovative idea, or return to Greece after finishing their studies in the Netherlands or elsewhere, says Versteeg.
When Boukje Vastbinder, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Delft University of Technology first visited Orange Grove in November, she was impressed by the variation in business ideas and the enthusiasm.
‘The entrepreneurs seem to be highly educated, in Greece and abroad, and very motivated to work at an exciting start-up. The products seem to connect with recent start-up trends or strengths of the Greek society and economy like agriculture, tourism, transport and shipping,’ she says.
Michalis Sinodinos joined Orange Grove when the initiative started in autumn last year. After having studied economics in Europe and the USA and working on a project in Asia and in a governmental department in Athens he found himself jobless.
‘At that point I said to myself: I will either join Orange Grove or leave Greece,’ he says. After six months with the project, he has developed Poseadon, an app which gives information to people at sea about their whereabouts.
‘The difference between a navigator system and our project is that the user becomes part of the map,’ says the 35-year-old, who has been sailing since the age of six.
Sinodinos is currently looking for funds to take his product to market and calls his experience at Orange Grove ‘a real opportunity’.
‘When [European commissioner] Neelie Kroes was here, we had the chance to speak to her directly and show her our projects. We asked her how we could access European funds for financing,’ Sinodinos explains. ‘At Orange Grove we also learned how to cooperate. Most of us stay here until late in the evening talking about our projects and brainstorming about new possibilities.’
Christina Stribacu, a 33-year-old art history graduate, says Orange Grove made it possible for her to start exporting her family’s olive oil production under her own brand, LIA.
‘Until recently we were selling to a wholesaler. But now we have started exporting to France and Belgium and we will soon expand to the Netherlands and to New York under our own label,’ she explains.
Both Sinodinos and Stribacu were among the first group of entrepreneurs to join Orange Grove. ‘The initial group consisted of young people working on ten start-ups,’ says Natasha Apostolidi, political advisor at the Dutch embassy, who is also in charge of running Orange Grove.
‘The second group was made up of 20 projects and the third, which has been finalised, has another 10. Projects have to be innovative in order to be selected.’
Every project is ‘allowed’ to use the premises for a full year. ‘During the next few months we will see how many of these projects manage to get financing and become independent enterprises,’ says Apostolidi.
The success rate will also be taken into account when the initiative is evaluated afte three years.
In the meantime, official visitors are on the increase. Dutch trade minister Lilianne Ploumen and senior economic affairs ministry official Simon Smits were two of the latest visitors, and representatives from Dutch embassies around the world have been looking at how the project was set up.
‘The initiative is still very young but seems to be a big success already in terms of getting exposure for the Greek start-up scene and in the amount of start-ups that entered the programme,’ says Delft’s Vastbinder.
Of course, Greece cannot compare to Silicon Valley or Amsterdam, one of Europe’s hottest start-up capitals. Yet the project’s supporters see such developments as an unquestionable sign of latent potential, reflecting a spin in the country’s sad economic story.
The seeds are growing roots, nourished by the ideas and entrepreneurial spirit of a new generation, marking Greece’s efforts for deeply grounded turnaround, but also Europe’s potential for effective cooperation.
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