Mourning the loss of Professor and personal mentor Christos Nikolaou

It’s with great sadness that I received the news of the sudden loss of Professor Christos Nikolaou, following an urgent surgical procedure that he undertook on Wednesday.
 
Words fail me in describing how well respected Christos was, both as a scientist and as an educator.
 
As one of the leading scientists in his field internationally, his arrival to the University of Crete, following his tenure at Harvard and the IBM research labs, led credence to the University and the then young Computer Science department.
 
During his tenure as a Professor and Rector of the University he was a force for change that brought forth great progress despite the hostility of the complacent status quo that culminated in a  badly orchestrated attack by the yellow press.
 
I personally, as well as StartTech and our whole entrepreneurial ecosystem, beginning with Virtual Trip, owe a lot to Christos.
 
Not only because he stood beside us in the most difficult times of the company, by assuming the role of Non Executive Chairman and lending us his support and his reputation when everything seemed to go south and our “friends” had deserted us, but also because he was there in our first, difficult, steps, supporting us with his advice, his contacts, his research collaboration and his encouragement whenever we were on the verge of giving up.
 
My earliest memory of him as a mentor, one that made a great impression on me and informed my future endeavors, was during the first year of the University, when he welcomed us freshmen on behalf of the Computer Science department. Istead of giving us the usual pep talk about our future degree preparing us for a well paid job or for a career in research, Christos simply told us that Forthnet (a tech company and big private sector success), was founded by people from our university, and wished us to “go on and create our own Forthnets”.
 
Those words must have sounded alien to most of my classmates at the time. After all it was long before the crisis, when most students still shared the “Greek dream” of a cosy public sector job. Today though, seeing the modern Greek startup scene, I cannot help but admire how prescient he was, and how ahead of its time was his advice.
 
I could go on an on about what kind of person Christos Nikolaou was. He was first my teacher and mentor, and then, after several years, a very good friend and business partner.
 
Life is short, and time can be unfair.
 
Christos Nikolaou left too early.
 
Even so, he managed to achieve a great many and important things, and to serve as an inspiration for the people around him. He was, indeed, a rare person.
 
For me, he will always be a role model and an example. I hope that our future proves us worthy of the trust that he embraced us with in our most difficult moments.
 
Goodbye dear friend,
 
Dimitris Tsingos
CEO – Vtrip Group

On vtrip’s 14th birthday: My big, sincere and warm “Thank you”

Exactly fourteen years ago, on Tuesday September 5th 2000, Virtual Trip Ltd was founded in Heraklion, Crete.

The founders were Periklis Akritidis, Miltos Vassilakis, Nikos Ventouras, Charalambos Gikas, Dimitris Tsingos and criticalpublics.com, a company founded by Costis Dallas and Alexandros Kouris.

Virtual Trip was a student start-up in the ICT sector, based in Heraklion, Crete at the Science & Technology Park of Crete. We all knew that success was anything but certain.
On the occasion of our 14th birthday, I’d like to extend a big, sincere and warm “Thank you” to my Virtual Trip founding partners. Without them, our entrepreneurial ecosystem would never have existed. So, Costi & Alexandre, Perikli, Milto, Niko & Hari, thank you very much for taking the risk and starting Virtual Trip. Over all, thank you for setting the culture of technical excellence, “aim high” and extroversion, which have been the success ingredients for our venture.

Virtual Trip has been the seed that spawned a portfolio of high-tech companies starting out of Greece that have succeeded in the international markets ― even in the times of the unprecedented crisis our country faced over the last years.

Successful ventures such as AbZorba Games, eFront e-Learning and TalentLMS, as well as new promising startups like Psycholate, StackMasters and Elorus stand as proof that this tough journey has been well travelled.

As far as I am concerned, the main lesson learnt from these ten years is very simple: “It’s all about the people”. Only people can make the difference. That’s why our objective remains to get people excited with high-technology, both in producing and in using/consuming it.

We’re still in the beginning, the best is yet to come 🙂

Thank you very much,
Dimitris Tsingos

The Hack4Med hackathon: building services on open data

Virtual Trip’s long experience in designing and developing information systems and services for the public and private sector, and our research and market commitment to the “internet of things”, made us appreciate early the importance of “open data” and the possibilities they offer.

“Open data” being, as you may know, the casual name for data sources that are made available for free by the state or by private enterprises and organisations. Data that can be as trivial as the telephone directory and as elaborate as climate measurements, and that can be leveraged to built third-party services.

As the international experience shows us, when “open data” are made available, tons of services and applications soon emerge that use them in novel and innovative ways to the benefit of the public. State measurements of air pollutants per region can be used to warn people with respiratory issues to avoid certain areas. Real time air traffic data can be used to display arrivals and departures for airports of interest. Both are examples of existing mobile applications. Many a startup has been founded on open data.

Of course it’s not just about small startups — “open data” have also been leveraged in services offered by established companies. The OpenStreetMap geolocation data that power iOS’s maps is just one such recent example.

That said, the simplicity of building an application or service that leverages some data source to present it to the public in a more convenient way makes “open data” especially suited to startups and small programming teams. After all it doesn’t take lots of capital and expensive equipment to query and display some data — and sometimes that’s all it takes to build a useful application. In fact, a talented programmer or a small team can even produce something useful during a hackathon (a contest in which programmers compete in building an application in a short time, usually up to a day).

With the above in mind, Virtual Trip is a proud sponsor of the Hack4Med hackathon, a programming marathon that will take place in five different EU countries simultaneously, as part of the HOMER (Harmonizing Open data in the Mediterranean through better access and Reuse of public sector information) programme.

Hack4Med aims to produce applications (either web or mobile) that leverage open data to solve issues related to tourism, culture, energy, aggricutlure and the environment.

The hackathon will commence on the afternoon of Friday, May 16th, and finish on the night of Saturday, May 17th. In Greece, Hack4Med will take place on the premises of the Computer Science department of the University of Crete, in Voutes (Heraklion).

More information about participating on the Hack4Med hackathon is available here:
http://hack4med.homerproject.eu/crete/

Web versus native rant, late 2013 edition

iTunes App Store has nearly 1 million mobile application titles. Google Play store has over half that. Huge numbers by any measure. Still, there were probably as many or more dinosaurs walking the earth around 65 million years B.C. ― and then there were none.

What I’m getting at is simple: native mobile apps will sooner or later go the way of the Triceratops. And the comet that will extinguish them is called the web.

We’ve seen this play out again: from the tons of disparate OSes and platforms of the wild 80’s, we saw DOS and then Windows take the vast majority of the application market, not because they were necessarily the best, but because they offered a good enough, ubiquitous platform, that was also cheaper to target.

Desktop OSes are already more or less obsolete for most people. If you exclude professional software and some power user and enterprisy stuff, Windows, OS X or desktop Linux are nowadays mainly used for working through the browser.

On smartphones, a less mature platform, things are a little different, with native apps winning the day. And yet, I posit, this reign of the native app is due to smartphones immaturity as platforms, and will sooner or later come to an end as inefficient, just like it did on the desktop side (with the exception of a few apps that really need the extra performance or access to the “metal”).

It’s probably not an argument you hear for the first time. And yet, a lot of people in the industry are not convinced. Here’s why I am:

It’s a matter of cost

Web based apps are just less expensive. Costly iOS and Android programmers can be replaced with cheaper (and far more plenty) web programmers. And not just any web programmers; for the same going rate as a native mobile programmer you can hire seasoned web professionals, each of which will cover not just one but all your target platforms.

Of course a web app that behaves well across platforms needs a lot of work and attention to detail. But 3 or 4 native ports for each platform need even more ― in addition to fighting with the native SDKs (or being at the mercy of some third party cross platform framework).

With a web app, you get to build your application’s prototype low cost, and then you get to keep it, polish it and ship it. And, if you publish your web app as a real web offering, and not on a native app container, you even avoid paying the 30% tax to the smartphone OS vendor.

It’s a matter of maturity

It’s not like we’re in early 00’s anymore, just starting to experiment with this new-fangled AJAX thing. The web stack is already incredibly rich and is getting more mature by the minute.

In the span of a decade, browsers gained crazy fast Javascript JIT compilers, accelerated 2D and 3D support (with vector graphics thrown in for good measure), and an ever expanding arsenal of CSS capabilities. And they continue to move forward, with stuff as JS subsets offering near native performance like (asm.js), real-time audio/video communication (WebRTC), and a stable audio API.

Such maturity means that most mobile applications that needed a native implementation before, can now be made in HTML5. In fact, a lot of them are already made in HTML5, and it’s not even like the end user can tell. Some of them are hybrid apps, taking advantage of web views plus native code, or platforms such as Appcelerator and PhoneGap.

Consider gaming, the classic example of an application genre that can benefit from high performance native code. While AAA titles like Infinite Blade and Real Racing continue to leverage native code to get every last ounce of performance out of mobile phones, the availability of hardware accelerated 2D/3D canvases and tons of mature game frameworks mean that most mobile games are nowadays built with web technologies.

Of course, most application domains are not even that demanding. Business apps, social networking apps, productivity apps, etc, can be created in HTML5. And they, all the more often, they are. Not as some kind of second rate offerings, but as full blown, meticulously crafted apps, such as Wunderlist or Google’s hybrid offerings.

For some things, web technologies are not just mature enough — they are clearly better than native. I know it from experience.

Teams I’ve worked with have created apps such as TalentLMS (a mobile-optimized SaaS e-learning platform) or DynaRoute (a dynamic platform for tourism based on cutting edge services/devices integration research) that are available across platforms and devices while at the same time providing easy expandability. I’ve seen similar projects in the nineties, and those kind of apps would have taken huge teams and thousands of man years to create without leveraging web technologies. Heck, just compare the complexity and learning curve of something like CORBA to the modern web equivalents.

It’s a matter of reach

Web applications help you reach all major mobile platforms quickly and with the same codebase (including UI code). Now, that can also be achieved by some cross platform frameworks like Xamarin’s C# based offerings. But web apps go beyond that, in letting you target the web. (Duh!)

And that is a big plus.

For one, because there are still those multi-billion home and enterprise users, with their laptops (and even desktops, if you believe it). In front of which they sit and work for hours every day.

Second, because the “web” means ubiquity. Without you even having to try that hard. Your app on Linux? The web has you covered. Windows Phone? The web has you covered. Future “smart TVs”? I bet you they’ll be running a web browser.

It’s a matter of (still more) time

Even though web based apps will trump native mobile apps in the not too distant future, unfortunately we’re not quite there yet.

While web based apps have better reach, are cheaper to make and offer more than acceptable performance, there are two major stumbling blocks on their way to feature parity with native apps (mobile or not).

The first problem is are platform restrictions which result in crippled or no access to various device functions (from lack of accelerated WebGL on an iPhone to difficulties in accessing the filesystem on a web browser).

Some of those restrictions are arbitrary, others stem security concerns and a few are meant to give the official native SDK a competitive advantage. All of them will have to be overcome for web applications to reach their full potential.

The second problem is perhaps more difficult to tackle. It has to do with the difficulty of monetisation of web based apps versus mobile apps. Part of it is cultural: people are not used to pay for stuff on the web, be it best of breed email access (like Gmail) or casual games. But the lack of a simple, familiar and secure system for paying also doesn’t help.

One can knock down iOS all day for being a walled garden kind of experience, but they have hundreds of millions of credit card accounts and a very easy process for buying an application. The same can’t be said for the web proper (or even Android, which followed a more open model, plagued with rampant piracy and users reluctance to pay for apps).

In order for web apps to thrive we need a user friendly way to handle payments (and micro-payments). Marketplaces such as Google Play help with that, but they don’t yet cover all the relevant payment models, or have enough reach. And speaking of reach, US only payment systems, such as Google Wallet or Amazon Payments will always be inadequate for the needs of a global app market. It’s 2013 already: if Apple and Paypal have worked these things out, so can others.

TL;DR;

If you’re an enterpreneur or a software shop thinking of bringing your idea to the market, don’t get so caught up on this “native” thing. Chances are you don’t need it to succeed, and you probably can’t afford it anyway. Having a quality app and being first to market with a smaller budget trumps any native purism.

After all, we’ve seen this story play out before.


Dimitris Tsingos
http://www.linkedin.com/in/tsigos

Dancing with CHOReOS

Virtual Trip might be a mighty strong enterprise solutions provider (with tons of successful projects and happy clients) but we also take research very seriously ― not just in the form of R&D for future products, but also cutting edge academic research.

In fact, we are proud to have just completed another such major research project, helping create the CHOReOS Integrated Development and Runtime Environment. The project, which tackles the problem of running ultra large scale internet services that work with huge amounts of heterogeneous devices, was developed by a consortium of academic organisations and industry partners from six European countries under EU’s Seventh Framework programme.

But what is CHOReOS exactly? Without getting into technical jargon, we can explain it by the problem it tries to solve, which is that our current approaches of organising networked devices break down in a world where everything, from our cellphone to our fridge, are networked (the “internet of things”) and intertwined into a huge amount of services (the “internet of services”). A world, in other words, which we are rapidly approaching, as the number of smart connected devices is estimated to surpass 2.2 billion units in 2017.

CHOReOS tackles this very problem of organising an inordinate amount of devices (since everything that can *will* be connected) that are also heterogeneous (since they have different technical specifications and understand different protocols). It does so by doing away with the old approach of “orchestrating” them (where there is a service that acts as a conductor and control is centralised and local) and replacing it with the notion of “choreography” (which is distributed, in the same way that dancers follow some general instructions without a single point of control).

CHOReOS (from the Greek “choros”, meaning dance) is a middleware technology that enables the execution of distributed coordination logic across different systems and devices. By providing an integrated development and runtime environment, it handles all aspects of the “choreography”, from the specification of the global coordination logic and the discovery of available services, down to the translation of messages between the different devices and operating systems.

If all these sound too abstract, perhaps a concrete example will help you grasp the full power and potential of the technology. To showcase CHOReOS, we created DynaRoute, a dynamic personal organiser (think “Google Now”, but customisable and with infinite flexibility), and tested it in vivo by simulating a tourist visit. During the live showcase, DynaRoute handled site-seeing and tour guide services, taxi request, routing and pickup, traffic alerts, shopping tips, nearby friends notifications and meeting scheduling.

In the process, DynaRoute (taking advantage of the underlying CHOReOS framework), organised and handled several mobile phones, flight information, a fleet of 12 cooperating taxis, location, traffic, temperature, noise and air pollution sensors and dozens of different services (from proximity notifications to route scheduling based on traffic).

After three years of hard work, intense R&D, and extended cross-european collaboration, the CHOReOS project completed its final revue on November 6, 2013, in Brussels. We, at Virtual Trip, are excited to have helped create such an important piece of tomorrow’s infrastructure, and look forward to the future commercial applications of the project.

P.S. Oh, and did we mention that CHOReOS is also open source? In order to lower the barrier to access the technology and facilitate its’ adoption, we have released the IDE parts under the Eclipse Public License, and the runtime modules under the LGPL. You can grab the sources here.

The European entrepreneurial satisfiability problem

Tom Leighton is a very special person. He’s a Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT as well as the founder of Akamai, a company that revolutionized multimedia content delivery in the late 90s and helped create the unified video-voice-image internet experience that we today enjoy.

The Boolean satisfiability problem (affectionately known as SAT) is one of the most difficult problems in the field of Boolean Algebra (a subarea of algebra that forms the logical basis of Computer Science).

81266885_640

Tom Leighton

At most universities the SAT problem is taught at the final year of the Computer Science curriculum, as an advanced topic. So, imagine my surprise when, during my recent visit to Boston, Massachusetts, I was told that Tom Leighton teaches it to MIT freshmen and sophomores.

Still, what I found even more interesting was the fact that the notes that he distributes to his students mention his affiliation with both MIT and Akamai. In other words, his students, while studying one of the hardest topics of their curriculum, proudly learn that their Professor was the co-founder of Akamai.

Regarding the practice of teaching such advanced topics to first year students, I’ll only comment that it’s strongly correlated to MIT’s ranking as the premier university for Computer Science and Engineering. That said, many European universities also include hardcore mathematics in their curricula (it’s Dijkstra’s continent after all) ― and I strongly believe that such a solid theoretical background is necessary in the current super-competitive global landscape. After all, economies develop not by merely fulfilling market needs but especially by inventing wholly new technologies and markets.

It’s the second point, however, the one about proudly (and casually) presenting both your academic and market affiliations to your students, that that I’d like to focus on in this article. I believe it’s something which illustrates the changes that Europe’s higher education must undertake in order to boost entrepreneurship and job creation.

Our problem is that we have an extremely low level of entrepreneurial activity tied to the academic and research ecosystems, something that results in the following two consequences:

― A “start-up migration wave”, where most of the high-potential start-ups in the EU move to the US,
― A lack of quality jobs that could have been created but haven’t, resulting not only in revenue loss for EU countries but also in brain-drain.

This disconnect between the academic/research world and the industry is not because of a lack of trying. In fact, linking those two has been a top priority for the EU Commission a long time now, and tens of billions of euros have been spend in RTD support programs. Unfortunately the results have been anything but satisfactory.

In my experience, that’s because the European academic and research community simply does not appreciate entrepreneurship, and, pending a paradigm shift, no amount of funding and “commercialisation plans” can change that.

If Tom Leighton had been a Professor in Barcelona, Munich, Lisbon, Toulouse, Athens or Milano, it is very likely that many of his students, as well as many of his fellow professors, would not appreciate his double affiliation, as Professor of the University and co-founder of Akamai.

A philosophy of not “mixing academic work with for profit activities” (stemming from a mix of 20th century’s leftist mistrust for “the market” and 19th century’s notion of “pure” academic research) has been the greatest barrier in transforming European universities to knowledge hubs powering sustainably growing entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Now, in the fifth year of recession for Europe, and with general unemployment in the South higher than 25% (and youth unemployment reaching 50%), it’s finally time to do something about this, instead of idly watching wave after wave of well educated young Europeans failing to find a quality job.

Globe-magnet-full

CERN, proof that we’ve got what it takes academically

When Donald Rumsfeld talked about “Old Europe” almost a decade ago, it was one of the very few cases where I had agreed with the guy. Europe is indeed old; it behaves like an old person, it’s slow moving and it is ultra-conservative. Unless we push for some radical changes pronto, Europe can only hope to a slow march to irrelevance, at least in economic terms.

With the global economy becoming increasingly knowledge based, we have to adapt to the new reality and turn our universities into knowledge hubs supplying creativity and innovation into our stale industrial and IT landscape. We can even use our financial conservatism to our advantage, by focusing on financial sustainability as the key horizontal differentiator between entrepreneurial efforts developed in Europe versus the rest of the world.

A lot of analysts have suggest a number of necessary measures for promoting high growth and innovative entrepreneurship in Europe: increasing seed/risk financing, improving bankruptcy legislation, adding entrepreneurship courses at all of the educational levels and realising the single European businesses market.

They are right in their recommendations; but they put the cart before the horse. Such measures are doomed to fail unless they are accompanied by a major cultural and political shift, one that sees students and professors in Barcelona, Munich, Lisbon, Toulouse, Athens or Milano considering the market as a natural outlet for their work and proudly mixing academic and market endeavours.

If we manage to reach that point, where more European students dream of being entrepreneurs instead of playing it safe with an academic, public service or corporate career, a hugely important step towards the future of the European Union will have been made.

We have the human and financial capital, as well as the infrastructure and scale to become a global leader in growth and innovative entrepreneurship. All the pieces of the puzzle are in front of us ― we just need to put them in order.

In a very few words, it is time for us to put market development above academic purity and risk and innovation above security. Following that, we’ll see a number of Akamai-level companies emerging around Europe, and their founders teaching and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs. Like Tom Leighton does at the MIT.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dimitris Tsingos is the founder of StartTech Ventures, a start-up incubator in Athens, Greece. A serial tech entrepreneur and pioneer in seed financing, he currently serves as the President of YES (the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs).

Dimitris is also the founder of the Hellenic Start-up Association and a board member at the European Business Angel Network. In 2012 he was nominated as one of the Top 40 European leaders under the age of forty.

Dimitris recently completed the IVLP / ANB13 program organised by the U.S. Department of State and the Entrepreneurs Organisation.

Considering enterprise Java outsourcing? We want your business. Here’s why we deserve it…

If you’re on the lookout to build something on the web, there are several options. PHP is adequate for simple user facing sites. Ruby on Rails is always popular with the startup crowd building a minimum viable product. ASP.NET too, is a good option, if you’re still stuck in a Windows only world.

Still, when it comes to enterprise level support, integration with every kind of existing infrastructure from Oracle DB to Hadoop, stability, maturity and security, nothing even comes close to the Java platform.

And when it comes to leveraging the Java platform, we got you completely covered here at Vtrip, with our 13 years of experience on building highly dynamic and custom enterprise Java solutions.

We can be opinionated: Node.js might be nice and fast, but it’s still a technology for early adopters. MongoDB sounds cool on paper (especially if you don’t know better), but we wouldn’t want you to bet your enterprise project on an unproven 2 year old technology with several data corruption bugs discovered already.

We’re not into selling snake oil. While other companies follow the latest fads and distractions, we have worked on large scale enterprise projects for over a decade, and we got to know the platforms and the available tools inside out, as well as knowing what it takes to deliver robust and agile solutions on time and spec.

That’s why, after over a decade of experience with big Java based projects, we have been ramping up our investment in the platform and in Liferay, the Java-based, leading portal solution for the enterprise.

We chose Liferay because, on top of being based on the proven and mature J2EE platform, it offers content management, collaboration, and social tools out of the box, thus presenting an immediate return on investment to our customers and a large number of functional benefits on a day-to-day basis.

Fig01-liferay-start

Matter of fact, we just got another one of our senior software engineers certified as a Liferay developer (that’d be our third, if you’re keeping score). And of course, the rest of our team of over 25 experience engineers is just as knowable on Liferay and Java, and has a track record of successfully delivering over 30 demanding web and mobile projects in the European market, from banking websites and news portals, to cutting edge molecular biology research.

We are well on track of becoming the primary Liferay services provider in SE Europe and the MENA region. We have already delivered two demanding projects (for the major news outlet AVGI and for one of Europe’s biggest betting solutions providers), and are ready to take any demanding enterprise projects you might have head on.

So if you’re serious about your business and prefer to avoid amateur hour outsourcing, do not hesitate to contact us, discuss your project with our experts and investigate how our experienced software engineering team can help you address your business needs.

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Subject

Your Message

CAPTCHA:
captcha

Mr. Tsingos goes to Washington

Impressions, thoughts and observations of a European entrepreneur checking the US scene.

Sep 8:
I’m flying from Athens to San Francisco. I’ve been around quite a lot, but this is my first time going halfway around the world. I’m so excited to be visiting the Valley that I can even tolerate airplane food.

Half an in-flight movie, some poring over slides, and a small nap later, hello San Francisco 🙂

Sep 9-10:
Not much time for sight-seeing yet. At the moment I am amazingly proud to represent the TalentLMS eLearning platform at the CloudBeat 2013 conference, discussing how “Learning Gets Cloud Powered”. My little startup, Epignosis, is sharing the stage with legends like IBM and industry heavyweights such as vmware, puppet and xero.com.

1006340_10151627665966476_1032331343_n

(While at the CloudBeat conference in San Francisco, all of a sudden we got literally into the cloud.)

Sep 10:
CloudBeat is over, and what a great experience it has been. Congrats to @VentureBeat for making it happen!

Finally let out in the sun, I notice that the landscape in California is very similar to Greece! I could get used here.

Sep 11:
I took a walk along Market Street in San Francisco. Was surprised by the number of homeless people I saw. Given the super-concentration of wealth in this city, this indicates of failure of society’s part. So sad.

Sep 12:
I’m now on the East Coast, and I’ve just attended an amazing event about innovation in healthcare, organised by the Harvard Innovation Lab. Having worked with clients in Greece’s health care industry, and knowing what passes for “innovation” and “change” at our Ministry of Health, it was amazing to see such coherent ideas and out of the box thinking for solving the US’s health care issues.

The buzzword of the event was the so-called “Triple Aim”: better care, better health and lower per capita costs, of which, our government back home seems to only care of the latter (if that).

Sep 13:
At my first TEDx event. I find this kind of discussion and spreading of ideas is sorely needed in Europe (well, we have TED events in Europe nowadays, but I mean in general).

(rant) The European project is so promising, but it’s burdened by innovation stifling bureaucrats and greedy nation states. Even our entrepreneurs and businesses are stuck with the ways of the past, repeating history instead of creating it. We need more ideas and more open exchange of them ― ideas that respect the European culture and heritage but also move it forward. America seems so much better at this, with the caveat that a lot of what happens there now, even if sold as innovation, is often focused on a quick pay-off. (end rant)

Sara Seager’s TEDx speech was exciting. She’s a MIT Professor who has devoted her life in discovering “earth twins” exoplanets, and has already identified a dozen of them. Even her job rocks: she is a “Galactic Explorer”. That’s the kind of job an 10 year old child dreams of having, but in real life. Can a job be any cooler? I don’t think so…

Sep 14:
And I’m free myself to explore a little again. Didn’t find any exoplanets, but had some great food with some great friends in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Ah, the good life.

548387_10151627077036476_563272127_n

(The good life)

1185139_10151626400781476_1157393717_n

(I also officially endorse the Trillium microbrewery on Congress street, at the Old Boston harbour, which was started by …biochemistry graduates!)

Sep 15:
And I’m in Washington (DC, that is, not that Tesla AC nonsense), invited to take part in the International Visitor Leadership Program, and I’m having my first 20th century experience while in the States. I just got hold of my Travellers Cheques (didn’t even know those things still existed).

Architecture wise, Washington is one of the best cities I’ve seen, up there with Vienna, in utilising classical Greek forms. Which makes the comparison with modern Greek cities (that decided to mostly invest in 70’s build bland utilitarian monstrosities, straight out of USSR era project houses) all the more humbling.

1208979_10151627758541476_1840156301_n

(That said, the White House is rather smaller than I expected)

Sep 16:
The second day of the “A New Beginning: Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation” program in the context of the IVLP is over.

The IVLP program brings 30 entrepreneurs from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, a network of creative people to exchange ideas and best practices.

Warm congratulations to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization Meridian International Center and the State Department for making this happen.

I do wish that the European Commission will take similar initiatives in the near future. YES, the European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs would gladly assist in this direction.

For my more serious thoughts on the E.U/Silicon Valley differences, you can also check out this post.

Thoughts of a European serial start-up entrepreneur before going to the Silicon Valley

The Greek experience, the Silicon Paranoia and the need for a European start-up growth model

I launched my first start-up, along with four more co-founders (Periklis Akritidis, Nikos Ventouras, Miltos Vassilakis and Charalampos Gikas – one of them had the following email address: “JFK at VTRIP dot NET”) and Critical Publics on September 5th 2000, exactly 13 years ago. Being at the age of 22, I had 9 courses left to complete my Computer Science degree by that time. When Virtual Trip was founded, it was all about doing “what they do in the US” and “why not doing the same in Crete, Greece” since “we can”.

losers

To put simply, we did it because we could do it. We also did it because we loved doing it. Nothing could motivate us more than responding successfully to challenges. In this context, the challenge of “establishing and running a company” was the greatest one we could ever imagine.

The MoU with Critical Publics was crystal-clear: During the first 12 months they would assign us web development subcontracts of $150,000 at a person-month rate of $3,000. I know that it doesn’t sound as a great deal. However for the five of us, all undergraduate students of computer science, $3,000 was an amount able to cover our personal costs not only for one month but for a couple of quarters. In other words, it was looking as an amazingly high monthly income.

Virtual Trip Ltd Logo

Nothing went as planned, of course. The contracts assigned were not at the amount of $150,000 but “only” $120.000. Also, the corresponding period finally was 15 months, instead of 12. Last, we learned the very hard was what overhead in running a business is as well as that in our lovely country we had to pay “advance payment for next FY taxes” equal to 80% of our first FY corporate tax. But at the end of the day, going strictly according to plans spoils all the fun.

We did have fun, really great fun, enough to make us overcome barriers, one after the other. We also had the privilege to work with a dozen of the largest customers that we could ever get in Greece – as subcontractors to Critical Publics most of the times.

Then the crisis started. The Greek IT market has been in crisis long before the national economy. It actually never recovered the Greek stock-market bubble explosion in 2002. In 2003 we got a velvet divorce with Critical Publics and then shortly after that I got one more velvet divorce with my co-founders. I will ever be grateful to my vtrip co-founders and to Critical Publics for making this journey happen. Without them, vtrip would not be here. Being super frank however, I have to say that I never had a single second thought in my decision to move forward, even when I was left completely alone, sometime in Q2/2003.

Going global has been in our mind from the very beginning. That was thanks to Critical Publics strategy. Our web sites and marketing material was in English-only. Working language was English. We knew that scaling of our business could only happen with international projects. We even worked in international projects, a streaming video portal in Turkey (!), as early as in December 2000.

However, we soon realized a very important aspect of international business in our sector: Going global requires products. Services do not scale. So, in 2003 we started thinking of the products that would take us around the Globe. On the other hand, in order to create products you need to work for a significant amount of time without having any revenues, thus you need investment. Being practically impossible to raise risk capital in Greece in 2003, the concept behind our “entrepreneurial ecosystem” was born as a response to an extreme necessity.

Trying in learning is second to none. Knowledge is hidden in failure. We’ve failed repeatedly and notoriously. Fortunately, that has made us learn a lot and, guess what, we’re still alive. Numerous mistakes have been made, none of them was proven fatal. From the “IT Center” stores to the “StudyBox” portal, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in our corporate venturing projects as well as terrible amounts of time and energy. However, knowledge gained from those ventures let us succeed in others, like eFront e-Learning and AbZorba Games.

The Silicon Valley model is about failing fast. I don’t believe in failing fast, hence I don’t believe in the Silicon Valley model. Failing fast basically means many things. First of all, it means that there’s practically unlimited investment capital around. There’s nothing unlimited on Earth however, besides humans stupidity. This discussion about “unlimited” investment capacity reminds me of the “unsinkable Titanic”, now resting at the bottom of the Atlantic. Second, failing fast means that the entrepreneur is somewhat disconnected from the fate of her/his own creation. Third and most important, it is similar to being in the lab and running from one experiment to the other without giving the time to study the results. What is the meaning of doing many experiments if you don’t devote the time necessary to learn our of the results of each one of them?

The approach was simple: We invest in teams already working in our organization, committed to work together in a specific sector (i.e. mobile apps & services) and ready to take as many iterations as necessary till success finally arrive. Appropriate re-adjustments will of course take place in each & every iteration, since more knowledge will be uncovered in each round. The path from high-quality mobile video streaming over GPRS networks in 2005 to mobile social games in 2011 may sound awkward; however it’s nothing but the real story behind one of our greatest successes so far.

Our journey has been anything but easy. We leveraged earnings from services business, subsidies and debt financing to fund ten different corporate ventures. The overhead behind this operation was proven tremendously high. Imagine that we had created a services team of 60 people just for funding an R&D team of 12. In this context we’ve delivered some of the most complex and demanding software engineering projects ever taken place in Greece, like the passport issuing system. However, as the VC industry practically did not exist in 2003 in Greece, we had no other choice – not taking our chances, not moving forward, has never been considered as an option.

StartTechVC.logo

Guess what: It seems to be working. Despite confirming the law of project management in that everything will take more time and cost larger amount than planned, we have made it. We have managed to fund ten companies, have already two start performers and four more companies with reasonably good chances. We have also created an incubator to support all those independent companies, we keep running our first services business, which also serves as a preferred beta tester of our companies new products, as well as we have invested in a leading co-working space for having premium access to new teams and fresh ideas. Of course, there’s one last step still missing: Either to exit from a venture or to somehow realize the return on the investment. We can reasonably hope that this moment is not far away and certainly claiming that is not the reason for being called “criminally optimistic” by me colleagues.

colab

An archaic piece of legislation in Greece makes military services compulsory. Military service duration has been recently significantly reduced to nine (9) months, only. Yes, you’ve read correctly, it’s 9 months. When Virtual Trip was established, it used to be 21. Obviously I couldn’t leave my company and go to the army. When my studying-extension expired on Dec 31st 2005, I could not renew my passport any more, which in turn meant no traveling out of the Schengen-treaty area. Those 8 years felt like centuries. When turning 35 you have the option to serve 45 days only and then pay a fine for the pending 7.5 months. This is what I did this year. From March 21st to May 7th I served as a Signal Soldier in the Hellenic Army – Land Forces. On May 8th I applied for my passport and got it few days later. At last, the road was open.

tsigos-army

I love basketball, like most Greeks do. I have dreamt of a basketball game that never took place – and unfortunately never will – between the original USA “dream team” and the unified Yugoslavia team – yes, that unprecedented, unique, superb team of Petrovic, Kukoc, Danilovic, Radja and Divac. I know that in this fictional game the “dream team” would probably still win, however that amazing Yugoslavian team was the only one on Earth who could play against them with real winning chances. Unfortunately, geopolitical decisions before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics did not let this game happen, leaving a bitter taste to the European basketball fans.

CloudBeat_Graphic

 

In a similar way, having launched my first start-up at the age of 22 and being a serial entrepreneur and investor ever since, I’m about to go to the Silicon Valley and speak to a great event, CloudBeat 2013 by VentureBeat discussing “Learning Gets Cloud Powered“, feeling like a 36 years old European basketball player going to the NBA for a tournament of friendly games. “You work double for achieving half, because of the numerous barriers and obstacles”, a mentor from the USA had told me, “and that’s quite amazing”.

Two weeks ago I was informed that one of our AbZorba Games titles topped the USA Apple Store in the “social casino” games, being No4 in card games and No75 in games. Moreover, it’s even more excited that today AbZorba Games will break the threshold of 2 millions downloads, most of them in the US. This is a small victory for our Athens-based team, a small victory of huge importance though. A proof of concept that being No1 in the World, even in a relatively narrow space such as social casino games, is possible indeed – without having to be physically in the Silicon Valley nor having received tons of capital from institutional investors. Who knows, Yugoslavia may had some real chances to make a great surprise!

Hersonissos is a popular tourist destination in the island of Crete, Greece, almost 30 km from the city of Heraklion where Virtual Trip was created. I remember going there in the late 90s and seen a fast-food called “McDelis”, having exactly the same colors and similar logo to the famous international brand “McDonald’s”. I remember that first it looked ridiculous and then it made me feel sad. Life is too short for not being authentic, for having a copied identity. Cretan Mediterranean diet is supposed to be one of the healthiest in the World, if not the healthiest. How does it make sense to be in the food business in Crete and prefer copying McDonald’s instead of creating your own, authentic brand, taking advantage of the Region’s symbolic capital? It absolutely makes no sense at all, likewise it makes no sense to try to become the “Silicon Valley of Europe” like many European Regions claim to be. They simply follow the “McDelis” way.

I’m going to the Silicon Valley on Sunday aiming to listen, to meet interesting people, to make new friends and to learn. I dream of building bridges between the Silicon Valley and Europe. I dream of a bidirectional flow of people, ideas, companies and capital. My vision is neither creating one more “Silicon Valley of Europe” nor of course to migrate to the Silicon Valley. My vision is to help in creating a European innovation ecosystem to be a proper peer to the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem, positioned more to complement than to compete with it.

Some important steps to this direction have already been made in London and Berlin. However, both of those cities have to realize the need for authenticity in the ecosystems they grow. Simply because authenticity is valuable and irreplaceable, because at the end of the day Europe does deserve and authentic start-up growth model.

The European start-up growth model should be all about sustainability. Sustainability in terms of financing, in terms of expectations and in terms of sector focus. Moreover, we have to make sure that start-up growth does return to the society, preserving the European quality of life as well as it does not lead to overconcentration of wealth, securing a well balanced society.

My first visit to the USA will have a duration of 28 days. Going there 13 years after starting – and still running – Virtual Trip feels just great. Being proud of what we’ve already achieved, I go there aiming to use our competitive advantage to the maximum: Learn fast, learn well. Last, I will always remember that Toni Kukoc was charismatic because of being better in passing than in scoring. So, I will try to do the same.

OpenStack Meetup in Athens, Greece

On July 17th we organized the first meetup in Athens, Greece. More details can be found at http://www.meetup.com/Athens-OpenStack-User-Group/events/128046962/

The attendance was over 20 people from varying areas of the greek community representing open-source developers, academic institutions, startups and enterprise.

At first we run a round of introduction between the members, giving a short profile and interests of each other’s.

Next was Thanassis Parathyras from StackMasters with the ‘Enter OpenStack’ presentation, who covered an overall view of the project’s goals as well as software development and community support aspects.

It was of great interest to hear members of the user group that are already involved in activities relative to cloud computing and OpenStack. Startup mist.io co-founder Dimitris Moraitis pointed out his product supports management and monitoring for OpenStack. Also other members mentioned efforts on implementing projects with Swift support.

The discussion that took place among the attendees was really promising for the upcoming activities of this user group. Stay tuned!

Thanks to CoLab Workspace Athens for hosting the meetup!