Nowadays incubators and accelerators are being started by all possible parties – universities, governmental organizations, corporates and even private individuals. And yet it is rather hard to imagine an incubator launched by such a traditional organization as an embassy. Orange Grove in Athens offers exactly such a peculiar example – it’s a dynamic startup space initiated by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Greece to support ambitious local founders.
Since its opening in September 2013 Orange Grove managed to become a community for entrepreneurs in Greece and the Netherlands, promoting startup culture among youth and contributing to reducing Greek unemployment. The incubator was set up mostly with a financial support of Greece-based Dutch businesses – the companies like Heineken, KLM, Philips and ABN AMRO – and a couple of local charity organizations.
In the last four years Orange Grove has incubated 160 entrepreneurs from 105 startups that develop innovative ideas in social community, e-commerce, engineering and design, tourism and food industry.
“We are definitely first among the Dutch embassies and I’ve never heard of any other embassy doing this,” says the Netherlands’ ambassador to Greece Caspar Veldkamp, “Orange Grove’s example shows the commitment of Dutch companies to the recovery of Greek economy. It also shows how it is possible to turn brain drain into brain mobility – help Greek companies operate both in Greece and the Netherlands and also invite Dutch entrepreneurs to Athens”.
When stepping into Orange Grove’s space it is indeed hard to miss its light Dutch touch – the founders sit amidst bright orange walls in a spacious ground floor co-working area. Here they can do their daily operations, meet mentors, attend Orange Grove’s events and programs and raise money during the pitch contests.
When asking Greek startups about the biggest benefits of participating in Orange Grove, it is hard to find one company that would not mention its strong network.
“Community is the most important thing about Orange Grove. We learn from each other and we help each other,” says Alex Seimanidis, a founder of B2B wave, “Access to companies and more experienced entrepreneurs is also extremely valuable”.
Similar observation comes from Vasiliki Ntampasi whose company Tesibit develops a machine learning platform to improve operations performance in bioreactors, wind turbines and the maritime industry. Vasiliki mentions that through Orange Grove’s network she was able to reach companies in the Netherlands that work in her sector and even start discussing possible collaboration with them.
But even without its impressive network, Orange Grove itself is a melting pot of companies from most various industries – from agriculture, engineering and logistics to fashion, e-commerce and tourism.
Entrepreneurship is hardly a trend in Greece – partially because of its cultural perception and quite because of the lingering economic crisis. The latter, however, also offers an opportunity for a paradigm shift.
“In the years before the economic crisis a dream of every young Greek was to become a civil servant – it was a safe, comfortable and, maybe, a little bit lazy option. Right now the government doesn’t offer any jobs so the Greek youth is rethinking its dream. Entrepreneurship becomes one of the ways out,” says Natasha Apostolidi, Political Advisor at Netherlands Embassy.
While the change slowly takes place, the social status of the founders in Greece is still low compared to other European counties. Some founders mentioned that while their families support their efforts, at the beginning they were worried how they would explain this career choice to the parents. What certainly helps is Orange Grove’s strong affiliation with the Embassy.
“Since 2016 Orange Grove has legally separated from the Embassy, but what remains is our strong support,” says the ambassador Caspar Veldkamp, “Naturally, we often use Embassy’s network, its name and prestige to open doors for startups and convince people to connect. It’s not just the embassy prestige project – it’s about the startups”.
This article was inspired by the trip organized by a startup incubator ACE Venture Lab for a group of UvA/VU MSc Entrepreneurship students. The students came to Athens to research a local startup ecosystem.