S. Stylianidis: The university can be the cradle of innovative entrepreneurship

Stratos Stylianidis is Vice Rector of Research and Lifelong Learning at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh) and Associate Professor at the Department of Spatial Planning and Development Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he directs the Laboratory of Geoinformatics (LabGEO). He is also the person behind the intense and successful activity of AUTh in the field of innovation and startups.

S.M. The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has a tradition in research innovation and its transfer to entrepreneurship. Can you tell us how the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki approaches the issue and with what mechanisms?

S. Stylianidis: This success is attributed first of all to the people of our university. It is the high scientificity that characterizes our research teams and in combination with the extroversion that we build together leads to the upgrading of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in the national innovation ecosystem.

The mechanisms and the supportive environment of the university accelerate this development and push the academic community to create, collaborate, implement and exploit research.

The contribution of the Special Account for Research Funds of AUTh is characteristic towards this direction in three (3) key axes:

a) at the level of finding financial opportunities and supporting the submission of proposals to national, European and international programs, b) at the level of management of the funded projects with the full digitization of all administrative services and the provision of fast and simplified services, but also c) at the level of support for the exploitation of research results and interconnection with industry through the Technology Transfer Office, the most mature technology transfer structure in the country’s university data.

The combination of everything I have mentioned, together with the promotion of interdisciplinary collaborations and the development of infrastructures that house the “excellence” of the university, have resulted in the creation of this “tradition” of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in research innovation.

S.M. The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is extremely “productive” in the creation of spin-offs, can you tell us which companies have been created and in which sectors?

S. Stylianidis: The business development of the research carried out at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is on the rise. The establishment to date of eleven (11) spin-offs is indicative of this activity, while another five (5) are in the process of maturing their business plan and are expected to be established in the near future with the support of the Technology Transfer Office.

The beginning was made in 2007 by the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, with Exothermia and Emisia, two companies that are now considered established companies in the field of engineering software applications. But also later with PLiN Nanotechnology that specializes in the production of metal nanoparticles with numerous successful applications, BIO2CHP in the field of organic waste utilization, but also Atmosphere that designs and manufactures unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAVs).

The establishment of Cyclopt specializing in the field of software quality was sealed by the recent investment in it by TECS Capital. Medoid AI, which develops artificial intelligence and machine learning products, as well as Kiklo, with services and products for the processing / use of satellite images / aerial photographs, geographical analysis, etc., were also developed in the field of software.

SeamX also develops specialized tools for sports event organizers. HEARartTec innovates with new acoustic assist technologies, while Captain Coach is also active in the field of assisting people in health care and wellness issues.

It is worth mentioning, of course, that a significant number of startups in the country were born within the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki by researchers and researchers following a course independent of the university, but certainly remarkable, such as FieldScale, Net2Grid, Loceye, King, Rhoé Urban Technologies, LearnWorlds, etc.

S.M. What challenges and problems did you encounter during the phase of creating the spin-offs with the existing legislative framework and how did you overcome them? The new legislative framework for technology transfer will enter a consultation phase soon. Will it solve any problems?

S. Stylianidis: The biggest difficulty that the Greek University has faced over the years in the development of spin-offs is the mobilization of the academic community in this direction. The right to the opportunity to have a business outlet in cooperation with the university belongs to everyone.

I am confident that the new draft law on spin-offs combined with funding for the maturation and enhancement of the technology transfer ecosystem in Greece will indeed create opportunities for its scientists. Specifically, three key simultaneous interventions are those that will potentially “unlock” the development of spin-offs by the academic community:

a) incentives for participation and development of business activity, b) a clear and defined framework for the establishment of spin-offs in harmony with the internal regulations of institutions and c) a mechanism to support technology transfer that will adequately meet the increased demand that will be formed de facto with the implementation of the law.

S.M. Technology transfer is an important step in creating a new company, but in order to increase the chances of success, both funding and a local – international ecosystem are needed. How is the initial funding ensured and what is the position of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in the local and international ecosystem?

S. Stylianidis: Finding initial funding is the alpha and the omega to start a business venture with claims and to be introduced to the market. More direct access to this funding, however, is, if you like, now also a privilege that a spin-off of the university has over an independent startup. Even for the registration on the Elevate Greece platform of the Ministry of Development and Investments, the spin-offs of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki were immediately integrated with the fast track process.

The Technology Transfer Office of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, after ten (10) years of operation, now has strategic partnerships with major greek banks, but also with Venture Capital Funds that support the exploitation of research with multiple actions, from the maturation of research teams to the initial funding of spin-offs.

Also, there is now a systematic support through our office in claiming funds through European programs that provide for expenses for business development, such as calls from the European Innovation Council.

The spin-offs of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki are part of a reliable educational and research institution, with all that this entails in terms of exploiting a long-established network and a long-standing acquired experience. We are changing gears. With new ideas and even more flagship initiatives we are turning our university into a hub not only of the local, but also of the international innovation ecosystem.

S.M. Entrepreneurship remains a taboo in universities! Has the situation improved? Almost every university abroad has in-house incubators and funds for spin-offs of professors and students! How far are we still from the widespread acceptance of entrepreneurship in universities in our country? And what needs to be done in your opinion to speed it up?

S. Stylianidis: The wide acceptance of entrepreneurship in the country’s universities is not won overnight. The combined energies from all the actors involved in the ecosystem are working cumulatively and the landscape is changing. This is not the first time that the connection of research by universities and research centers with entrepreneurship has been put on the agenda of the country’s universities, as well as of the greek state.

But this is the first time that it has entered the portfolios of the relevant ministries so in an orderly manner, and we must acknowledge that. Indicatively, during the summer, two very important calls were announced within the framework of the NSRF and directly concern the development of entrepreneurship and technology transfer in Higher Education Institutes.

The expected funding will act as a catalyst in the creation of appropriate structures and infrastructures that will “unlock” the exploitation of research at the university. However, I also believe that in a serious university, we must implement all this and monitor them clearly in the light of ensuring the proper and smooth academic operation.

It is up to us to create those schemes of interdisciplinary collaborations within universities that will create opportunities to connect with the outside world, but not obstacles to our valuable educational work.

S.M. The greek technology ecosystem, large companies and of course startups are constantly looking for new talent in the field of computer science and business development. How does the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki support this sector? Is there a need for a central strategy for internal talent production and the attraction of Greeks and foreigners from abroad?

S. Stylianidis: We know very well the size and quality of the research potential of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In the last five years alone, approximately 3,000 faculty members and 7,000 researchers have been employed in the AUTh infrastructure for the implementation of national and European research projects. It is this research potential that has also attracted the interest of international business giants to invest in the city, such as Pfizer, CISCO and Deloitte.

The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is the main pillar of production and innovation support in the ecosystem of Northern Greece and is the main “feeder” of specialized scientific research personnel in these enterprises. The Rectorate Authorities have already built bridges of communication with these structures and we are developing partnerships at multiple levels. It is also worth noting that from 2003 until today, the HCMR AUTh actively participates in the European Network for the Mobility of Researchers (EURAXESS) and operates as a
Researchers’ Mobility Hub.

In fact, recently the Hub participated, in collaboration with the Liaison Office, in the claiming and implementation of pilot projects (such as HORIZON 2020 ERA-Mobilcar, CDCs Career Development Centers, etc.) with the aim of reducing the escape of researchers from Greece. At the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the adoption of those strategies that will make our university a pole of attraction for researchers from all over the world is one of our main goals.

S.M. Universities abroad are very close to big businesses for obvious reasons. In our country, the Competence Centers have just been implemented with the aim of cooperating with many institutions and private companies. The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki is responsible for one of the 12 approved! Can you tell us a few words about what other partnerships with companies and startups you have implemented?

S. Stylianidis: Recently it has been approved by the General Secretariat for Research and Innovation (GSEK) the establishment of a new Competence Centre entitled “Center for Innovation and Skills Development of the aluminium sector with emphasis on digital transformation and Industry 4.0” and a total budget of 2.8 million euros. A total of 8 other entities participate in the partnership with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, with the aluminium industries Alumil and GLM Hellas as its core.

The aim of the new Competence Centre will be to promote innovation, entrepreneurship and technical competence in companies operating in the field of aluminium architectural systems. This positive development is due to the extroversion of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the long-term cooperation between the partners in fields of research and technological development, in a rapidly developing sector worldwide, but also with a very important role in the national economy.

The Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has developed a wide range of industrial partnerships at the level of direct assignments and/or assignment of rights to use know-how with royalties: in the last five years, more than 2,862 projects have been implemented, while the revenues from these partnerships reach 46.6 million euros, 17.9% of the turnover of the Research Committee of the AUTh. We develop long-term strategic partnerships with excellent results and we even intensify our actions in this direction.

S.M. How do you see the startup ecosystem of our country? Are we moving as fast as we need to be? Or should we adopt and accept our own rhythms? How do you see the position of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and yours in it in the near future?

S. Stylianidis: We all see that there is a movement of investments in our country. Even more in Thessaloniki, which is becoming an innovation hub. However, the poor performance of our country in very important indicators of innovation, such as exports of medium and high technology products, applications for industrial projects, etc. show that the valuable research produced in greek universities remains basically untapped. Technology transfer is the means that can change this image and that is why we invest in it as a university, putting its development high on our strategic priorities.

The big challenge for me is to contribute from my institutional position to the promotion and growth of the research wealth of our country. And clearly, the charting of my course in this term of office is based on the people of AUTh. Only together can we realize my vision, which is a common vision. To make our university a shining example of bold decisions in the field of research and innovation.

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