Despite COVID-19, Greece makes strides on high tech ambitions

When Krystallia Sarantopoulou graduated from Thessaloniki’s Aristotelian University seven years ago with a degree in electrical and computer engineering, she landed in the worst job market in Europe.

Greek unemployment in July 2013 stood at 28 percent. The country was then still halfway through an eight-year recession that would claim a quarter of its economic growth. It still ranks as the worst contraction of any post-war developed economy.

“It’s already difficult to start a job as a new graduate, but during the financial crisis it was impossible,” she says.

Forced to seek her fortunes abroad, Sarantopoulou accepted an entry-level job in The Netherlands. The pay was basic but she felt at home. Walking into the Dutch company cafeteria, she recognised many fellow graduates from the Aristotelian University mess hall.

Still, she wanted to return to Greece and diligently kept an eye peeled for opportunities. This year, during the coronavirus pandemic, one finally surfaced.

“Last Easter, a colleague of mine called and said Pfizer is going to invest in a software hub in Thessaloniki. I said, ‘Really? It’s too good to be true’.”

Sarantopoulou is among the first wave of new hires at Pfizer’s Greek hub. A project manager, or scrum master in the industry’s rugby lingo, she coordinates a research team scattered around the world.

Some 200 employees will be at the site by December and Pfizer now plans to build it out to 600 employees, many of them repatriated Greeks.

“We have people coming from the US, the Netherlands, Germany – all Greeks who went away and are coming back,” Nico Gariboldi, the site manager in Thessaloniki told Al Jazeera.

Gariboldi says Pfizer chose Greece for a number of reasons: Political stability under the conservative New Democracy government, the biggest concentration of universities in southeast Europe and the city’s incubators and startups.

Those pull factors are no accident but part of the government’s strategic blueprint to competitively place Greece for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” merging the digital, biological and physical worlds. And that strategy for transformation has continued apace this year despite the myriad challenges from COVID-19.

“Last Easter, a colleague of mine called and said Pfizer is going to invest in a software hub in Thessaloniki. I said, ‘Really? It’s too good to be true’.”

Sarantopoulou is among the first wave of new hires at Pfizer’s Greek hub. A project manager, or scrum master in the industry’s rugby lingo, she coordinates a research team scattered around the world.

Some 200 employees will be at the site by December and Pfizer now plans to build it out to 600 employees, many of them repatriated Greeks.

“We have people coming from the US, the Netherlands, Germany – all Greeks who went away and are coming back,” Nico Gariboldi, the site manager in Thessaloniki told Al Jazeera.

Gariboldi says Pfizer chose Greece for a number of reasons: Political stability under the conservative New Democracy government, the biggest concentration of universities in southeast Europe and the city’s incubators and startups.

Those pull factors are no accident but part of the government’s strategic blueprint to competitively place Greece for the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” merging the digital, biological and physical worlds. And that strategy for transformation has continued apace this year despite the myriad challenges from COVID-19.

Though it was late for the last train, Greece is determined to catch the next.

It passed legislation last year slashing its corporate tax from 28 percent to 24 percent and has introduced a slew of tax incentives to attract investors, digital nomads (like Krystallia Sarantopoulou) and teleworkers – people who can work from anywhere to deliver a service.

The government also plans to invest a quarter of the income from next year’s 5G auctions in startups offering 5G services.

Last January, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met Microsoft CEO Brad Smith at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland. Smith wanted Mitsotakis’s help in creating an “enhanced” reality app through which a traveller would see ancient Olympia as it was 27 centuries ago. Mitsotakis then put another item on the agenda.

“They discussed Olympia and then we suggested the data centre, which was then very prescient,” Patelis tells Al Jazeera. “A month later Brad Smith visited Greece and said, ‘you are in the running for a data centre’.”

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