Young Greek scientists: Science today for tomorrow’s world
Business File, September-October 2017, No. 112
Despite the brain drain, caused by the continuing economic crisis, many graduates of Greek universities are following their paths in respective research fields, at an international level. Here are three exceptional examples.
Greeks make up less than 0.2% of the global population and yet the percentage of Greek scientists in the world totals 3%. This phenomenal statistic highlights the disproportionately large contribution a small country like Greece has on scientific thought and research internationally.
Sadly however, only 14% of Greek scientists live and work in Greece and the current economic crisis is fueling a further brain drain of its brightest and best to the US and other European countries.
This report examines the work, choices and achievements of three young Greek scientists, all under 40 years old and all graduates from Greek universities, who are making great strides in their respective fields of research on an international level; one of them in the UK and the other two based in Greece.
Dr Dionysios Xenos
What was the impetus behind the creation of Flexciton and how are you hoping to develop the company?
Flexciton was founded to create add- ed business value using the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI), optimisation and data analytics, to help small, medium and large manufacturing and industrial plants become more efficient by reducing their energy costs and improving customer service.
Jamie Potter, my co-founder, and I carried out many months of customer development to understand how inef- ciently companies operate their indus- trial plants; the reason being that they have to deal with many uncertainties, such as volatile energy prices, unexpect- ed maintenance and repairs, as well as inundated with thousands of customer orders. At Flexciton we provide a sophis- ticated approach to solving the prob- lems of operating a complex plant.
We are aiming to build a high quality international company which under- stands customer needs and solves their di cult technical problems. To achieve this, we are hiring talent from top universities and the smartest engineers with significant practical experience, including Greeks, who also have an entrepreneurial mindset.
As a scientist, how are you handing the role of entrepreneur?
The role of entrepreneur involves huge responsibilities to your company and the people related to it: business partners, customers, colleagues, investors, but also to society, in general. My role is to create value, use resources efficiently and promote economic growth for the company. This is both challenging and exciting at the same time.
My background as a scientist complements the entrepreneurial side because the company needs to build technology based on the latest developments coming from research. My strengths are in mechanical and chemical engineering; through these disciplines I have developed strong analytical skills, as well as the right work ethic, which I believe are necessary to build a company. Of course, academia prepared me for certain areas but not others, so I spend my free time on improving my weaknesses.
As the co-founder of a tech start-up which is only a year old, how are you nding the process of looking for investment? Who are you approaching and what is the overall reaction to your company?
Building a new technology company requires a great deal of investment up front. Luckily, my co-founder Jamie Potter led the fundraising and he did an incredible job in convincing major European and US investors to invest in Flexciton. We managed to raise more than $1,000,000 of seed-round funding from VCs and angel investors.
We were successful with our fundraising because we exceeded investors’ expectations – one of our investors thought it would take us two years to get our rst customers, but it took us a few months. We demonstrated to our first customer that we could save their business £100,000 per year; they were so impressed they ended up investing in Flexciton.
In simple terms, how is computer technology advancing mechanical engineering?
The advance in computer technology, data acquisition and connectivity among machines is creating new mar- kets in an industry worth many billions.
The way it works is that computer technology analyses vast amounts of data, solves mathematical models and provides informative output, which the operators of these machines can use. With AI, these algorithms are trained consistently with new data which make them learn or behave like humans.
Technology companies, such as Flexciton, use these smart algorithms to create value for businesses, for example reducing costs, improving customer service and increasing production.
The concept of AI is one that instils many concerns, especially regarding skills and employment. Will its advancement mean greater unemployment as machines become more efficient and take over many jobs currently carried out by people?
Milton Friedman visited a worksite where the government ordered people to use shovels instead of modern tractors in order to create more jobs. The famous economist then replied: “I thought you were trying to build a canal; if you want to create more jobs then give these workers spoons, not shovels.”
So, AI is another sophisticated tool, like the modern tractor, which enables people to complete repeatable tasks more e ciently. It helps us to build new products, remove repetitive low-level tasks from the work-place, eliminate ineffeciency and increase the quality of our lives. Consider the value of AI and machine learning in medicine, used in the objective and consistent diagnosis of patients. Flexciton uses AI to reduce energy costs and waste by improving inefficient operations; jobs are not removed, but factory operators are empowered to run their plants more effectively.
AI will probably remove some jobs in some sectors, mainly those which require low-level skills, but they will be replaced by different highly-skilled jobs. For example, programmers will be needed to write and maintain AI algorithms.
What do you think of the assumption that Greeks develop and ourish better working in institutions abroad than they do in Greece? Would you ever consider going back home?
I think this assumption does not necessarily hold true. There are some very good engineers who are still in Greece, producing significant research which is published internationally. There are also Greek-based engineers and entrepreneurs building successful and sustainable businesses in Greece. An example is BETA CAE, a thriving engineering soft- ware company, based in Thessaloniki. However, other countries do o er more opportunities compared to Greece, but it is up to those Greeks abroad to make good use of these opportunities in order to develop and ourish.
There are some very good engineers who are still in Greece, producing signi cant research which is published internationally. There are also Greek-based engineers and entrepreneurs building successful and sustainable businesses in Greece
Personally, I am not considering returning back to Greece in the near future because I see the bene t of living abroad. This is especially true in London, where you can access many resources to build a successful business, you can still nd the best talent and you can meet customers from all over the world because of the strategic position of London.
Dr Ioannis Baziotis
What are you looking for in meteorites and what information do you get from studying them?
Through the study of meteorites we can learn the hidden details of how our solar system formed and subsequently evolved into the Sun and the planets of today. Meteorites are often the clearest and best-preserved samples from the era when Earth-like planets were forming, and yet they also record details of processes which continue today and will be likely to in uence our planet in the future.
Additionally, they also offer clues into how the Earth’s moon was formed, as well as the history of both the interior and surface of Mars, the sources of Earth’s water and much more. For example, a particular class of primitive meteorites (the carbonaceous chondrites) have an age of 4.56 billion years and reveal the best-preserved records of the rst stages of our solar system.
How were you chosen by NASA to participate in their Antarctica mission –especially, coming from a Greek university– when there are so many prominent US and internation- al institutions they could pick candidates from?
I began applying to ANSMET in 2013, although the probability of selection was very low. ANSMET receives inquiries from a hundred or more candidates each year and only 3-4 new people are selected each season.
Of course, my selection, as the first Greek ever on this mission –set to travel with a number of high-pro le scien- tists from around the world– is a great honour for myself, my family, Athens University and Greece. I will try to do my best to accomplish the goals set by ANSMET, by giving more than 100% to help the team recover many high-qual- ity meteorites in Antarctica.
What do NASA and you hope to nd in Antarctica and how does it help in meteorite research?
Before the Antarctic meteorite search- es began in 1976, there were only a few hundred known meteorites – none were known from the Moon and only six from Mars. The modern, organised collecting programmes in Antarctica and hot deserts have now raised the number of known meteorites to about 56,000, including about 150 from Mars and 200 from the Moon.
My personal vision is to create favourable conditions to keep the best students in Greece and in a small way reverse the brain drain phenomenon. This requires equilibrium between hard work, patience, coordinated programmes and outstanding high-level collaborations
NASA funds ANSMET in order to add more samples to the inventory and to reveal the breadth of mineralogical, geochemical, and textural characteristics present within the solar system. The history of the solar system is incomplete, and these heaven-derived rocks may show us how the universe evolved.
You are going on a three-month mission from November 2017. What are you looking forward to and what are you “dreading” in such a chal- lenging environment?
Antarctica represents the furthermost southern frontier of the earth and it is a pure cold desert, which is a thoroughly inhospitable and di cult environment. Our deployment is scheduled for 25th November and this year the mission will eld two 4-person teams, who will stay for 6 weeks, living in double-insulated Scott Tents, enduring average temperatures between -15 and -25 ̊C with constant winds around 3-4 Beaufort. In addition, for virtually all of the trip we will be days away from professional medical care.
We will be exposed to environmental, physical and mental stresses that rival those experienced by astronauts and special military services. However, I keep saying to myself that accomplish- ing my dream will overcome any obstacle or difficulty presented.
You have spent your scienti c ca- reer in Greece, when so many other Greek scientists take posts abroad, primarily for better facilities and funding. Why did you decide to re- main in Greece?
Prior to my official appointment as lecturer professor in 2014, I set myself a 5-year plan with the major goal being to develop a competitive, internationally rated laboratory, which has the ability to attract funds nationally and overseas, both from the private and public sectors, as well as producing high-quality data, employing and training the best PhDs and postdoctoral students. Currently, three years after my initial appointment, I am able to claim that we are more than two-thirds of the way towards fulfilling this primary aim.
A few months ago, we installed the rst electron probe microanalyser in Greece, through the generosity of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and our collaborators at the University of Muenster in Germany. This cutting-edge instrument is an important tool for our research, since it performs precise, measurements and X-ray mapping of the most minute elements very quickly and it helps us characterise the type of meteorite investigated, its provenance and evolution. It is the only one of its kind in Greece and we are very proud as a laboratory and university to have one.
Furthermore, I bring in collaborations with leading international universities and organisations, including California Institute of Technology, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, the University of Tennessee, the University of Muenster, the Natural History Museum of Vienna, the University of Vienna and others. This enables the students in my team –as well as others from the Agricultural University of Athens and other Greek universities– to work with excellent world-class collaborators.
My dream is to transform our laboratory into a springboard for international success.
What are your hopes for the devel- opment, future and impact of scientific research in Greek institutions?
Obviously, the Greek economic crisis has had a negative effect on scientic research opportunities and funding for science has become increasingly scarce, although by the end of 2016 some small signs of recovery began to appear; for example, the newly formed Greek Foundation for Research and Innovation (ELIDEK) granted 505 scholarships for PhD students.
This offers some hope, but it is not enough to reverse the trend of emigration among young Greek scientists. However, if this policy continues in a positive direction, it is very possible that Greece might become competitive enough to attract and promote top-level research and researchers.
So, I am optimistic and believe, if every one of us works towards producing visionary and original scientific study, then Greece could reclaim its place among the world’s top incubators of scientists.
My personal vision is to create favourable conditions to keep the best students in Greece and in a small way reverse the brain drain phenomenon. This requires equilibrium between hard work, patience, coordinated programmes and outstanding high-level collaborations.
I also hope to pass inspiration to the next generation of scientists. If we in- vest in these goals, then hopefully we should reverse the downward path Greek universities have been taking. It is all in our hands…
Dr Zoe Cournia
What gave you the impetus to go into in the field of computer-aided drug design?
From primary school I was always fas- cinated by chemistry and later on I became excited by technological advanc- es in computer science, so I decided to combine my two passions and become a “computational chemist”, a scienti c eld where everything from chemical reactions to drugs, food, materials, cos- metics, electronics, and proteins is being simulated. During my PhD studies, I realised that I wanted to use my expertise to help develop products that have the potential to save millions of lives.
I am now an independent researcher working in Athens at BRFAA, where I run a molecular modelling and drug design laboratory, where we devise anti-cancer candidate drugs inside the computer and predict their interactions with proteins that cause cancer. Computer-aided drug discovery has recently made some im- portant advances, with new discoveries having signi cantly greater success rates than traditional experimental screening. In other words, using the computer makes the drug discovery process much cheaper and more e cient, compared to just performing experiments.
In 2013, three computational scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with the Nobel Committee noting that: “Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most ad- vances made in chemistry today. Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube. Simula- tions are so realistic that they predict the outcome of traditional experiments.”
Your work “Computers in the Fight Against Cancer” has been the subject of much interest. Can you explain how computer technology is used to fight cancer?
We are entering the era of “precision medicine”, which means that disease treatment and prevention takes into account the individual’s variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle.
In our laboratory we are working on designing new drugs against specific cancer subtypes. For example, we now know that there are over 200 different breast cancer which occur due to different mutations in our proteins, which are expressed by genes in our body.
Each patient may display a different cancer subtype and new therapies can now target that speci c type – this goes beyond the traditional chemotherapy approach. If we can block the particular protein with a chemical molecule- drug, then we can stop the progress of cancer. So, we are working to develop drugs speci cally for each variety of cancer subtype, which is diagnosed after biopsy and genome sequencing.
You have been a lecturer in the Chemistry department at Yale in the USA. What made you return to Greece and teach/research at the BRFAA in Athens?
I believe that all scientists should leave their home countries for a while to gain new experiences and broaden their horizons, as well as train in new research techniques and technologies. However, it is important that after their time abroad they are able to return to their own country to transfer the expertise they gained.
In the Greek case, this presupposes that the government is able to create the appropriate research positions for both established and young scientists who wish to return to Greece.
When I was at Yale, it was always my goal to return back to Greece; to work towards the discovery of new drugs in my country, but also to educate our students in this new eld of research, which I learned in the USA.
What are your hopes for the development, future and impact of scien- ti c research in Greek institutions?
At present BRFAA, together with many other research centres and universities in Greece, is funded through European and other grants, as well as private revenue from high-level medical services.
However, this income does not adequately cover all needs, such as annual salaries for researchers and administration, decent infrastructure and consumables for experiments. In addition, state funding is poor and if there is no steady ow of resources, there can be no continuity in research projects. This lack of regular funding, contributes to the reason why many young researchers are forced to leave Greece and work abroad.
It is worth noting that amongst the other EU countries Greece is ranked at a low 23rd in state research funding, yet Greek researchers achieve an incredible 3rd place in producing original work and publications.
My hope is that the Greek state understands the huge impact scientists have on society. I believe that it must act swiftly to support and fund research institutions and universities, other- wise we will not be able to produce the cutting-edge research which bring worldwide recognition and honours to Greek-based scientists.
Finally, I rmly believe that Greek research centres and universities should exploit the commercial potential of their ndings. What is missing is well-equipped technology transfer offices in Greek institutions, which can turn our academic discoveries into profitable ventures.
I believe that all scientists should leave their home countries for a while, to gain new experiences and broaden their horizons, as well as train in new research techniques and technologies. However,
it is important that after their time abroad they are able to return to their own country to transfer the expertise they gained.
We need urgent political and economic reform to support SME operations in Greek universities and research facilities, to secure this valuable contribution to the economy, which in turn could become the new mecca for tech/science millionaires.
The crisis in Greece has brought on serious socio-economic problems, but at the same time it has also forced young people to change their perceptions and embrace entrepreneurship as a means of boosting a stifled economy.
This positive entrepreneurial climate encouraged me to take a step in this direction. I realised that there is a huge gap in business know-how between entrepreneurs and academics. So, I enrolled in the Ekkinisi Lab incubator at the Federation of Hellenic Enterprises (SEV) and the EGG incubator at Eurobank, to learn business basics, and at the same time I also organised a biotechnology start-up competition within the TEDMED conference in Athens in 2013.
You have gained an international reputation for your research at a young age. What are your ambitions?
I work in the design of anti-cancer drugs because my greatest ambition is to make a substantial contribution to discovering new treatments to combat cancer. Of course, this might come about once the necessary pre-clinical tests of the candi- date drug are successful.
Then we proceed to clinical trials and to this end BRFAA is collaborating with the Sotiria Hospital, which has set up a unit to conduct tests of prototype drugs such as those designed in our laboratory.
So, one day I hope my dream of being able to produce medicines originating in Greece will be realised.
However, the reality is that clinical trials of new anticancer drugs require a great deal of funding. The pharmaceutical industry invests around $1-4 billion for every new drug which comes into the market – with pro ts on that investment reaching as much as $20 billion a year.
The ideal would be if a partnership could be established between Greek research institutions and the pharmaceutical industry to address this enormous initial investment cost, which also ensures maximum bene ts for society as well. bf