Greece: Innovation born from austerity

After 2008, the global crisis had hit the Greek economy for good and affected academia and its funding. My attempts to fund my R&D work through EU and National projects, or via outside collaborations, were unsuccessful.

Despite these setbacks I decided to turn my PhD work on adaptive information filtering into a real world application. I wanted to turn the fruit of my PhD research, completed in 2004 at the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) of the Open University, in the UK, into a web start-up. I believed that my biologically inspired model for profiling a user’s interests, called “Nootropia” could truly revolutionise the way we discover and disperse content.

This meant I had to start undergoing the transition from a pure academic to a web developer and entrepreneur. This is how I founded a start-up called NOOWIT. The name–composed of the Greek word “νους” (noo), meaning mind, and the English word “wit”–means ‘keen intelligence”. It is a new adaptive media aggregation and magazine publishing platform aimed at solving the information overload of today’s web.

The transition started back in May 2010. During a visit to New York, I met Apostolis Gerasoulis, Professor of computer science at Rutgers University, and the founder of one of the first search engines Teoma, and a former Chief Technical Officer of the search engine Ask Jeeves (ASK.com). Prof. Gerasoulis’ reaction to ‘Nootropia’ and its early research prototypes were more than encouraging. This prompted me to turn my academic work into a real world solution.

First, I had to find the right partners. This proved challenging at first, but the solution came in the form of one of my postgraduate students while I was teaching at the University of Thessaly. After supervising the MSc dissertation of Christos Spiliopoulos on content-based popularity prediction, I realised he could be the ally I was looking for. Christos is a great scientist, an ingenious engineer, a python guru and the coolest possible collaborator. He turned out to be the perfect partner for NOOWIT. The actual development started in September 2011, and our first prototype was ready by May 2012.

NOOWIT’s first private beta edition was released June 2012, and has attracted the interest of the Hellenic start-up community and of 500 subscribed users, mainly from Greece. The platform’s second version took into account valuable user feedback and has been re-designed and has just been relaunched. To really understand what makes it so special, you need to see and experience it for yourself here.

I have now almost completed the transition away from academia to becoming a web entrepreneur. I no longer publish academic papers and I no longer submit research proposals. I believe that unless it has theoretical extensions, any type of applied research should be ultimately judged by its ability to provide solutions to real world problems. For me, turning my research into a real world application, potentially adopted by thousands of users, is the greatest proof of its validity.

Unfortunately, EU’s funding schemes do not always take such criteria into account. For instance, billions of Euros have been spent to fund research on the semantic web. But as of today there are essentially no successful web services based on semantic web technology.

Until recently, easy access to research funding has kept scientists away from the tough and risky job of turning research into a real world application or product. But, with the financial crisis affecting research funding, this situation may radically change. Scientists, like me, will be pushed away from their comfort zone into the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

Nikolaos Nanas

Founder and CEO NOOWIT

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