Ambassador Pyatt’s Fireside Chat with Nikolaos Bakatselos: The US Contribution in Developing the Local Innovation Ecosystem

Thessaloniki Future Thinking Dialogues

June 2, 2021

Nikolaos Bakatselos:  Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you.  It’s great to be here.

Mr. Bakatselos:  You usually say that we are partners in crime, so we’re back at the site of — 

Ambassador Pyatt:  This is the original —

Mr. Bakatselos:  The original crime scene.

So let me start with this. I think because the U.S. Pavilion in 2018 played a catalytic role in the process of transforming the city as a potential technological hub of innovative research.  So having been in Greece for five years, and I’m very pleased to say that. I’m very excited. And knowing the city and the whole of northern Greece very well, what are your expectations?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I should say two things, Niko.  First of all, I want to acknowledge the fantastic partnership that we’ve enjoyed with AmCham in this effort.  I think we all need to acknowledge that having the United States be the Featured Country of the Thessaloniki Fair in 2018 was a little bit of a gamble, but it was a gamble that we made reflecting the American commitment to engagement in this region of the country. But also our sense that Thessaloniki has much more to offer in terms of a well educated workforce, a wide variety of universities, and the role that this city is and was poised to play as the gateway to a market of 30 million people, which was very much part of the marketing message that I used when we went out to start recruiting American company participation.

I’m very proud of the way Team USA delivered at the Thessaloniki International Fair in 2018, but also the way in which we were able to build synergy with the Ministry of Digital Policy and the startup pavilion there which validated all of the instincts that I had about the potential of this sector to drive growth.

Since then we’ve seen fantastic results.  First of all it’s very clear that this notion of a Greek startup community has become something that’s very real.  You’ve seen that the startup pavilion has become an institutionalized part of the Thessaloniki Fair and that the government and especially Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ government — through the Ministry of Economy, through Deputy Minister Dimas, through Minister Kerameus in the Minister of Education, and of course through Minister Pierrakakis in the Ministry of Digital Policy — has recognized that this is a part of the Greek economy which is very real and deserves to be cultivated.  But we’ve also seen how American investors have responded.  Pfizer of course is the flagship example here in Thessaloniki but we also have a significant new presence from Cisco with their Digital Innovation Center and also Deloitte, IBM and others who are expanding their footprint in this city.

We’re not finished.  One of the things I’m going to do when I’m here in Thessaloniki on this visit is to sign the paperwork for a new Technology Lab which we will site at the YMCA here in Thessaloniki. It will become an American Space devoted to programming focused on science, technology, education, mathematics, helping to build competence among Greek young people and further contributing to this burgeoning digital and technology ecosystem in this northern Greek region.

We’re also very excited about the way that American companies and American businesses are looking to leverage their presence here in Greece and especially in Thessaloniki to reach into the western Balkans.  It was fantastic to see the success of the North Macedonian Prime Minister’s meeting with the AmCham companies in Athens a couple of weeks ago and the way in which American companies are leveraging their presence here to expand their operations across this wider region.

So it’s a very exciting time for all of us.  We’re certainly not done and I think it’s quite reasonable to expect that this part of the Greek economy is going to continue to grow.

I’m off to Patras on Friday.  One of the companies I’ll be visiting there is a company called Advent Technologies which I first visited in Patras I think in 2017.  Since then they’ve had their IPO, they are based in Boston but they have made acquisitions in Livermore, California.  They’re expanding in the United States.  They’re also looking to grow their footprint here in Greece.

You see this story repeated over and over again.  Of course, Greece now has the flagship example of Microsoft’s Cloud Computing Center in Attica, an investment of over $100 million which I saw Brad Smith was talking about again just yesterday on SKAI TV.  

So there’s a lot happening in this space.  I’m very proud of the contribution of the embassy, the U.S. government has been able to make to this effort, but I want to acknowledge right up front that we wouldn’t be where we are without this fabulous partnership with the American Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Bakatselos:  Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  

Thank you for mentioning also that Greece is a gate to a market because we seem to forget about it.  And this is particularly important for Thessaloniki which is close to the borders, to the northern Greek borders.  And we definitely note that.  And I stress once again that I’m very pleased that this is your fifth year here in Greece. I hope this will continue in the future.

Mr. Ambassador, you are very well traveled. With our guests before we started our session, I said that you’ve been to more places in Greece than I have, and I’m a native.  So you’ve visited Thessaloniki, the whole of northern Greece many times.  And you are familiar with this area.  

What are the sectors that have the largest prospect for growth and could attract foreign investment for this part of the country?  You mentioned Patra, you mentioned Microsoft.

Ambassador Pyatt:  First of all, I was very encouraged by my meeting today with Deputy Minister Kalafatis.  We were talking about exactly this issue.  He was characterizing himself as the chief marketing officer for the region.  We were talking about how we can work together.

I’ve already talked about innovation, technology.  You see that happening here in Thessaloniki, especially leveraging the large pool of human capital, and I think you’re going to see continued expansion.  One of the things I’ll also do tomorrow is to visit the new permanent Pfizer site.  Of course the Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, has shared with me over the months how his own expectations for that operation have grown and how the success has bred success.  

But what’s really striking to me as I continue to explore this region is you stumble on other companies in unlikely locations. Raycap in Drama of all places, which is a world class company producing electrical capacitors and surge suppressors which has made acquisitions in the United States, which sells into the U.S. and the European markets.

I’m very excited also to look at Sunlight Batteries, a great example of a world class Greek company which is investing in the United States, which has worked with our Select USA Program to identify investment sites in the U.S., but has also continued to innovate.  I was meeting with the management team there not so long ago and they emphasized to me how they have, their core competency is lead-acid batteries, but they’re moving very quickly into lithium and trying to develop smart batteries.  This is another great example.  Who would imagine, why should a company like that exist in Thrace?  But it does and it reaches global markets.  So it proves that it can be done.

All of our economies, in Greece as in the United States, are going through a dramatic transformation.  That transformation has been accelerated by the global pandemic but it was happening before because of global competition, because of instantaneous availability of information, because of the internet of things.  Everything is becoming smart.  

But I think Greece because of the combination of membership in the European Union and the EuroZone, a core member of Europe, a relatively competitive price point in terms of its human capital.  And the very competitive competencies and the strong relationship with the United States.  I think one of the things that’s also interesting to me as I travel around, every time I meet an interesting Greek company in the technology space there’s a Greek-American somewhere in there.  A professor who was at MIT or Cal Tech or University of Ohio who came back; somebody who got their start here in Greece, maybe went to the United States, worked in Silicon Valley for a few years and then decided life was really a lot more pleasant here in Greece in the summertime than it is back in the United States so they’re splitting their time.  And of course the most famous Thessalonikian in the world right now, Albert Bourla, who personifies that dual personality that has proven to be so competitive on the global stage.

Mr. Bakatselos:  Mr. Ambassador, it seems that the Biden administration has high on its agenda education besides the recovery.  The environment of international relations.  Given the new economic plan that is under approval in the U.S. Congress, how do you think the implementation will impact innovation, research and education of course?  And I mention this because we can draw good practices from that and apply them here in Greece. 

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ll mention two things, especially since we’re here in Thessaloniki.  My last visit to Thessaloniki was September of last year with Secretary of State Pompeo. When he was here, we had the signing with Secretary Pompeo and Michael Karloutsos, with Minister Georgiadis and Minister Dimas, of our new S&T agreement, Science and Technology Agreement.  That’s now pending ratification in the Greek parliament, but once it’s ratified that agreement will facilitate additional academic and research exchanges between U.S. institutions.  There is a lot of that that is already happening including here in Thessaloniki.  Texas A&M works with one of the companies at Thess INTEC if I’m remembering correctly, focused on traffic management in digital systems.  

There’s a lot of that that we can do additionally, and this S&T agreement creates the legal framework for things like IPR and intellectual property rights protection and exchange of data.

So we will certainly see growth in this area.  That growth is going to accelerate in the United States because of the decision that President Biden has made to prioritize research and investment in the areas of clean technology and digital access. 

Conveniently that fits perfectly with the priorities that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has set for this 32 billion euro EU Recovery Fund, but it’s going to have a transformative impact in the United States, especially in the energy field.  

My old boss, Secretary of State Kerry who is now our Climate Envoy, likes to describe clean energy as the greatest economic and marketing opportunity of the 21st century.  I think you’re going to see a lot of innovation in everything from batteries to smart grids to storage systems, new and more efficient solar cells, wind power.  All of these things where there’s a natural synergy between your economy and ours in the United States and our researchers are already working together.  And again, I’ll pick on Advent because it’s a great example of a company which is part of the White Dragon hydrogen project here in Macedonia, but is also in the United States working with the Department of Energy on innovative hydrogen fuel cells projects, and a lot of the research of that happens at the Patras Science Park. 

So this is real and it’s going to accelerate in the months ahead.

Mr. Bakatselos:  Thank you.  I was going to ask you about the signing of the agreement.

You have been one of the strongest advocates of the need to think out of the box with regards to multilayered ties that have united our two countries on issues like [innovation] and research [inaudible].  Looking at what our AmCham and the embassy have achieved together, especially here in northern Greece, where do you think we can further drive our collaboration?

Ambassador Pyatt:  We have the institutional framework of our Strategic Dialogue which Foreign Minister Dendias and Secretary of State Blinken, when they had their first phone call reaffirmed our commitment to that.  We’re hoping to do that live, in person later this year.  We’ve got five baskets under that Strategic Dialogue — our defense cooperation; our law enforcement and homeland security cooperation; our education and cultural cooperation; our energy cooperation; and of course our economic and investment cooperation.  All of these areas where we should continue to see growth.  

I really want to continue to focus like a laser beam on how we knit our economies together.  Clearly, this is an area that offers prospects for further development.  It’s already happening.  But there is going to be a recovery phase now.  Because of the trillions of dollars that the Biden administration is devoting to stimulus in the United States, the U.S. economy will be the major driver of international growth in 2021.  The U.S. is going to be a bigger driver than China or anybody else.  

Likewise Greece because of its smart, science-based policy in managing the pandemic is poised to emerge stronger than most from the global shock of COVID-19.  

So there’s an obvious opportunity for our economies to knit together even more tightly.  I know this is a priority as well for Prime Minister Mitsotakis.  I’ve seen your Prime Minister in action enough to know that there is no better marketing agent for Greece than the Prime Minister.  

I saw that happen for instance in 2019.  Before anybody knew Albert Bourla or paid much attention to Pfizer, as Nick Burns recently said, perhaps the most important company in the world today.  Albert brought the Pfizer board here to Greece as part of his effort to sell them on the prospect of a significant new investment in Thessaloniki to create the Digital Technology Center which now exists.  But I saw the board members come around as they heard Prime Minister Mitsotakis in a ballroom at the GB Hotel making the pitch on his commitment to reform, on his commitment to economic openness, and the value proposition that Greece represents.

That’s the most important thing.  You’ve got an opportunity right now because of the strong team around the government and a commitment to work especially in the transatlantic context on our economic ties.  

Again, I want to come back to the education component because I think that’s really important in terms of how we move forward.  I give huge credit to Minister Kerameus for what we’ve been able to accomplish already, but also what we’re doing in the months ahead working with the Institute of International Education to build bridges between our universities and research institutions.  There should be much more of that happening. 

You have a government now which is affirmatively extroverted,  which is seeking to build those kind of ties.  And there clearly is a whole of government effort with the economic team, and again with Minister Georgiadis as the team captain, with Papathanasis and Dimas, and Pierrakakis and the whole team of them focused on how to build these ties, and not resting on their laurels.  Not saying great, we got Microsoft done.  But I love the way that they finished Microsoft and they started talking to Amazon Web Services, talking to Apple.  And there’s a halo effect here as well, a bandwagon effect which Greece can benefit from if these projects go well.  And that’s why it’s so important to deliver success in these early initiatives.

Mr. Bakatselos:  Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.  We’re coming close to the end of our session.  I see that you are optimistic about the future of Greece and the future of the Greek-U.S. relations which are at an all-time high, thanks to you.  You are the architect of this. 

Ambassador Pyatt:  It’s a good team effort.

Mr. Bakatselos:  I think that I speak on behalf of everyone at AmCham saying a huge thank you.  And we’re committed to this partnership 100 percent.  Thank you so much for being with us here and thank you for what you’re doing.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Committed as is President Biden.  We have a very strong alignment of interests and we have a team in Washington that shares my enthusiasm for what we can do together, but also the strategic interests and the priorities that we’ve identified.  

So I’ve been doing this for 32 years now if I’m keeping track correctly.  I’ve rarely seen the alignment of forces that we have right now.  I was discussing this recently with my friend California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, on the U.S. side as well.  From the President, the Speaker of the House, the Vice President, Secretary of State.  This is pretty much as good as it’s going to get, and we need to capitalize on that and accelerate our work going forward.

Mr. Bakatselos:  I remember you saying that when Prime Minister Mitsotakis was visiting the White House.  Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you.  

Mr. Bakatselos:  Thanks for being here.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’m glad to be here.  Thank you everybody.

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