An integrationist interdisciplinarian with over 30 years of experience in education, research, management, technology ventures, entrepreneurship, investment, supply chain management, health informatics, and regional development, Professor Panayiotis Ketikidis is an expert in mobilizing knowledge and facilitating innovation–expertise that he brings to the table as a member of the AmCham Greece Education, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (EIE) Committee. Among his many roles, he is Professor of Innovation and Technology at City College, University Of York Europe Campus, and Chairman of the Board of Alexander Innovation Zone (AIZ).

In this Q&A, Professor Ketikidis talks to Litsa Panayotopoulos, Chair of the EIE Committee, about innovation, the work of AIZ, and what it takes to build a strong innovation ecosystem.

 

You serve as Chairman of the Board of Alexander Innovation Zone, which in November 2023 hosted the ΕΙΕ Committee’s latest Business Transformation Stories event, and its first in Thessaloniki. What exactly is AIZ?

Alexander Innovation Zone is the managing body behind Thessaloniki Innovation Zone (TIZ), an area where innovative enterprises, startups and research entities come together to strengthen the bridges of knowledge and collaboration and create synergies. Thessaloniki Innovation Zone covers an area of approximately 11.5 sq.km. southeast of the city, located just 5 km from Thessaloniki International Airport and 13 km from the city center. Among its other duties, AIZ is tasked with organizing and promoting the innovation ecosystem of Northern Greece to international markets.

 

Tell us a bit more about AIZ’s work in promoting innovation.

The purpose of AIZ is to catalyze and nurture a vibrant innovation ecosystem that supports the growth and success of startups, innovators, and businesses throughout the region of Northern Greece, and we do this through actions based on collaborations with all involved stakeholders. AIZ’s vision is to scale up Northern Greece, thinking globally and acting locally, and its mission is to make Northern Greece an innovation-friendly hub and a great place to live, work, and invest.

While the road to building an innovation ecosystem is challenging, the rewards are immense

The organization’s six strategic priorities are Extroversion—the expansion of existing innovative businesses at an international level, based on collaborations with all stakeholders in Northern Greece; Entrepreneurship—the promotion and encouragement of a culture of collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurship; Networking—the development of longterm collaborations at the local, national, and international levels aiming to mutually enhance competitiveness; Infrastructure—the development equitable and sustainable partnerships in the city and across the region, as well as nationally and globally, to increase our influence and derive mutual benefit; Investment—the development and management of infrastructure to support the academic, research, and entrepreneurial community; and Sustainability-Financing—the creation of a supportive and welcoming culture towards innovation and entrepreneurship that attracts investors and pioneering entrepreneurs from around the world.

 

In addition to your work with AIZ, you are also Chair of the Management Committee at the South-East European Research Centre (SEERC), founding member of the Hellenic Business Angels Network (HeBAN), and Executive Committee board member of the European Business Angels Network (EBAN). Based on this background, what would you say are the most vital elements in building a strong innovation ecosystem?

When considering the best approach to developing innovation ecosystems in any market, one size does not fit all; different markets require different approaches. It’s important to look to similar markets when deciding on best practices to emulate. While the road to building an innovation ecosystem is challenging, the rewards in terms of economic growth, job creation, and societal progress are immense. However, fostering the growth of an innovation ecosystem and positioning a region or country on the international stage requires many elements and actors/stakeholders to work in concert (with a conductor—the builder of the ecosystem—coordinating them).

In my view, the most critical elements in building a strong and sustainable innovation ecosystem are government involvement in shaping policies and regulations, fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and building partnerships and promoting collaboration and networking.

Government involvement is key to creating strong innovation ecosystems. Supportive policies and infrastructure—such as a favorable regulatory framework that promotes entrepreneurship, protects intellectual property rights, and offers incentives for innovation and investments—can attract and retain innovative talent and businesses, while programs and initiatives that bring together the public and private sectors to address specific challenges or foster innovation in key industries can facilitate collaboration. A central coordinating body, such as AIZ, can help align the efforts of various innovation institutions; it can be responsible for developing and implementing a unified strategy for international growth, coordinating activities, and promoting collaboration and resource sharing among the institutions. Providing access to funding through venture capital firms, angel investors, and government grants and developing robust digital infrastructure are additional critical elements to attracting and supporting startups and innovation-driven enterprises.

A strong culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is essential for a city or country to grow internationally. This can be achieved by encouraging startup cultures, entrepreneurial training programs, and building innovation skills throughout all stages of education and by creating physical spaces such as innovation hubs, co-working spaces, and incubators—entities that bring different stakeholders together and provide essential resources for startups, including office space, mentorship, training, and, in some cases, seed funding. These are designed to support the entrepreneur throughout the journey of building a business, and there are both early-stage and growth-stage programs at the regional or country level that can also organize events including hackathons, startup competitions, and innovation challenges to inspire and showcase local talent. Encouraging a diverse and inclusive environment that welcomes ideas from different backgrounds and promotes creativity helps attract international talent and foster a vibrant innovation ecosystem.

Partnerships, collaboration and networking are crucial for an innovation ecosystem to thrive. To promote innovation on an international scale, it is crucial to develop collaboration between different sectors, including academia, industry, government, and nonprofits. Educational institutions play a pivotal role in innovation ecosystems, producing a steady stream of individuals equipped with the knowledge and skills to drive innovation. Collaboration between educational institutions and businesses is crucial, as it not only fosters the exchange of ideas but also ensures that research outcomes are translated into tangible products and services that benefit society. Such partnerships also offer networking opportunities, which are vital for collaboration and knowledge/resource sharing and serendipitous interactions among entrepreneurs, researchers, investors, and industry experts. Actively seeking international partnerships with other cities, innovation hubs, and organizations can help expand the reach of a city’s innovation ecosystem. Collaborative programs, exchange programs for startups and researchers, and joint initiatives can promote cross-border innovation and create avenues for international collaboration.