From Greek Tech Ecosystem Pioneers to Global Disrupters

When it comes to R&D and tech, Greece can play the long game and win, says Dimitris Maniatis, CEO of mobile technology leader Upstream, while highlighting how the pandemic has reaffirmed the transformation of their portfolio in emerging markets across the globe.

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GIG: Can you tell us how the idea came about to give people in emerging economies affordable mobile internet and a safe mobile online environment?

Maniatis: We’re used to taking our mobile phones for granted. In developed markets, we have the luxury of being able to use multiple devices that can hop from one connection to the next. We have a solid Wi-Fi infrastructure and affordable data, with most mobile contracts now offering unlimited messaging and high data allowances. Mobile operators in the West are highly commoditised, competing against one another on service, price, speed and quality – all in the interest of pleasing us, the consumer. In emerging markets, however, things are a little different.

The majority of emerging market users don’t have access to reliable Wi-Fi, so their smartphone is their only means of connecting to the online world. This might not have been so crucial a couple of decades ago, but with so many public services and resources moving online – especially now, during the pandemic – not having access to basic internet services puts people at an unfair disadvantage.

We’ve always thought that internet access should be a right rather than a luxury, and that forms the basis of a lot of our work.

It’s also important to remember that many people in these regions don’t have bank accounts or phone contracts. Airtime is like currency to these communities, and it’s incredibly expensive compared to western markets. For all the above, plus the weaknesses derived from the openness of the Android operating system – Android is the OS of choice in the developing world due to the low cost of its devices – users in emerging markets are much more vulnerable to fraud.

Mobile operators, who we have been working with so far, are therefore strategically important in these areas. They can make a material difference to the standard of living for these communities by helping to bridge that digital divide and keep mobile transactions free of fraud.

GIG: Upstream was one of the first internationally-focused companies to use Greece as a tech/R&D centre, long before this became an incentive-backed proposition. Can you tell us how the legal and tech business operating environment has changed since you set up shop here?

Maniatis: Indeed, Upstream was a pioneer. The company is among the first, if not the first, technology players in Greece and many consider us the founder of the Greek tech ecosystem.

Greece is home to many companies that started from nothing, managed to attract impressive levels of foreign investment, and today can offer world-leading, problem-solving solutions and technologies. Innovation abounds in the country and entrepreneurship is entwined with the people’s DNA. It’s the conditions that have not allowed businesses to prosper in the past as much as they could have; bureaucracy in setting up shop, taxation and – depending on the industry – over-regulation have been among the top barriers. These factors topped with a “middleman” mentality, supported by EU subsidies towards specific sectors and activities, created an environment that is not conducive to growth that is sustainable and future proof.

In the past few years, I am glad to say, the environment is going from strength to strength in facilitating innovation, research and development.

Last year, the government launched further plans to continue reshaping the country as a leading research and innovation hub. It’s not just about the financial incentives or the new initiatives to attract new start-ups, it’s the landscape and the environment itself. A novel innovation district is emerging in Athens, and there’s a technological park being developed in Thessaloniki. It’s an attractive place to start a business, and we’re thrilled to still be a part of it and still be considered a point of reference.

GIG: One of Greece’s key assets is its human capital. How many employees do you currently employ locally? And are they mostly dedicated to the software engineering side?

Maniatis: Two thirds of our team are in Greece, where our R&D is based. Out of the 237 people we employ here, almost half of them are engineers. The country produces technology and IT professionals of the greatest calibre and while in the previous decade, due to the financial crisis, many sought employment abroad, we see a wave of talent returning.

GIG: How many people do you employ all over the world, and in how many locations are you present?

Maniatis: We’re very proud of our global community. Upstream currently has a staff of more than 320 employees spanning 23 nationalities across the world. We have offices in nine locations worldwide. Each and every member of the team is passionate about what they do, and we never take that for granted. Even during these trying times with the move to remote working, our team have adapted seamlessly and continue to collaborate with one another. It’s almost as if the switch to technology-based working was second nature. We’ve also continued to recruit at the same rate in Greece and further afield, so we’re optimistic about the future of our team.

GIG: How many end users are there of your services currently, and how are they spread out geographically?

Maniatis: We currently have a presence in more than 45 countries around the world, in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as in Asia addressing a user base of 1.2 billion consumers. Our services have been integrated with more than 60 mobile operators, a market we have known and worked with for the most part of our nearly 20 year-long path.

During 2020 and as part of our own portfolio transformation, we expanded above and beyond our legacy telco market, bringing the expertise from the telco ecosystem to other verticals.

The company is already servicing over 40 insurance, banking, education and FMCG players looking to expand and improve their digital customer touchpoints.

GIG: Looking ahead, what are the key growth areas for Upstream? What are your projections for the uptake of your services, such as your ad-funded free mobile internet portal, Zero-D, and your safe online operating environment, Secure-D?

Maniatis: If there’s one small silver lining to the onset of the pandemic, it’s that it drove everybody online. Businesses that weren’t online have been given the push needed to digitalise their services, and those that were already online are looking at ways to improve and refine the customer experience at every touchpoint.

Our own data demonstrates a willingness from businesses to embrace digital channels, but there are still barriers to overcome such as data management, security, and integration with legacy systems. This is even more troublesome in emerging markets where businesses typically have to contend with less developed infrastructure. Before the pandemic, Upstream was already well on its way to transforming its portfolio to cater to digital acquisitions and customer engagement, expanding to more and more verticals. The impact of the pandemic has reaffirmed this direction and strengthened our resolve. On top of the work we do with our telco partners, we’re already providing services to more than 40 companies from various sectors and plan on doubling down on our efforts in the coming months and years.

Now, regarding our Zero-D and Secure-D platforms – that are being fully integrated into our new portfolio – one of our mission statements is to help narrow the “digital divide” that exists between the West and emerging markets. We’re already having a sizeable impact on this goal through Zero-D, which is an ad-funded internet platform that makes it easy for telcos to provide invaluable access to basic internet services for free. Not only that, it equips them with a new digital sales channel and a brand new way to engage with their customer base. To date, Zero-D has been deployed by 10 mobile operators across eight emerging markets, including Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Ghana and Kenya. This year, we’re expecting the portal to reach more than 400 million users as we explore new opportunities in Nigeria.

Whereas Zero-D drives accessibility and engagement, Secure-D keeps users safe and their transactions fraud-free. Secure-D is already benefiting more than 35 operators worldwide helping to protect 840 million mobile users. In 2020, the platform assessed one billion transactions and prevented $1.3 billion worth of fraud, and we’re constantly researching and identifying new threats to help keep consumers protected.

GIG: What are the advantages of leveraging Greece as a tech & R&D centre? What message would you send to international investors who are considering Greece as a location for their R&D facilities?

Maniatis: Here’s the thing about Greece: When it comes to tech, innovation, research and development, the country can play the long game and can win. Investment in these areas is a priority for the Greek government, and you can feel the energy. It’s the kind of energy that start-ups thrive on, and it comes in the form of improving the conditions, government-backed incentives and brand-new development centres.

Greece is a country with more than 250 days of sunshine a year, an amazing climate, and a great lifestyle. It can become a destination for many of the post-pandemic digital nomads looking for a base to work from.

Innovation and talent are “contagious” I believe, and Greece ticks all the right boxes to attract and hone both. We already see Greeks that have left during the financial crisis looking to return home, strengthening the local innovators’ community and hub.

GIG: What can the Greek government do to encourage more business activity and growth through innovation in your opinion?

Maniatis: It is not just something in the air. There is a lot of work that is being done, that would probably be further ahead, if it wasn’t for the pandemic. The government is striving to foster a conducive environment for attracting investments, support ambitious start-ups and technology innovators which is great news for the wider business community and those already established in the region, like Upstream. Technology can help improve every other sector of the economy, injecting a much-needed innovation mentality across the board. At the moment, for every euro that the government invests in research and innovation, 11 euros are returned to the economy. That’s a perfect recipe for growth. If the country keeps securing a combination of public and private funding and keeps creating fresh incentives for companies to set up shop, while also providing incentives for the relocation of talent, I’m sure Greece can become one of Europe’s biggest driving forces in terms of innovation, research and development.

GIG: What kind of impact has COVID had on your operations locally and abroad?

Maniatis: Despite the disruption from the pandemic Upstream managed to fully achieve its yearly net revenue target, posting a 13% year-on-year growth. This was in no small part due to the way our excellent workforce handled the shift to remote working, aided by the fact that we already had much of the necessary technology in place. Of course, part of our growth during this period is down to the fact that we deal in digital – rather than physical – products, but the amount of commitment and effort put in by our team cannot be overstated. We even managed to grow the Upstream family, onboarding new people that had never set foot in our offices or met their colleagues face-to-face. This was made easier by the fact that multinational collaboration isn’t new to us, and we’re used to orchestrating teams online and collaborating across borders. I’m really proud of how we pulled together, worked around the clock and, in a fight or flight scenario, persevered and strengthened our position.

GIG: Do you have any links with universities here for R&D, or plans to develop these?

Maniatis: We work with universities and initiatives that bring education closer to business whenever possible. We have created our own Graduate Programme for developers straight out of university, giving them the opportunity to learn best-in-class technologies in action, by our seasoned high calibre engineers. At the end of the programme some of them join our team while the others are ready to kick-start theirs careers having learned in a tech-focused international environment. We are looking to further strengthen our ties with education and the talent market and, at the moment, are considering launching another teaching initiative sharing our expertise in digital marketing.

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