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A small laboratory of hope in a dysfunctional Greece

Maroussi, an Athens suburb about half an hour by car northeast of the capital, could be on a different planet than the city proper. Protesters and strikers in the thousands have laid siege to central Athens since late May. The area around Syntagma Square, facing the Parliament building, has become round-the-clock chaos as the anti-austerity demonstrations turn unruly and the tear gas canisters fly.

Maroussi is quiet, even though it's prone to the same relentless traffic as Athens. It has pretty residential streets and gleaming offices that house Greece's financial services players and the subsidiaries of multinational corporations. It is where business gets done, taxes get paid and windows don't get smashed.

It is also the home of Greece's vibrant little tech industry, an industry that holds out great potential for the country if it can make it through the debt crisis without economic collapse. On Wednesday, the government won a crucial vote to approve a €28-billion ($40-billion) austerity program, the minimum requirement for fresh bailout loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. But Greece could still default. If it does, the tech industry could vanish with it.

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One modest Maroussi building is devoted to the Hellenic Technology Clusters Initiative, known as Corallia. Vassilios Makios, an electrical engineer and former Carleton University professor who is Corallia's general director, calls his organization "a small, Greek Silicon Valley."

Corallia is a technology cluster that brings together concepts and companies of all shapes and sizes, academia, research labs, sponsors, venture capitalists and funding from the Greek state and the European Commission. All these elements are blended together and thrown into the creativity oven.

The goal is to launch "Made in Greece" technologies that will nudge the uncompetitive country away from its traditional role as a cheap labour service society devoted to sun worshippers. "I believe in the brainpower of young people," Mr. Makios says. "They can be the tools to change Greece."

The Corallia cluster has about 80 companies at various stages of development. Many are devoted to mobile technologies and applications - Greece was a telecommunications pioneer in the 1970s. Others focus on agricultural biotechnology, space technology for European Space Agency projects and construction materials designed to save energy.

One company, Brite Solar, makes transparent photovoltaic panels that can take the shape of windows, turning a house or an office tower into an electricity generator in disguise. ByteMobile is already a global leader in the delivery of wireless data to mobile handsets. Epos designs surveillance and jamming systems for military communications. Micrel Medical makes advanced infusion pumps for pain control. Tropical makes portable fuel cell generators.

Of course, many, perhaps most, of the companies in the Corallia cluster won't make it. They will collapse as funding runs dry, they get bought out or simply muddle along. But a few will find international commercial success. The same could be said about technology clusters anywhere on the planet. What's different about Corallia is that its innovators and companies have to take on country risk as well as all the other usual risks.

Tensions are high in Maroussi and the other bits of Greece that remain productive. In spite of the approval of the austerity budget, which will pave the way for fresh bailout loans, they are under no illusion that Greece can avoid eventual default as its debt load rises relentlessly to a forecast 160 per cent of gross domestic product.

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You would think that Greek businesses everywhere, from technology companies to ferry operators, would want to ditch the euro, embrace the old drachma and devalue their way to prosperity instead of facing a decade of punishing austerity programs and high unemployment.

Some do; a devalued currency could boost exports. Most do not, for they fear that abandoning the euro would propel Greece from recession to outright depression. The drachma probably would lose 50 to 80 per cent of its value against the euro, with an attendant rise in the value of the country's euro-denominated debt. Inflation rates would soar and Greek banks would go bust. No one would extend loans to the Greek government or businesses.

The euro may be a faulty institution, but it is the one institution that has the potential to spare Greece from economic oblivion. Keeping the euro would force industries to become competitive; devaluation is the lazy way out. Greece has defaulted at least five times since independence in 1829 and endlessly devalued its currency. Still, the country has been in a state of near-perpetual economic hardship since then.

In Maroussi, the spectre of default and economic collapse is taken seriously. So is the view that Greece needs a new start and that the crisis brings the potential for desperately needed reforms. "We have to redevelop this country and end the explosion of nonsense. Innovation is the tool," Mr. Makios says.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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