June 2018 | Sofia Simeonidou
Stavros is the "make-it-happen-now" person. It's more his drive than the enthusiasm that gets him places. He's the proof that you can make it from zero. And he's honest. PHEE-board is a great product, great technology, and process, and is paving the way for more environmentally friendly products using raw materials. PHEE is what our planet needs more of.
What can you tell me about PHEE?
It’s an SME based in Greece that succeeded in inventing a natural innovation, as I’d like to call it, to transform, to recycle and give a second life to the dead seagrass leaves, Posidonia Oceanica.
Is it something like seaweed?
It’s not seaweed. Posidonia Oceanica is a seagrass species endemic to the Mediterranean sea. It has an important role to play, it helps the fish ecosystem, the development of sea oxygen, so it's a very interesting and important living organism. According to scientists is one of the first living organisms on our planet. In the Greek islands back in the old days the mechanical engineers used to use seagrass in housing as insulation material. You can find big quantities of decomposing leaves on beach shores. The municipalities here in Greece confirmed that they collect them and dispose of them in landfill sites. So we see a great raw material disposed of as waste. The environmental and economic impact (think disposing costs as well) is significant considering the big quantities of seagrass found in the Greek shores. So with that in mind, we started our journey to transform seagrass into a main raw material.
When did you realise this is a good idea?
It all started during a walk on the beach 5 years ago. I saw the huge quantities of seagrass and I instantly thought we should do something about it. Then next thing I got home and I started my online research. I was constantly thinking about it and the more I thought about it the more I was convinced that this was a good idea. Then one day I came across a TEDx video of Paul Efmorfidis, the Cocomat founder, where he spoke about the importance of raw material while making an open call to the audience, to do something with seagrass. That was the catalyst moment, that’s when I decided I’m doing it. I said to myself I’m going to create the first company worldwide which will recycle seagrass dead leaves and use them as main raw material in order to produce a useful natural product. And I started. From zero.
Just like that? With no business experience?
Yes, without any business experience. I started joining start-up events, seminars, I started learning as much as I can about entrepreneurship in order to implement everything on my idea.
Were you always interested in entrepreneurship?
I was always interested in business. I studied Finance and Management and during my second year at the University, I realised that maybe finance wasn’t for me. I also believe that if you don't try things out by doing you don’t learn and you don’t accomplish much.
Are you involved in more projects?
I’m interested in many things. I’m not sure this multi-focus is a good thing but I love start-ups and entrepreneurship, and I want to help young people who want to develop new products. The last five years and in parallel to my PHEE business I organise innovative start-up Hackathons here in Greece. In 2014 we took over the StartupBus franchise for Greece and we organised the first StartupBus boot camp with 35 young Greek professionals onboard. We travelled on the boot camp bus from Athens to Vienna while we worked on the start-up ideas onboard and then presented to the StartupBUS finals. Then I took this concept and in strategic partnership with a cruise company (Celestyal Cruises) we started cruise hackathons. We organise one of the biggest and most intense hackathons globally while cruising the Aegean Sea.
How is it to have your own company in Greece?
To be honest there are no benefits of course. There are a lot of obstacles. Every three months there’s a new law, a new tax system, it’s very difficult to be an entrepreneur in Greece. I want to be honest.
Tell me more about your product(s)?
The first thing is the material technology that we developed from scratch. That’s our invention, that’s our patent and that’s the whole project we are trying to commercialise. And the second is our business and the commodity products we sell.
What’s your main product? Is it the material?
Yes, the material is our main product, the PHEE-board. We developed it together with my partner and PHEE Co-founder, Dr. Nikos Athanasopoulos who is a mechanical engineer and I’d say the most talented Greek engineer in biobased composite materials. Nikos has knowledge and experience in developing new materials, including the whole production line. So not only we create the product but we also have to find a way to develop it in an economically feasible way. And then the production and go to market. The municipalities deliver to us the dead leaves and then we start drying them, separate them, process them, and press them to create the PHEE-board. The PHEE-board is a biobased composite material with some interesting properties. So it’s a new raw material. We take raw material from the sea and we make it into rigid panels and in a new material that makes it possible to work with and create new commercial products. It’s a new commodity. This whole production procedure and the machinery is designed and developed especially for us by Dr. Nikos Athanasopoulos, so everything is part of our patent. The archery and the process and the characteristics of the material (recyclable, 100% water resistant, unique design and part of the Greek sea).
How do people feel about seagrass?
I believe they don’t think much about seagrass. They think it’s garbage, it smells, they don't want to step on it on the beach. So I wanted to change the way people think and feel about it by introducing it into their everyday life. We make many products from it, mobile phone cases, luxury packaging, beach rackets, our eyewear collection. From day one we want to educate people about raw materials and that it’s possible to use them in every-day life.
Did it work?
I’m not sure people are ready to use raw material that they consider dirty. Is it the way we communicate about the product and idea? Maybe Greek people aren’t ready yet? I don’t know.
Where do you sell your products?
We have an e-shop and we have more than 35 retailers in Greece. We also promote it as a unique Greek product, it’s part of the Greek sea. And we are also working on promoting our raw material technology and developed process for B2B at an international level.
What about funds for such an environmentally friendly idea?
Yes, of course, we wouldn't be able to make it otherwise. We applied for and received funds from Non-Equity Funding raised by the Angelopoulos Foundation & The People's Trust. We received various cash prizes from startup competitions and microfinancing.
Would you ever consider selling your company and move on to the next thing?
Yes. My mind is always thinking of new ideas. We are still developing and we have lots of work to do. I want to make Phee a global brand and if after that it’s the right place and time for the company, why not?
And you were in Forbes magazine? How did this story go?
I received an email from a Forbes editor that our company was one of the companies selected worldwide and they wanted to hear more about our story. At first, I thought it was a spam email. In January we were informed that from 500 projects we were selected to be in the industry list of the final 50 (which as I learned later it was the final 30). I was invited to attend the ceremony in London. On the day, I couldn't find my name on the list because I was looking at the wrong list, that's a funny story. But there it was my name, I was in the 30 under 30 EU Industry list, the most upcoming innovation, and unique materials worldwide. Many doors opened for me after that, lots of marketing, it was a critical thing for our company.
What do you need to become an entrepreneur?
You need vision and madness in order to face all the problems you'll encounter every day. You must have a clear vision about where you want to go. And hard work, really hard work. I can’t stress it enough, you have to work hard. And think of your vision every day, with everything you do. If you don't have the knowledge get a good team around you, you don’t know everything. And if you lose it be prepared to do something else.
What are your plans?
As per our business model we are now focusing on developing partnerships with other companies in order to co-develop many different products with our raw material (technology). We are not designers. We sell some designer products but our business is the actual material, the whole process, the technology around it. We want synergies in order to develop our products to increase our impact and make PHEE-board commercially open to many different applications and more accessible. We want to set up partnerships with bigger companies or retailers that are also in production in order to sell out material and co-develop and co-brand new types of products to be sold worldwide. Alone you don't have the same power. We are looking for international partnerships, it's an open call. We have some good partnerships in Greece so our models are tested in the Greek market and we are ready to scale it up internationally.