November 21, 2018

The intelligent Thesprotian who grows technology in the US

The founder of Netronix Inc. and professor at Drexel University, Dr. Vasileios Nasis, refers to the new “Big Bang” that is brought by the Internet of Things. by Tassos Zachos

“If you do not believe that we can change everything in Greece if we put all our strength into it, then let us not start this discussion.”

Dr. Vasileios Nasis welcomes me with this phrase, somewhere in the center of Athens, during one of his planned visits to Greece to talk to new people about the enormous global potential of the Internet of Things “revolution.”

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In his face I can see passion, faith and great appetite to speak about technology and his “hobby”, as he mentions, which is the way he has been seeing his work since he started. Today, at the age of 39, he “drives” development forward not only because he understood and communicated for years the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT) but also because he turned it into practice. The company and its leading platform, US-based Netronix, aspires to bring the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” to the present, collaborating with global giants of technology, while also enabling new business teams to materialize their ideas and create their own startups, at a very low cost, through Netronix Ventures. Vasileios started his academic career at Drexel University, where he received his BSc, MSc and PhD degrees in Electrical & Computer Engineering, and since 2008 he has been a member of the academic community of the university. Not bad at all for a “folk” man, as he describes himself, who arrived in the US - without even knowing good English - because he had failed to enter a university in Greece.

BUT HOW DID IT ALL START?

Vasileios takes me back to 1978, in a small village ten kilometers away from Igoumenitsa. This is where he grew up and learned to experiment from an early age. “My father, a builder, is a fan of technology even though he only finished elementary school. As a self-taught and amateur radio producer, he gave me the stimulus to experiment from a very early age. While my peers went to play football, I was learning Morse code. I remember that at the age of 12, I managed to develop a switch in my room that switched off when I clapped. My favorite magazine was “Technical Election,” and I collected all the issues in order to construct the small circuits suggested by the magazine. Even today, when I see my father, we continue to experiment with new technology and seeing what our imagination bring us”, he says. As he notes, his willingness to experiment and his need to understand everything he learned did not help him succeed in the Greek education system or to enter a Greek university. “I did not want to read in the way they imposed reading on us in the Greek educational system. In my family no one went to university, and I, as a student, had a totally different way of thinking than what was required by the Pan-Hellenic University system, which I failed miserably. I never went “by the book”, as we say. I first wanted to understand what they were telling me, and I wanted to have a global perspective”. He left Greece in 1996 to go to the US, choosing Philadelphia and his sole ‘suitcase’ was his willingness to learn. There, he fell in love with the University; he mentions, in particular, his role model the Greek President of Drexel University, Konstantinos Papadakis, who shaped his course. “An academic with market experience, an intelligent man, he also spoke broken English - like me - but also broken Greek - like me” he says to me, laughing. “Though I did not go to University in Greece, I somehow managed to teach students in the US, which shows us that we are used to learning in an ugly (rigid) way. Previously, education had to be more massive (large scale). Now, with new digital tools, it can be more personal, more a-la-carte, something that I always tell my students. You can find everything on the internet if you want to be skilled and become the best in your field. This is not an obstacle to acquiring multi-faceted education and knowledge”, he adds.

“Netronix will not always be the first, but we must always be the best.”

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THE ‘PIVOT’, NETRONIX, AND STEVE JOBS

Today, his company, Netronix, which he founded in 2008, is seen as a rising power in the Internet of Things market, estimated at 157 billion dollars in 2016 and expected to exceed 450 billion dollars in 2020. From a smart clock and a train brake to a thermostat and a spacecraft, or from a refrigerator to a pressure gauge, there are innumerable things that already have, or will soon acquire, connectivity between them. It is estimated that more than 11 billion items worldwide are already interconnected on a local network or on the Internet, and their number is expected to exceed 20 billion by 2020, and to reach 25 billion in the next five years. It is obvious that the business and research opportunities open to the industry are unlimited. The platform developed by Netronix and the innovative solutions based on it have been utilized in products and services by over 300 external partners in areas such as environmental monitoring, fleet monitoring, air quality monitoring, and many more.

“The idea of IoT was born in 2006 in Greece when the Prefecture of Thesprotia encouraged us to take part in an open competition for a project to monitor the waters of the Kalamas river, or Thyami river, as our ancestors used to call it. We won the contest and developed a device, called Thiamis, connecting the sensors to the river via the Internet. The information was stored in the cloud before it ended up in a handy interface. In fact, the Kalamas River had the most advanced measurement and data transfer system in the world at the time, 12 year ago”.

Vasileios already developed his knowledge of data transfer and sensors, given that before starting Netronix, he had set up Fotomax, a photo sharing system - something like an early Facebook. “We made Facebook in 2003 and we had it in Greece. Although we did some collaborations, it did not succeed. I knew it was going to fail, but I did not know when. In fact, we moved from the photos to data with the project we undertook, and so the pivot was made from Fotomax to Netronix”, he says. In 2008, Netronix moved to the US for branding and buying purposes, as it’s founder says. The company’s philosophy remains the same today: to provide a complete platform (hardware and software) and a comprehensive solution. “Netronix is a mix of ideas. We have based ourselves on Apple’s model to provide our customers with a complete solution. Steve Jobs has been a major influence on me. Without exaggeration, I have learned by heart almost all of his important speeches. In fact, I was fortunate to meet his family on a business trip to Iceland where we developed a friendly relationship. For me, Steve Jobs is a role-model. He was a very special person, with his positive and negative aspects like everyone”, he says.

THE GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR GREECE

Turning our debate to Greece, Vasileios Nasis believes that IoT and, more broadly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution are also a great opportunity for our country. “The Internet of Things can also be a great opportunity for Greece. It creates new jobs and is the catalyst in creating the so-called start-up nation. Now everyone can have access to knowledge at a very low cost. Send me wherever you want, even to a village in Mount Grammos with just five people and in two years they will have become the best developers in Silicon Valley. It is sufficient to have computers and internet access”. The Internet of Things is still in its infancy stage globally and no one knows yet where this market can reach. “The Internet of Things will provide personalized, reliable solutions at a reasonable cost. Now, everything from medical care to driving will be connected to the internet. Everything around us is being redesigned and those companies that do not show flexibility and do not adapt will die out in the years to come, no matter how big they are. The whole market will be “bombed” by new services and products that will be specialized”, adds Vasileios.

“Send me wherever you want, even to a village in Mount Grammos with just five people and in two years they will have become the best developers in Silicon Valley. It is sufficient to have computers and internet access.”

‘DOING WELL BY DOING GOOD’

We conclude our discussion with his own vision and principle that “stems” from Benjamin Franklin: “Doing Well by Doing Good”, i.e. prosper by contributing to the wellbeing of others. “If you do your best, then it is very difficult to fail. Money will follow. In my company I urge employees to think like entrepreneurs rather than like employees. Forget the manual. Have the courage to fight with me, to challenge me. My goal is always to provide the best solution, the best product. We will not always be the first, but we must always be the best”, says Vasileios. I ask him how he feels today and he tells me that he could never imagine having his own company. “The difficulties were and are many. My family was not very positive about entrepreneurship, as is the case with many families in Greece. Even today they mention my academic status. And the crazy thing is that I am currently lecturing at Wharton University, the top business school in the world, while in Greece I have not even gone to a University. But you know … this is the magic of the US. Here they evaluate and reward you for your contribution to society”, he concludes.

Tasos Zachos

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