A personal passion or vision is often the energy that drives an entrepreneur to start their own business and for Anargyros Koutroumpas, the Founder and CEO of Cleopatra’s Sponges, this was certainly the case. Anargyros’s lifelong passion for nature and the sea was the foundation where his idea was built and developed. The spark was lit during his first visit to Kalymnos, a remote Greek island where sponge diving has been a tradition since ancient times. In Kalymnos, a retired sponge diver presented Anargyros with an authentic Aegean Mollissima. When he explained that this particular sponge was all but extinct by a combination of a disease that had struck 30 years ago and continuous overfishing, Anargyros decided to focus his efforts on saving the Mollissima species and reintroducing it to market.
Three years have passed since his first journey to Kalymnos and after facing and overcoming several obstacles, Anargyros has not been deterred from pursuing his vision and he has managed to establish a system of sustainable production (both environmentally and economically). Using experimental cultivation, they cut a small piece of sponge, leaving the remainder at sea to continue to grow and reproduce thus benefiting the marine ecosystem. Designed by nature to be the perfect facial cleansing and gentle exfoliation tools, the sponges are 100% natural, hypoallergenic, biodegradable and durable. Since December 2018, Cleopatra’s have been the only company in the world to sustainably produce the Aegean Mollissima and their product has been enthusiastically welcomed around the world, with sales mainly in Germany, Netherlands and the USA, but also in Italy, United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Hong Kong, Russia, Canada, Dubai, Austria, Romania, Turkey and of course Greece.
In January 2018 Anargyros Koutroumpas joined the Reload Greece pre RG Challenge accelerator programme, in April 2019 he was featured in the Fobes 30 under 30 list in Greece and the natural population of Aegean Mollissima has now been protected. For our latest RG alumni startup blog, we spoke to Anargyros to hear more about his entrepreneurial journey, his participation in a Reload Greece accelerator, and his plans for the future.
What drove your interest in entrepreneurship?
“From a very young age I worked in the family business, an insurance brokers firm. From my Father I learnt the value of creation and hard work, as well as the responsibility that comes with running your own business. My passion for nature and the sea in particular led me to found Cleopatra’s Sponges, as a sophomore in University. For my efforts, I was awarded Best Student Entrepreneur in Greece, EO GSEA 2018. Prior to the founding my company, I served as a Reserve Officer in the Greek Army. Though quite different from the world I now work in, the experience provided me with the ability to perform under pressure and to figure out ways of achieving my goals with minimum resources. It also gave me a deep sense of duty and a drive to help Greece build a brighter future out of the difficulties that we have faced.”
How did you come to join the pre RG Challenge in London and what do you feel were the main benefits of participating in the programme?
“As one of the top startup founders of the EGG by Eurobank, the most prestigious business incubator in Greece, I had the opportunity to participate in the pre-RG Challenge programme in January 2018. The EGG (Enter – Grow – Go) receives approximately 2000 applications every year and after evaluating the submitted business plans and 2 pitching rounds in front of the committee, each year they select 30 startups. In 2018 the top 12 startup founders were given the opportunity to travel to London for a week to participate in the RG pre-acceleration programme.
The entire pre RG Challenge programme was extremely beneficial but the financial & business model sections, followed by a very fun but equally useful workshop on stage presence and breathing technics were my favourites. The final pitching was very beneficial too, as for most of us it was the first time we had pitched our startup in English.”
How would you sum up your pre RG Challenge experience?
“In one word: Amazing. If I were given three words I would say: Tough but Amazing. For me, pre RG Challenge came at a perfect time because on our return to Greece I pitched in front of the GSEA committee and I couldn’t have been better prepared. I won 1st prize and the honour to represent Greece at the Global Finals in Toronto, along with the opportunity to meet the best student entrepreneurs around the world! That was a critical moment in my entrepreneurial journey and it could have played out differently if it wasn’t for Reload Greece.”
What are your plans for developing Cleopatra’s and what are your hopes for the future?
“As we grow, we aspire to set our harvesting method as an industry standard. This way we will scale our operation in the entire Aegean Sea, without putting the existing sponge divers out of business. We are in the process of educating them on sustainable harvesting, under the agreement that we will buy their entire output at a much higher rate than the current market price. This way we are turning our competitors to suppliers. At the end of the day, we all share the same ocean and decimating its resources is to no one’s benefit. There is only one way forward, the one of sustainable development. People must learn to respect and protect the environment and it is entrepreneurs that must lead this change. It is imperative that we start using business as a force for good.
My main hope is to eventually reverse the brain drain, which is a major issue Greece is facing – half of the people of my generation have left the country in the hope of a better future. Our success story will be a loud message to my peers that anything is possible and that it’s never too late to salvage a seemingly lost situation. It may be tough, but it’s our country and if we don’t step up to face the challenges, then who will?”
Are you planning to expand to the UK? If so, what opportunities do you see in expanding to the UK, have you met with any specific barriers and what do you feel are the biggest challenges facing a Greek company expanding to the UK?
“Great Britain has always been a major market for Greek sponges. Queen Victoria was very fond of them and the best Mollissima harvested were reserved and exclusively supplied to the palace. The UK is a hub for natural & organic products and apart for being a great market on its own, it also serves as a gate of entry both to the Commonwealth and the Benelux countries. It is also the home of one of the biggest trade shows of the industry: Natural & Organic Products Europe.
Britain’s exit from the EU has produced some concern in the business world. However, it is a fact that the UK has been open and good for business long before the common market, so I remain positive. The biggest challenge Greek companies are facing, which can be generally labelled as high quality – low volumes, is to “hold their ground” in such a vast and competitive market. However, with the right strategy and support from organisations like Reload Greece and our Economic & Commercial Affairs office in London (which is a bright example of professionalism and best-practices), every company can find it’s niche.”
How do you see Cleopatra’s Sponges having a long-term positive impact on Greece?
“The sponge industry is one of Greece’s oldest industries. Fearless Greek islanders would free dive up to 80 meters to collect these valuable resources, that were essential for personal hygiene, domestic cleansing, stationary, art, medical procedures, industry. Our civilisation was largely dependent on sponges, until plastics came into our lives. However, as humanity understands the catastrophic effects of plastics on our planet and the dangers it poses to our health, it is likely we will return to natural alternatives. If all goes well, within the decade, everything that was lost with the disease and over-fishing, will be brought back thanks to our sustainable production method. This way, Greece will have the capacity to supply the world once again with the finest sponges. We will provide employment and prosperity to distant island communities. The Aegean Sea will be healthy and full of life – because sponges act as bio-filters and promote the development of new marine life. All while we are preserving the ancient cultural heritage of sponge diving, which is so important to our country. We have hope and to me, Reload Greece stands for ‘hope for change’ too.”
It’s wonderful to hear about the inspiring and invaluable work that Anargyros and his team at Cleapatra’s are doing and we look forward to following their entrepreneurial journey. You can hear more about Cleaopatra’s Sponges on their website and in the below short video produced by Eurobank in Greece. If you would like to fast track your startup on a Reload Greece accelerator, you can sign up for our newsletter here and we will be opening our global call for applications to our RG Challenge20 accelerator in January.