UNic has seen ‘wildly implausible’ success in the last 10 years. In a country where people think small THEO PANAYIDES meets its CEO, a man who believes in a near future dominated by machines
Antonis Polemitis has an anxiousness about him. He says he’s a type-A personality (meaning aggressive, dynamic), and he must indeed have loads of self-confidence – his achievements speak for themselves – yet his brown eyes are mild and tinged, at least in interview mode, with a diffident quality, a touch of uncertainty. It’s not a lack of confidence (he’s right, and he knows he’s right), more the expression one might see on the face of an academic in an especially abstruse field – the pterodactyl expert holding forth on the sex life of the pterodactyl, say – or indeed on the face of an epidemiologist trying to explain, in early January, that the virus just beginning to appear in China was a major threat, and had to be taken seriously. A sense of being slightly apart, ahead of the curve; a suspicion that he might not be entirely understood, let alone believed.
It makes sense – because Antonis is CEO of the University of Nicosia (UNic), an institution whose success over the past decade has been “wildly implausible,” as he puts it. Casual readers may be unaware of how fast this particular pterodactyl has grown, even if they’ve happened to pass by the university campus in Engomi – on the northwestern edge of Nicosia, right by the Green Line – and noticed the enormous halls of residence that have sprouted up seemingly overnight. In the past 10 years, across different projects, “I think we’ve absorbed $150 million investment capital,” Antonis tells me, speaking fast in his soft American accent. “It’s gotta be one of the biggest chunks in Cyprus.” Yet in fact money isn’t the point: “I don’t think the barrier to doing things is actually investment capital,” he declares airily. “The barrier to doing things is doing things correctly… If you do things correctly, capital is broadly speaking, in today’s world, available.”
His assurance about money may be “an artefact of my background” – because he spent years in the business of raising money at ACG Capital, a multi-billion dollar private equity firm. Before that came five years in strategic consulting – also in Manhattan, where he spent almost all his career before relocating to Cyprus in 2016 – at Mercer Management Consulting (now Oliver Wyman), the fourth-biggest strategic consultancy in the world, and before that came an MBA at Harvard Business School where he graduated in the top five per cent as a Baker Scholar. Antonis is a very high achiever, his presence in Nicosia explained mostly by the fact that his father, Andreas Polemitis, was a co-founder of Intercollege which became, in 2007, the University of Nicosia. He doesn’t entirely belong in this place, or this milieu – which may also explain that slight uncertainty.
People in Cyprus, in a nutshell, think small. They didn’t think it could happen when he talked about going international 10 years ago – and have trouble believing him now when he says, for instance, that UNic’s MSc in Digital Currency (i.e. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies) is No. 1 in the world, above the likes of MIT and Stanford. Cypriots tend to scoff at the idea that we might be world leaders in anything, except perhaps beaches and halloumi. Yet, for instance, the EU has an advisory body called the EU Blockchain Observatory, and the consortium guiding that body includes a European university; as of last month, the university in question is UNic (it was previously University College London). Ripple, a big cryptocurrency, runs a research financing programme, and the first 20 universities on that programme are “19 of the top 50 universities in the world – and the University of Nicosia! It is highly unusual for this to happen”.
It’s worth dwelling on this (even with the obvious caveat that Antonis, as CEO, has an interest in bigging up his company’s achievements), just because it seems to have flown under most people’s radar. Take, for instance, the University of Nicosia Medical School – founded in 2010 in partnership with the University of London – which this year placed one of its graduates “in a residency for plastic surgery at the Mayo Clinic, possibly the most competitive residency in the USA”. Plastic surgery is among the most lucrative medical fields, and the Mayo Clinic is the top hospital in America: for a residency like that, “you’re competing only with graduates from Harvard and Stanford!… It’s the first time any student who attended a medical school outside the US got that position”. (The student was admittedly American; then again, that only makes it more remarkable that they studied in Engomi.) Or take the M5 Forecasting Competition which ended a couple of weeks ago – run by Spyros Makridakis, a professor at UNic and a very well-known figure in his own right – offering $100,000 in prize money to over 35,000 participants. That competition was organised in partnership with Google, Kaggle, Uber and Walmart; yet it came from a Cyprus university.
“You have to decide,” explains Antonis: “If you say ‘I’m going to do X’, how would you do that if you were located in Palo Alto, or London, or New York City? Do it that way! And the barriers to doing it that way are smaller than you think. Of course it would be easier if we could move the campus to Palo Alto. I grant that. But it’s not a deal breaker.”
In 2010, while he still lived in New York but was on the board at UNic, Antonis did a quick study: back then, he says, they had 5,000 students – 4,000 at the university and 1,000 at Intercollege – and 93 per cent of tuition revenue came from Cypriots. Now they have 13,500, about half of them studying online, and only 25 per cent of revenue comes from locals. One big key has been overcoming what he calls “the invisible mental barriers of Cyprus” – a think-small impulse he’s forever trying to fight against, even in himself. “It’s good that I’m doing an interview with the Cyprus Mail. [But] we should also be doing an interview with Times Higher Ed in the UK.” Another key has been partnerships. For the medical school, clinical partners included Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago and the Sheba Medical Center in Israel, one of the world’s top 10 hospitals. For Unicaf – an online learning platform in sub-Saharan Africa which is “something that we founded”, albeit not actually part of the university – the partners were CDC (“the world’s largest investor in Africa”, owned by the British government) and Goldman Sachs.
This, I assume, is where he comes in. He speaks the language of all these big players, has the confidence and experience to be taken seriously – and in fact he’s a terrific talker, despite (or because of) that slightly anxious, importunate air. He’s affable, accessible, seemingly free of ego; you feel you can ask him anything. He has something of the quirky professor, prone to little jokes and sotto voce asides, and something of the classic nerd, using words like ‘hypothesis’ and viewing things dispassionately, even his own past missteps: “I was right on the technical piece, but completely wrong in how the business applications would play out,” he muses, looking back on a tech start-up he founded – an alternative to YouTube – which at one point, around 2009, “was streaming two per cent of the world’s video traffic online”. Antonis does indeed have a background in computer science, though it wasn’t his only major; finding a pure IT degree must’ve been tricky in the 90s, when he was in college. He’s now 45, having been born a few months after the Turkish invasion.
What kind of person is he, though? What makes him tick? I admit to having slightly neglected the personal side, just because the UNic story offers so much to talk about; only later, rooting around on the internet, do I even discover that he’s also “an award-winning photographer and Eagle Scout”, which I’d have liked to ask about. (Well, maybe not the Eagle Scout part.) He’s certainly a workaholic, which has slightly cushioned the shock of the move from New York – a place he adores – to Nicosia (he and his Greek-American wife also have a five-year-old son, another reason to take a break from the big city). What about fun? What does he do to unwind?
“Anything. I’m obsessive!… I usually have three or four going simultaneously.” He takes out his Kindle to show me the current crop. Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand, “an amazing thinker” who also wrote “one of the most innovative books about architecture ever written, called How Buildings Learn” (‘innovative’ is one of Antonis’ favourite words); What it Takes by Stephen A. Schwartzman, “a private-equity guy”; A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, a classic history book on the Middle Ages; Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World by Peter Zeihan; and Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan guy who’s also, incidentally, on the advisory board for UNic’s Makridakis Open Forecasting Center (another partnership). Not exactly a list most people would associate with fun reading – but Antonis Polemitis isn’t most people, which brings us back to that slight apartness again.
Does it stem from childhood? Hard to say, but his story is slightly unusual. His mum was pregnant during the invasion; the family fled, ending up in Indiana where the boy was born. The parents divorced, and indeed – though both parents are Cypriot – his mother never returned to Cyprus; Antonis, however, was shipped back to his grandparents as a baby, and spent five years here before settling into the “standard Cypriot-American model” of school in the US and summers in Cyprus (his dad did move back, incidentally co-founding Intercollege). Did being always ‘in between’ – and seemingly abandoned by his folks for a while, though he doesn’t seem to bear them any grudge – make him more of an independent thinker? Who knows; yet he did become that kind of thinker, an entrepreneurial capitalist with a visionary streak who mistrusts regulation, lauds innovation, and fervently believes in the power of technology to “expand what is possible”.
It’s no accident that the blockchain/Bitcoin MSc (“my personal baby”) became UNic’s pathway to excellence: “The reason we’re competitive is not because we’re smarter or better-looking or what-have-you. What we did is, we went early”. UNic launched their degree in 2014 – MIT and Stanford followed in 2016 – and the reason was precisely because Antonis saw something in Bitcoin that most people missed (and continue to miss, even now). He’s a futurist, a believer in machines transforming the world, not in some far future but now, maybe by 2030. He regales me with visions of self-driving cars, healthcare robots tracking our bodily indices on a daily basis, the Internet of Things feeding endless data to be processed by more robots, meetings taking place virtually with augmented-reality goggles and photo-realistic holograms. “And then,” he concludes, “once you have a world of these machines, they’ll need somehow to transact with each other” – which is where Bitcoin comes in. For humans, cryptocurrency is “interesting for some niche cases”; for robots, however, it’ll be “the financial substratum of the machine economy. That’s why it’s interesting! Because, if you think about millions of machines talking to each other, for very micro and fast transactions – what, they’re going to run through JCC?”.
It’s a lot to take in, especially in a small conference room in Engomi. I think I understand that slight anxiousness; Antonis, it must be said – and indeed many have said it, especially when he first arrived – doesn’t really fit with his surroundings. He’s delivered lightning-fast change in a country where the unofficial motto is ‘siga-siga’, slowly-slowly. He’s a stranger in academia, used to “fast-moving small teams” filled with type-A personalities like himself; when he’d say ‘Go left’ they all went left, now he has to listen to speeches about going left vs. going right, and how the concept of direction may be just a post-colonial construct anyway. Above all, he looks to a future of self-driving cars and Bitcoin-exchanging robots in a place where many are stuck in the past, the “pre-interconnected-era Cyprus” where you were indeed trapped by those mental barriers.
He won’t say how long he plans to stay; he has “no expiration date”, though of course “like everyone in the world, you don’t know where your life is going to take you”. I’d be shocked if he stayed forever, especially as his child grows up (his wife, it’s worth noting, sounds like another high achiever like himself). Equally, however, it’s easy to see why he took on the challenge, a bigger challenge in its way than climbing the private-equity ladder in Manhattan. Not just national pride, and a sentimental feeling for the old country – but also to show it can be done, once you target very specific fields and think internationally. “Our message is a message of hope and optimism,” concludes Antonis. “That you can do it from Cyprus, that the trade-off – the perceived trade-off – that if you come to Cyprus you should do little things, is fake. That’s my hypothesis”. Hopefully others are listening.