Ana Cristina Agüero, CMO of Brightup

Brightening up a gloomy city

Apart from the odd mention of gentrification on Wilhelmsburg, a river island that is home mostly to generations of poor immigrants and their descendants, the southern part of Hamburg is largely out of sight and out of mind. The Elbe, Hamburg’s industrial river, slices the city in two and is as much a psychological wall of water as a physical barrier, most of the attractions that constitute the city’s identity lying to the north. In recent years, the local government has been pumping money into projects to encourage people to make the “leap over the Elbe” and put southern Hamburg on the mental map.

I made the leap, taking the S-Bahn across the Elbe through Wilhelmsburg and Veddel to Harburg. After a short walk from the station I approached the red-brick university buildings, peering into the laboratories at the lab assistants in their white coats counting iron filings. The shaking platforms and centrifuges were gyrating and vibrating peacefully; the sterility a far cry from the gritty urbanism that this blog is supposed to be about. Seeing the Brightup logo I knew I had arrived at the Northern Institute of Technology Management (NIT) on the Technical University Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH) campus. The occasion for my leap across the Elbe: to meet Ana Cristina Agüero, a Costa Rican biotechnician, engineer, and entrepreneur. Ana showed me her office, introduced me to her colleagues (including the office dog) and we had a chat in the cafeteria below. My journey was nothing in comparison to her leap over the Atlantic.

What made her study at the NIT? Why did she become an entrepreneur? Why Hamburg?

Sprung über die Elbe
The IBA logo is a man jumping over the Elbe. IBA (International Building Exhibition) was a project encouraging people to make the leap over the Elbe. This picture was taken in a park north of the Elbe.

Brightup – intelligent lighting via your smartphone

I first found out about Ana, Chief Marketing Officer of Brightup, at the Startups Day during the Social Media Week 2014 when she took part in a panel discussion about crowdfunding. Ana came to Hamburg to study a dual Master’s at the NIT, before founding Brightup with other students.

People think home automation has to be expensive and complicated – we want to show that’s a myth!

Brightup is a home automation system that enables users to control the lighting in their homes through their smartphone. You can turn lights on and off or dim them while you are out, and there are several intelligent triggers such as the weather, where you are, the alarm on your phone, or even turning the television on and off.

Ana in front of the NIT building
Ana in front of the NIT building: “I never imagined I’d start a business.”

Having secured seed capital from a business angel to get them to the prototype stage, Ana and her colleagues recently started a crowd-funding campaign. Crowd-funding comes in a variety of forms, but in general it allows companies to appeal to a large audience for funding to develop a product in return for stock, an item, a t-shirt or simply a thank you letter. If they manage to raise € 130,000 on Indiegogo they will start churning out Brightup sets.

Dual Master’s degree at the NIT

The transition between Ana’s course at the NIT and her new life as an entrepreneur was seamless. She studied a dual Master’s degree, gaining an MBA and a Master’s in Engineering at the same time. It was an alumnus of the TUHH that drew her attention to the course: whilst working at a Costa Rican nature reserve in a job only tangentially related to her degree in Biotechnology, Ana received an email out of the blue from her former professor:

I had left university four years before and I received an email from my professor recommending to recent graduates that they study abroad.

This professor had made the leap over the Atlantic (and back) to study for his PhD at the TUHH, which he heartily recommended.

I was thinking about studying a master’s, but was torn between studying Engineering or an MBA. The NIT offered a course covering both at the same time – so I thought, “Why not?” If I get a place, great. I had nothing to lose.

Ana made a spontaneous round-trip to Hamburg during a visit to Vienna. Despite an unspectacular first impression of Hamburg (especially in comparison to Vienna) she decided to try her luck and applied for the course. Her application was accepted and Ana secured a scholarship. She came to Hamburg in 2011 to start studying, at which time she couldn’t have imagined that she would become an entrepreneur, jointly founding a tech startup with the support of an investor and conducting a crowd-funding campaign. The professor’s appeal to his former students could easily have fallen on deaf ears: Ana says people in Costa Rica are close to their families, living with their parents until they get married, and it’s such a pleasant place that they are reluctant to leave. But the European education system is held in high regard where she comes from, and of the three things Germany is renowned for in Costa Rica, engineering is one. (The other two are Oktoberfest and the less jovial parts of German history.)

If this weren’t on the campus of the Technical University I would have assumed it were a sculpture or a piece of art. They are certainly reminiscent of the funnel on a ship, an unintentional reference to Hamburg’s maritime spirit.

The cohort that Ana belonged to was hugely international, with 35 students of 16 nationalities.

In total there were 35 people on my course, from 16 different countries.

A recent addition to the NIT’s syllabus was the entrepreneurship course, reflecting the NIT’s conviction that entrepreneurship is conferred by nurture as well as nature. Ana’s Master’s thesis was the business plan for Brightup, which she and her colleagues arrived at via a laborious but worthwhile process. It paid off in the end: during her final presentation, the examining professor surprised the students by offering to invest seed capital in the company.

In the office with the office dog.
In the office with the Brightup dog.

Why not Berlin? Or Freiburg?

That was February 2013 and since then, Ana and her colleagues have been working long hours in their office in the NIT building developing the design and prototype, preparing the crowdfunding campaign and seeking investment. She now spends most of her time on campus, living a couple of floors above her office within the NIT. (I suggested she abseil to work, but she prefers to take the stairs.)

Ana doesn’t get the chance to travel to Hamburg north of the Elbe very often. The long hours and the proximity to her flat mean that she doesn’t have to stray far from the campus, spending most of her time there or in the surrounding area. But when she finds time to venture beyond the confines of the campus, she appreciates the green surroundings and spends time relaxing at a nearby lake that is surrounded by a forest. For Ana, Hamburg’s good transportation system is merely a nice-to-have – she is used to the public transport in Costa Rica, which is unreliable and mostly in the form of buses.

There is lots of nature here – I like going to the nearby lake, which is surrounded by forest. It’s a nice place to relax.

The greatest downside to Hamburg for Ana is the gloomy weather – understandably for someone used to sun all year round, where the temperature doesn’t drop below 28°C. Conventional wisdom would have it that Berlin is a more startup-friendly city that appeals to internationals. Ana prefers Hamburg because she says it has a good balance between industry and young creativity.

Hamburg has a good mix of cool, creative people and more serious industry. In Berlin coolness is valued much more highly.

And of course the weather there isn’t much better than Hamburg. If she were to move somewhere else, Ana would most likely favour sunny Freiburg, partly for the clement weather and partly because her boyfriend (who is studying a master’s at the TUHH) comes from the region. Other than her boyfriend, it is her Indo-German team that keeps the young Costa Rican in Hamburg:

It’s a bit of an international bubble here – we mostly speak English at work and I have a colleague from India. If I left for another city, it would have to be a team decision. I’m not sure it would be practical for me to work remotely.

“Lampedusa is everywhere” – scrawled on the steps of the amphitheatre, a reference to a group of Libyan refugees in Hamburg, a hot topic over the past months with protest calling for a right of residence for all.

A creative microcosm south of the Elbe

For too many people, the part of Hamburg south of the Elbe is way off the radar. The majority would likely be surprised to hear that it is a magnet for the creative class. The NIT, occupying a building on the TUHH campus, is like an international microcosm that surely yields some lessons about what makes a city attract creative people. Although she likes the surrounding area, Ana rarely travels to the parts of Hamburg that most Hamburgers know and love – the river beach on the Elbe, the big park in the centre of the city, the sailing lake, the Reeperbahn, the canals. For her, the public transport is a “nice to have”. The trendy cafés in Altona, Eimsbüttel and Eppendorf are not within easy reach. Ultimately, it’s the NIT’s ability to attract other international, talented individuals and an investor that keep her here. It’s all about the people: the professor that recommended the NIT, the professor that invested in her startup, her boyfriend, and the colleagues that she spends most of her time with. Not even sunny Freiburg or trendy Berlin (where you probably could find a few hipsters who abseil to work) can lure her away, for the time being at least.