Despite flourishing in a post-doctoral research position at the University of California, Berkeley, the entrepreneurial spirit inside Dominika Bienkowska was straining to break free.
Having spent a year undergoing an MBA at ESMT Berlin, along with her co-founder and CEO Rolf Behrsing, she's developing ÜberEnergy, an energy-saving solution which improves the efficiency of central heating.
Using machine learning technology, the high-tech hardware predicts how much energy is needed to heat a room based on the occupants' behavioural patterns.
We talked to her about teething problems, why Berlin could be a better environment for incubating energy start-ups than Silicon Valley, and how her MBA has shaped her professional life.
Where did the idea for ÜberEnergy come from?
My co-founder Rolf had been building his house in California, and was in awe of how inefficient residential heating systems were. We then began to talk about ÜberEnergy as a possible business venture, and decided that Berlin would be the perfect place to start.
To simplify it, ÜberEnergy is a predictive analytics platform that uses machine learning to save energy. You can think of it as intelligent energy management. The computer in the system finds patterns in the user’s behaviour, and can then anticipate what to do.
So, if you leave your house on a cold winter morning for work it’ll turn off the heating, but it’ll know exactly when to turn it back on so you come back to a warm home.
What made you want to start your own business?
I was becoming a bit disillusioned with academia and was starting to look for ways out. Entrepreneurship was a big pull factor for me.
ESMT Berlin's entrepreneurship and innovation management tracks inspired me greatly. I also had the opportunity to participate in start-up events in Berlin, which made me even more excited to start my own business.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced so far with starting up ÜberEnergy, and do you have any advice for entrepreneurial MBAs?
Put simply, getting funding and finding the right people. There’s a lot of stress with securing funding and you have to build a big network for it. Our first pilot customer agreement took us a while to achieve as well.
Because start-ups are so small, it’s crucial that your employees are productive because they can make or break you. Luckily our grant enabled us to hire some great students, but it’s something entrepreneurs should be wary of.
How did you manage to secure funding for ÜberEnergy?
At one point, we were struggling building our network of partners for funding, so I reached out to career services at ESMT Berlin and they introduced us to an E.ON executive who gave us a letter of intent. This resulted in us being granted funding from EXIST, a start-up fund here in Berlin.
ESMT Berlin also offered space to incubate the idea. We got talking with both Prof. Stefan Wagner and Associate Dean Nick Barniville, who gave us support and advice. We’re part of the German Tech Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC) as well, which provides excellent opportunities and prototyping space.
GTEC also has an extensive network, and we potentially have another pilot because of that. They provide legal and financial services too, and we’ve attended trade shows through them.
Why did you decide to do an MBA and why did you choose ESMT Berlin?
Having one year of my life where I could develop new skills and boost my potential in the job market was an incredibly desirable thing for me, and I liked that ESMT Berlin focused on entrepreneurship.
Berlin is such a great city too, it’s a real melting pot and I enjoy a great quality of life there. ESMT Berlin has some excellent founding companies and benefactors, offers a consulting project for startups, and a great network that I’ve definitely benefited from. I reached out to many people for advice with ÜberEnergy and it’s like one big family.
The class itself had a very strong international feel too, so there was a lot of interesting dialogue on offer.
What makes Berlin’s start-up scene unique?
Germany has always been the best market for innovative energy technologies, and it’s also far easier to get access to professors and politicians than it would be elsewhere.
As a city, Berlin offers more raw talent than other established start-up hubs, and you can get further in Berlin for less money than in London or Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of public funding and government support too.
What are your plans for the future?
We want to grow organically, bringing our technology to more people. In the future, you will be able to buy an ÜberEnergy pack for your home, but for now our B2B pilot will sell to their customers from us.