Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned. This month, we have a double interview for you.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from!
My name is Anselma Wörner, I co-founded Exnaton at the end of my PhD together with Liliane and Arne. I am originally from southern Germany and studied industrial engineering there before moving to Switzerland for my PhD.
During my studies I did a lot of internships and student jobs in larger software companies and consultancies, but none of them really turned out to be “the dream job”, so I thought starting our own thing would be worth a shot.
My name is Liliane Ableitner, co-founder and CEO of the climate tech startup Exnaton. Before founding the company, I studied information systems in Germany, Argentina and Switzerland and have worked for a startup and as a freelancer.
Originally I am from Munich, Germany, and when I am not at work, I love to spend time in nature, to cook yummy food, or to bake sour-dough bread.
You’re the founders of Exnaton. What does Exnaton do and can you share a bit about the founder’s story, how you met and also how you knew that being a co-founder and COO, and a co-founder and CEO, respectively, is what you want to be doing for the next few years?
Anselma, Arne – our third co-founder and CTO – and myself, met during our PhD at ETH Zurich and the University of St. Gallen. We had all signed up for a PhD program at the intersection between information technology, data science and energy innovation. During that time, we built Switzerland’s first local energy market allowing households to share electricity with each other.
Our technology allows you to buy electricity directly from your neighbor. Or, in turn, your neighbors that already own solar panels, which will be more and more prevalent in the future, may sell you the electricity they don’t need. This creates sustainable energy communities that supply themselves and that become more independent of the energy grid and of electricity supply from other countries – a factor more important than ever. With the success of our research project and all the positive feedback we received, we decided to found Exnaton in 2020.
Today, we offer a software platform around renewable energy to traditional utility companies or new players in the sector. And why do we do this?
This is Exnaton’s mission.
How did you become interested in tech?
I guess I always had a geeky tendency and liked to solve puzzles by myself without having to ask other people for help all the time. Then, when I started to study, although I did this very generalistic degree, we had to take this lecture on programming in Java in my first semester and realized that I really enjoyed it.
I think it’s super cool how fast you can try out stuff with software and it’s such a powerful tool if you want to do anything with statistics or data.
What other decisive steps significantly influenced and shaped your career?
There are a few decisive factors that are crucial for my career today. First of all, I decided to study something at the intersection between technology and business – in my case information systems management.
Already early on during my Bachelor, I focused on application areas in the energy sector. Later on, I decided to deepen this knowledge by doing a Masters and even a PhD in that area as I wanted to build information technology that would help individuals to better handle their energy consumption and the negative consequences of such.
The second important factor is that I was always intrigued by entrepreneurship. I grew up with my factor being one, gained first experience during my studies as a part-time freelancer on fairs, exhibitions and other marketing events, and I joined the clean tech startup Amphiro for an internship.
And the third factor was that I met Anselma and Arne who were up for founding a startup ourselves. I would have not founded a startup without having the most brilliant co-founders on my side who fight every day for our common goals of making the energy sector more sustainable.
What valuable advice did you get from your parents?
My parents always supported my decisions and never made me feel like there was anything I couldn’t or shouldn’t do, BUT they did tell me how important it is to get a good education. I think in the digital age and our globalized economy this turns out as important as ever.
What are tips for curious minds out there that want to become founders but don’t know where to start?
The information sources are limitless. It starts with books on successful tech companies, continues to Netflix series on startups to following well-known founders on LinkedIn. There are also fantastic opportunities to gather information in your local startup ecosystem. Local universities or startup accelerators are a good starting poin as well.
Here in Switzerland, there are so many events targeted at those interested in founding an own company: WE SHAPE TECH, ETH Venture Challenge, Impact Hub, Venture Kick, Information events by local law firms, etc.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
Whenever I get a little frustrated, it really pushes my motivation to think that what we do is truly relevant and, also, that not just anyone could do it, since we have really spent a lot of time studying this topic even in our research before we founded the startup.
What drives you at work?
The freedom to stir our company in the right direction defined by the market. It makes me happy to see our team being passionate about building great product for renewable energy, to see that customers are requesting our software services and to see that each and every individual may contribute to making the world a better place by investing in renewable energy.
What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?
Doing a PhD, as well as founding a startup, you really have to learn to deal with critical feedback. As a PhD, other scientists review your papers and their task is literally to identify any little weakness in your work to make sure the science is solid, so the feedback can often be very harsh. I think learning to deal with this and to try to just extract the helpful input from this feedback without taking it personal was actually a really good preparation for being a founder.
As a startup with a disruptive idea, especially in a rather conservative industry like energy, you always have to deal with a lot of doubts from industry people or investors that try to challenge you, but if you really take it factually without getting discouraged you can learn a lot from talking to people that doubt your ideas.
How does digitization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?
Digitization does not only impact our daily jobs and we need to account for it when making important career decisions, but it also affects how we are organized as women in tech. 20 years ago, it was hard for women to coordinate each other and to share experiences with each other. With digital platforms and events such as those organized by WST this gets so much easier. A huge milestone for all women interested in pushing their career forward. At the same time, these opportunities are very beneficial for our male colleagues as well:
What advice would you give other women in tech?
As I mentioned, don’t get discouraged by critical feedback, but really see it as a learning opportunity and focus on what you can win from it.
I think a lot of women (including myself sometimes) are often too shy or too proud to ask for advice, which is a shame and mostly turns out unjustified in hindsight.
Are there any podcasts, books, role-models you can recommend to follow, listen to or read?
I love the book “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor who shows us how our society has progressed in the past few decades (written before Covid and the war between Russia and Ukraine) and therewith spreads a positive attitude on global development.
For anyone interested in energy and sustainability, you definitely have to read Bill Gates “How to avoid a climate crises”. Other good books are “Black Box Thinking” by Mattheuw Syed or “Good Economics for Hard Times” by Abhijit V. Banerjee.
And regarding role models, my personal wish is to have more and more female role models in entrepreneurship as today, there are still way too few.
I like many of Paul Graham’s essays which he publishes on his website. And, as Liliane says and my recommendation shows: We need many more female role models, but I do get inspired by friends and colleagues in my network, like here in WST, everyday.