© Air Up

“It Was the Best Decision of My Life”: Lena Jüngst of Air Up

Together with four co-founders, Lena Jüngst founded the Munich startup Air Up, a water bottle with flavor pods. We talked with the founder.

Lena Jüngst studied product design in Schwäbisch Gmünd. She and her four co-founders complement each other well: With Tim Jäger, Lena Jüngst wrote a bachelor thesis on Air Up prototypes. Then there’s Fabian Schlang, who studied food technology and conducted in-depth research during his studies on what would eventually become the flavor pods. They were later joined by Jannis Koppitz, the current Co-CEO, and CSO Simon Nüesch, who bring along the necessary business know-how.

The said bachelor thesis with the prototype of the water bottle was ultimately what prompted the founding of Air Up. The final green light for the company came when they received the Exist Startup Grant in late 2017. With a first round of seed financing last year, the team was able to win over Frank Thelen and Ralf Dümmel as investors and launched their product shortly thereafter. The startup received intermediate financing amounting to 2.3 million euros in January 2020. A series A round is planned for this fall. We spoke with Lena Jüngst.

All eggs in one basket

Munich Startup: What motivated you to found a company?

Lena Jüngst: In the beginning, we never intended to start a company and developed Air Up solely as a bachelor project. But then as more people around us gave us feedback about how much potential they saw in our development, we took things more seriously and continued developing it. At the very latest, it was when we received our first startup grant in late 2017 that we decided to put all our eggs in one basket: We stopped the career paths we were on – I would have had the opportunity to work for Philips as a product designer – and founded Air Up.

It was the best decision of my life: When you’re employed as a product designer, you have very little influence on the product development process and little say in deciding what kind of products the company develops. On top of that, you have drawn-out agreements on so many levels. Although I really enjoy the trade itself, it was also always important to me to create products that are in line with my system of values. As an employee, I definitely would have had more free time over the past few years, but with Air Up, I took the opportunity to turn my ideas into reality.

Munich Startup: Did you have role models when starting the company?

Lena Jüngst: I don’t and didn’t have a specific role model that I emulated. But there are a lot of women who I admire. What they all have in common is that they stand out in their field and have been successful because, despite outside pressure, they didn’t conform and did their own thing.

For me in the entrepreneurial realm, that would be Janina Kugel, who fought for topics like inclusion and diversity despite her conservative surroundings. Or the singer Ali Neumann, who doesn’t conform for the sake of money or business, but instead puts her very own style of music on the stage. I’m also fascinated by Neri Oxman, who as an MIT professor (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, note from editor) unites two seemingly contradictory worlds in her work: She combines art and design with biology, medicine and computer science.

Curiosity is of fundamental importance

Munich Startup: When and where do you have the best ideas?

Lena Jüngst: I’m a very creative person, like to draw and am always busy with design, trends and innovations even in my free time. That’s what inspires me. But inspiration can also come from completely different areas. And sometimes from areas that I hadn’t had very much to do with before.

The initial impetus for Air Up, namely using a combination of design and neuroscience, came from a TED Talk that my co-founder Tim and I saw about neurosciences. Curiosity and an interest in new things are fundamental to being creative. As the Chief Evangelist, I’m responsible for our product vision, trend research, brand building for Air Up, and am involved in topics having to do with product strategy. That makes being curious and interested in new things of fundamental importance.

Lena Jüngst isn’t scared of taking risks

Munich Startup: What’s your biggest talent?

Lena Jüngst: My biggest talent is being able to link aspects from different areas together to develop “out of the box’ ideas. In other words, I’m creative. I’m not scared to try new things and take risks. I would rather lead an interesting life with extreme highs and lows than take a safe, but for me boring, middle road. 

Munich Startup: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

Lena Jüngst: One mistake was thinking we would only need about three to five additional months to develop a market-ready product from our initial prototype. Unfortunately, it ended up taking more than a year longer than anticipated.

Munich Startup: What’s your secret networking weapon?

Lena Jüngst: In general, I’m an open and curious person and really enjoy talking with others. I think it’s extremely important to learn from others and to also be able to pass on my own experience. Of course it also helps me when networking that I’m 100% behind our idea and product. And I want people to get to know Air Up and inspire them to lead a more sustainable and healthier lifestyle. I also have a personal ice-breaker: I generally speak with the people I meet on a first-name basis. It’s something I’m familiar with from the creative industry and from abroad, but here in Germany, it’s not commonplace yet. At any rate, it really helps make stiff first conversations a bit more enjoyable. 

Munich Startup: What are the three most offensive prejudices you’ve encountered in everyday startup life?

Lena Jüngst:

  1. Designers only want to make things look better or force their designer ego on others, which is why they can’t think in entrepreneurial or strategic terms. 
  2. (Technical) innovation comes from men, women are responsible for marketing.
  3. You need a corporate identity just so you can write a nice slogan on the company wall later on.

Future prospects for Air Up

Munich Startup: Was being a female founder an advantage or disadvantage for you? What was easier, what was more difficult?

Lena Jüngst: I’m the only woman in our founding team of five. I definitely stand out. But not because I’m a woman, it’s because I’m the designer and the creative part of the team. In everyday life, women generally encounter and have to battle against more prejudice than men.

Women are still very much seen in the assistant role: They take care of communicative issues, they organize and support. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, men are still called on to get things done. Rarely are women seen to be capable enough, which is also because women communicate differently than men. Women usually talk less about how great they are. In a man’s world, that is quickly misinterpreted as a lack of confidence and therefore a lack of competence. I don’t believe, however, that women should have to learn to behave like men as a result. It would just be nice for both sides to meet in the middle.

Munich Startup: What’s on top of your desk at the moment?

Lena Jüngst: I’m still very busy with brand building right now. We just recently updated our corporate identity, communication as well as our visual presentation. At the moment, the focus is on additions and details, but also on initial adaptations. The next major scope of duties that I plan to take on involves product vision. That means I’ll be thinking about what products we want to put on the market in a few years. I’m currently screening consumer trends and developing some initial ideas.

Munich Startup: Where’s your next vacation destination?

Lena Jüngst: That completely depends on the whole corona situation. If I had the choice, I would like to travel to southern Europe, to Portugal, Italy or even a bit further to Morocco. I’ve never been there before, but it’s been on my travel wish list for quite some time. From a design perspective, Japan would also be incredibly interesting to me.