Meet Stephan Nigg – Founder Interview Series 2/6
January 28, 2022
“Creative order”, that is where he feels most at home. Stephan Nigg, our Senior Hardware Engineer and Co-Founder, thrives in an environment that for others would seem disorganized but for him, everything has its place. “I can see in my mind’s eye how all the various flying pieces must come together to make things work. It is imperative for my job. The individual parts on their own can only be tested to a certain degree, so it is that moment of truth when they are brought together and need to perform a certain function which is most exciting. That single-point focus, the ability to get into a zone and stay there for hours, it makes me good at what I do.”
When talking with Stephan, you feel the vibe of someone who is content within his own skin. In a group a demure, rather quiet person but one-on-one, an engaged conversationalist. “No matter what profession I take, I will always be an engineer. I have the mindset of an engineer which can be translated into, preferably machine over people. Simply said, I am more curious about a machine than a person. My mind enjoys solving something which has never been solved. Creating something today which was not here yesterday and with Swiss Ocean Tech, I have the perfect playing field to do just that.”
Having grown up as the first of four boys in a family of entrepreneurs, Stephan understands what it means to live with starts and stops, failures and successes and that competitive streak necessary to stay ahead. “No construct is perfect, but a start-up scenario allows a certain freedom to move as one chooses. There is space for trial and error, for exploration, for new beginnings, all the while keeping your focus on the ultimate goal. It is invigorating.”
What does a Senior Hardware Engineer do?
As we are a small team, I wear various hats depending on the task at hand. The area of responsibility is really quite extensive but since I am interested in a very broad spectrum of engineering and technologies, it suits me just fine. Once we as a team have defined the requirements, I design and develop the schematics, create the board layouts, write the firmware, acquire the necessary components and assemble and test the whole thing. Put in layman’s terms, I construct the brain and someone else makes it think.
What has been one of your most memorable moments since working for Swiss Ocean Tech?
The first time we assembled the data acquisition device which could record on a SD card. For the first time ever, we were able to visualize the data from that card and see it on graphs. That was the moment when all those “flying parts” I mentioned before came together and we could see the chains of data processing, where and when the anchor moved and the forces at work. Seeing all the synchronized gears working together and the solution doing what you expect and programmed it to do, that was very satisfying.
You have an unconventional way of working. Care to elaborate?
I like to work through the night, there are no calls and no interruptions. My perfect working day begins around 22:00 with me entering into a of kind perfect zone and only resurfacing five hours later. I like to think of it as a castle in my mind. Whilst in that zone adaptations to the castle, the rooms and the halls may take place depending on the task at hand. In the end it is about having all the information simultaneously visible in my mind’s eye. Some problems are just too complex when not in that zone.
Being a new father, I will admit, I am still struggling to find the balance. Every parent out there knows how our young children dictate our days and our son is no different. But at least there are those 3-4 hours right after he has been fed where I can disappear into my office and find that calm focus. Like everything else, it is a work in progress.
Like all co-founders, you joined the company on a volunteer basis back in 2016. You only became a paid employee in 2020. What inspired you to dedicate so much private time to this idea?
I get approached by many people who are looking for experienced engineers but there was something about Thomas, our managing director, which drew me in. His immense passion, conviction and drive towards this one vision of safe anchoring was contagious. He made the difference, he convinced me and let’s face it, even in my free time, I am still an engineer.
Are you a sailor yourself? How were you able to identify with the problem of anchor dragging?
Any kind of water sport is good for me. Being Swiss, I grew up around lots of lakes and rivers and my brothers and I made the most of them. We have always had a motorboat in the family and I don’t know how many times I went to bed anchored in one place only to wake up somewhere completely different. It is unsettling. When you start to scale up in size and dimension of the boat, I can very well understand the issues and dangers involved.
The development of AnchorGuardian takes place indoors but much of the testing must be in water independent of weather or season. Do you like this part of the process?
In the summer, when the water is warm and welcoming, I love it. You can breathe some fresh air, clear your mind and have a laugh with the team. But in the late fall, even though I tend to be quite hot blooded and prefer shorts over pants, it can even be cold for me. One time I had to dive down to the module and try to cover it with sand, I thought my brain would freeze. No one else was in the lake and the team was just so grateful they had someone willing to do the job. We all love being on the water, we laugh a lot and although hard, I actually remember these moments quite fondly. So yes, all in all, I do like this part of the process.
How did you experience the lock-down?
Last year was tough, there were so many hurdles to overcome. There were the time pressures and the technological challenges of course but on top of everything, there was the pandemic. At times it was just so frustrating. You had this omnipresent fear of the virus, but there were the operational restrictions which you couldn’t control. The supply chains didn’t work, planning had to be constantly adjusted, deadlines had to be postponed and there was the financial uncertainty. There were many long hours, even for me, but we are a strong and dedicated team and in September, we were able to install our first pilot project on a superyacht. That was a moment of celebration.
What did this milestone mean to you?
Engineering is a journey with many ups and downs. If there is no uphill challenge, then the solution would either already exist or it simply wouldn’t be worth the effort. Installing that pilot system was a big deal for all of us. We are breaking barriers with AnchorGuardian, bringing complex topics together and out of that creating a revolutionary solution for the marine industry.
Overall, we did what we promised to do during the pilot study and that is ultimately the most important thing for me. If I promise something, then I better be able to deliver on it, preferably even over deliver. That is what it means to be Swiss and that is what we believe in at Swiss Ocean Tech.