Q&A with Pavegen founder & clean technology pioneer, Laurence Kemball-Cook
“Strike whilst the iron is hot. If you have an idea that you believe in, take that risk and don’t waste time!” Pavegen founder Laurence Kemball Cook spoke to AGENT about life at the helm of his business, which has steadily become a significant player in the clean technology sector globally.
Pavegen founder Laurence Kemball-Cook (31) worked for one of Europe’s largest energy companies in his early 20s. A good start, you might think. However, inspired by his ‘clean tech’ business hero Elon Musk, and spurred by the engineering smarts in the family gene pool (stretching back at least as far as his great grandfather’s work on the conversion of the British Royal Navy fleet from coal to oil in the early 20th century), Kemball-Cook felt rather boxed-in by the constraints of power sources that had already been developed. He wanted to go further.
He had a vision of how the cities of the future would be powered, and its name was Pavegen. Pavegen was a vision that looked beyond even alternative sources of solar and wind energy. The nub of his idea was the development of a new clean technology, installed under pavements and high footfall areas in major cities, which would convert the neverending procession of footsteps into kinetic power.
So it was that after developing the tile himself, using his own engineering skills, he launched the company as Pavegen in 2009. As he recalls here, when he filed the first patents, his office was his bedroom. Eight years on, he has taken decisive steps towards turning his dream into a reality. Pavegen floor tiles have been used in Heathrow Terminal 3, in a number of schools, at Federation Square in Melbourne, at football pitches in Brazil and Nigeria, and last year the energy generating Pavegen slabs were installed in Dupont Circle near the White House in Washington DC (pictured below).
The achievements to date have vindicated Kemball-Cook’s pursuit of his vision, especially through the tough early years when it was tough to find investors in a London that was far from the start-up-friendly capital that it has become in the time since innovators like Kemball-Cook helped paved the way for subsequent generations of young entrepreneurs.
Kinetic energy could not by itself power a city. To be truly effective, it would have to function as part of an eco-system of technologies and sources, including solar and wind. But Kemball-Cook has both wholeheartedly embraced this future of partnership, while also never slackening in his pursuit of possibilities for the Pavegen technology. Last year, he told Business Insider that Pavegen had “a suite of 10 patents around the world”, and that “anything that moves, we can generate power from it. Think flooring, shoes, buildings, roads”.
The story of Pavegen has been sure and steady, mainly due to costs. Back in 2009, the cost price of one Pavegen tile was approximately £5,000), but Laurence Kemball-Cook’s primary focus in recent years has been to reduce the price of the tech to parity with standard flooring. This is, he believes, the point when the Pavegen business will truly begin to scale. Meanwhile, he and has team continue working on how to make Pavegen even more efficient, more durable and easier to install.
11 Questions for Laurence Kemball-Cook, Pavegen founder
Laurence Kemball-Cook cleared some time in his busy schedule to talk to AGENT about the Pavegen story, about clean technology, his business heroes and shed some light into other aspects of life at the helm of one of the UK’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) most impressive young tech firms.
1. Briefly tell us how you first got into business, and describe your business goals.
Before Pavegen, I worked for one of Europe’s largest energy companies. I was looking at a way to power street lighting and applications within our cities, but felt confined to more conventional energy sources of solar and wind power. I imagined the amount of footfall occurring day and night in our major cities, thinking of ways I could use such a constant, unending resource. It was then that I thought of a power source that was literally under our feet; a flooring that converts footsteps into kinetic power and captures data. We are now scaling the technology around the world, and my goal is to bring the price down to standard flooring – a goal that we are steadily reaching.
2. What age were you when you realised you wanted to run your own business?
I’ve always been fascinated with engineering and bringing bright ideas to life. Being an engineer made starting a business easier, as I was actually able to make the product I wanted to sell. As I was so passionate about my idea and clean-technology, I was dedicated to creating a tangible business out of it. Having graduated from Loughborough University, I launched the business in 2009, filing the first patents from my bedroom with £200.
3. Who are your business icons and inspirations?
Elon Musk is one of my biggest business icons. Not only do we share the same vision of improving sustainability through alternative sources of energy, but I aspire to be as successful in my entrepreneurial pursuits.
As cliché as it sounds, my family are also a significant source of inspiration. I come from an engineering background. My grandfather played a role in setting up industrial production plants in the UK in the 1960s, and my great grandfather helped convert the royal British naval fleet from oil to coal under Winston Churchill. My father, who was a managing accountant at British Telecom, has guided me with amazing advice I continue to use today at Pavegen, and he is now the chairman of the company.
4. What has been your biggest challenge in business, and how did you surmount it?
I found it very difficult to initially launch Pavegen, as there wasn’t much of a start-up ecosystem in 2009. Firstly, I went to around 150 venture capitalists in London for investment. When that failed, I called the government helpline designed for start-ups, who also dismissed my plans for a successful business. I decided to develop the product in my bedsit in Brixton, looking for any way to get Pavegen up and running. As the London tech-scene began to thrive, we raised £350,000 through London Business Angels in 2012, which helped kick-start the business. In 2015, Pavegen gained over 1,000 investors in one week, raising a total of £2m on Crowdcube – 253% over our target! Soon enough, I started receiving media attention from the likes of The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Sun and numerous bloggers. That was when Pavegen really started gaining momentum.
5. Work-Life balance: is it possible? How do you achieve it?
To achieve a work-life balance, I’ve found that you need to make time. Routine is very important to me and allows me to fit everything into my day. Exercising in the morning will allow time for relaxation in the evening; you just need to be organised and plan ahead. Also, now that most people have a smartphone and easily accessible Wi-Fi, this enables working while on the move, helping to saving time in the long turn and making work-life balance more achievable.
6. What is the first thing you do every day?
Aside from the usual routine of brushing my teeth, having a shower etc, I will always try to cycle to work. The 11km cycle to work saves me from having to visit the gym, and makes my commute more efficient.
7. What screen saver picture is currently on your phone?
Me with a group of friends cycling through the Picos de Europa Mountains in Northern Spain.
8. What is the most important app on your mobile phone, and why?
Without a doubt, it’s Strava Running and Cycling GPS. I cycle every day and it turns my mundane rides into something competitive. It tracks your activity via GPS, allows you to search for routes you may not have heard of and caters for the needs of any athlete, no matter what your ability.
9. What is the last thing you Googled?
‘Elon Musk joining Trump’s advisory council’. I think this is a brilliant decision, and will help change Trump’s perception of climate change. It’s great to have someone influential who identifies strongly with the clean-tech revolution and understands the needs to shift towards renewable energy.
10. What item do you never leave the house without, and why?
My phone charger. Being an entrepreneur involves a lot of meetings and travelling, and my phone is very important when it comes to work. I need to make sure my emails are always accessible and so a charger is essential if I’m out and about.
11. What advice would you give to your younger self starting out in business?
Strike whilst the iron is hot. If you have an idea that you believe in, take that risk and don’t waste time – someone else may get there before you!