Turning footprints into energy: Meet Laurence Kemball-Cook

What do Harrods, Heathrow Airport, a Nigerian football pitch and a dance floor in Singapore have in common? They’re all advocates of Pavegen – entrepreneur Laurence Kemball-Cook’s revolutionary technology that converts human movement into energy, and a model for any gentleman looking to start a successful business.

What exactly does Pavegen do?

You may not have heard of Pavegen before, so in a nutshell: it’s a technology company that manufactures tiles that convert human movement (steps) into renewable energy. Its sister-business, Pavegen Labs, offers experiences through technology in temporary installations, and has partnered with Shell, the WWF, Coca-Cola and British Gas, to name a few.

It’s a young business, and so is its millennial founder. But relative youth, in this case, is a badge of honour – Kemball-Cook and his work have attracted huge amounts of interest in the fields of technology and sustainability, and it’s easy to see why.

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Who is Laurence Kemball-Cook?

Kemball-Cook is the sole founder and CEO of Pavegen. The eldest of three siblings (“I guess I’ve always been the dominant one”), his father is a management accountant and his mother a speech therapist. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were engineers – it would seem that creativity and innovation run thick through his veins. For Kemball-Cook, there was never any other career option – “I’d get fired in any big company because I don’t believe in rules and I don’t believe in hierarchy”.

How did he set up his company?

The idea for Pavegen was conceived while Kemball-Cook was an undergraduate at Loughborough University, studying Industrial Design and Technology. Pavegen started as a student’s project, but by the time he’d graduated, his idea had already captured the interest of the media, which spotted its potential. He then nurtured the concept, developing the technology in his bedroom in Brixton, London, often knocking on closed doors in his quest to transform the energy market.

Kemball-Cook is keen to emphasise his rags-to-riches story, something that’s common among many successful entrepreneurs. As a student, he won £5,000 from the Royal Society of Arts for a project called Postpod (portable Post Office equipment), which he then invested in Pavegen. “I founded the company, then sat in my bedroom for three years developing the concept. My big breakthrough was getting it to work.”

He describes the early stages as ‘chicken and egg’, having to “convince people to buy a product that didn’t exist, and I had people wanting to invest but only when I created money.” The early days seem light-years away from the smart gentleman sitting proudly in his office in London’s Kings Cross. Following a £200,000 investment “my whole business changed because I wasn’t a guy with an idea, I was a guy with revenue and a real tangible company behind me”.

Where does Pavegen stand today?

He was right to stand by his concept in the face of initial rejection. Six years on, and Pavegen is going from strength to strength. The figures attest to this. Pavegen recently launched on crowdfunding website Crowdcube with the aim of raising £750,000. Not only did it hit this target within 59 hours, it went on to raise over £2 million. Now with over 1,500 investors, and installations scattered all over the globe, Kemball-Cook has a lot to smile about.

Set on the top floor of a converted central London warehouse, the office is surprisingly small and humble, not at all what you’d expect of an international game-changing technology company. The team has 30 employees, and Kemball-Cook devotes attention to the right people in order to grow Pavegen. “We want really creative people, we want people who really believe in the journey, who are committed to climate change. We look for disruptive individuals.”

What explains Kemball-Cook’s huge popularity?

It’s difficult not to be swept up in Kemball-Cook’s abundant energy and his tireless enthusiasm. He’s well turned out, diminutive, with piercing blue eyes that become increasingly animated as he describes Pavegen and lists its successes. There is a fresh and charming air of excitement about him. He exudes confidence. “I think it’s really important to have good style and to be well presented at all times. I feel empowered by brands.”

Brands also clearly feel empowered by Kemball-Cook. He recently became an ambassador for Harry’s of London footwear, saying he likes “having a functional shoe but also something that’s really stylish”, and he’s never without his Panerai watch – “If I’m going to a meeting and I’ve got my Panerai on, I know it’s going to be a good meeting and I’m ready for it. Being ready for any environment is important.”

Kemball-Cook is undeniably dapper. He believes, like many before him, that image is an important contributing factor on the path to success. “How you present yourself is vital because people make up a decision about you within the first few seconds, so I think it’s really important to be well-styled and to come across well, especially in the international market.”

There is something fundamentally likeable about Kemball-Cook, and it turns out his admirers are widespread and legion. He has worked closely with rapper Will.I.Am (“he’s a good guy”), cites Chris Anderson, curator of TED Talks, as his mentor (“he’s a visionary with some great ideas”) and David Cameron is also a fan (“he’s literally my salesman”).

Which achievement does he take the most pride in?

Of all his achievements, he is most proud of an installation in a “really tough favela” in Brazil. Pavegen, partnering with Shell, installed 200 tiles into a football pitch, which was opened by football legend Pelé in 2014. The kinetic energy from the players is converted into electricity, which lights the pitch’s surrounding floodlights.

Kemball-Cook admits “it was really risky”, but he was determined “not only to provide a power source for the favela but to inspire the next generation of engineers”. The project was largely successful, and he’s delighted to have “made a macro impact to that economy”. But it’s not all finance and science – “I got taught some mean samba lessons and I also got taught that caipirinhas are very dangerous,” Kemball-Cook laughs.

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What else keeps him busy?

Kemball-Cook has travelled to China and Milan with the UK Prime Minister on trade missions. “I was with the CEO of Standard Chartered, who’s got hundreds of thousands of employees, the CEO of Ernst & Young and then suddenly me, a startup entrepreneur who’s 10 years younger than anyone else… More deals were done on the plane than got done in China.” He feels personally supported by the UK government: “they’re basically holding my hand and saying, ‘Kemball-Cook, if you want to do business, we’ll help you with it’.”

As in business, Kemball-Cook pushes himself physically – he’s a frighteningly keen athlete, even taking part in the Iron Man Challenge in Austria (a 3.8km swim immediately followed by a 185km cycle and a marathon straight afterwards). He sleeps four hours per night, swims in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park most mornings and admits, “I push myself in every way I possibly can because I think that makes me a better person.” He enjoys a party but says that his “crazy days are maybe slightly behind me, but still, you’ve got to live life hard in every respect.”

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What does the future hold for Pavegen?

Living life hard seems to come naturally to Kemball-Cook. But what is his vision for Pavegen? “We want to be the intel inside smart cities of the future. We’ll turn every pavement, every road, every building into energy generating devices within the next three or four years.” And then? “I will do an exit from this business within the next two to five years through a trade sale.”

One thing is for sure: Laurence Kemball-Cook isn’t going to disappear any time soon. “I work all the time. It’s all part of the fun of it.”

 

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