Entrepreneurs should know no boundaries, says Pavegen founder Laurence Kemball-Cook – and yes, that includes risking a brush with the law to get your idea noticed
Thirty-year-old Laurence Kemball-Cook has more than a whiff of a Richard Branson about him: charming, enthusiastic and perfectly happy to take a few risks in the name of a marketing stunt.
For a start, a bit of building site breaking and entering was the only way he could turn the idea he came up with at Loughborough University – paving and floor tiles that generate electricity from footsteps – into a business.
“I left university with a fully branded technology that kind of worked,” he says. “Then I spent two years in my flat in Brixton trying to develop it to make it viable. In 2009 there was no support for early stage start-ups like there is now.
“I mean, I phoned a government helpline and they said ‘forget it, it will never work’. I went to 150 venture capitalists, and they said “forget it, it will never work’. My old university was like yes, we will help you, but give us 70 per cent of the company. So I was kind of stuck.”
He called on friends who were willing to make his components for him after hours in return for a few beers. This meant he had products to show off, but it did little to win over customers. No one would buy his products without a steady manufacturing plan, and no one would invest without revenue. His solution? A guerrilla installation on London’s South Bank.
“I believe in entrepreneurs knowing no boundaries,” he says. “You should do whatever it takes to get your idea noticed. So I broke into a building site on the South Bank at about 2am, installed my product in the ground and cemented it in.
“Then I took photos and on our website it said ‘celebrating our latest installation’. I closed a £200,000 deal the next week from a massive retail operator. I went from an idea in my bedroom to having some serious revenue.”
An attempt to do something similar on the step outside Downing Street resulted in him being arrested.
Funding floods in
Following the South Bank stunt the industrial design graduate raised £155,000 from friends and family, de-risking the business for future investors and helping him to raise £350,000 through London Business Angels in 2012.
At the same time he fought hard to increase revenue, which went from about £5 in 2011 to £1 million in 2013, to support growth. “We actually made £50,000 profit in 2013 by accident because we started closing so many big deals. Then we focused on revenue creation and managed to raise £500,000 in 2014.” The following year he decided to try to raise another £750,000 through Crowdcube, the crowdfunding platform.
There was so much internet interest that the resulting traffic crashed Pavegen’s website before Kemball-Cook closed the round after 56 hours, raising £2 million. The business now has more than 2,000 investors, although Kemball-Cook is still the majority shareholder. Other major backers include United Sustainable Developments, an Indian developer; Renaissance Capital, the Russian-owned investment bank; and – in a personal capacity – the European chief executive of Jones Lang LaSalle, the property business.
Before the investment, however, Kemball-Cook was a university student who was worried about the future of the world. “I am one of the first generation of students who, for the majority of time at school, learnt about global warming, the impact of not recycling and so on. With those lessons embedded in me I realised that I wanted to make a change. Through design I found a way to allow me to do that.”
He chose to do it through his own business rather than as an employee because of a long-established entrepreneurial streak that saw the nine-year-old Kemball-Cook sell circuit boards to other children at his school so they could build robots. This did not endear him to the teaching establishment.
“Entrepreneurism isn’t encouraged in schools because it’s a subject they don’t understand,” he says. “The idea of making money is frowned upon at school.” That said, he realises that there are practical considerations to take into account – no one would want an entrepreneurial child selling knives to his or her peers, he acknowledges – although he feels that there should be more case-by-case flexibility than he currently sees.
His first adult effort at entrepreneurism was at university when he spent a year working on a low-energy street lighting project with E.ON. “The aim was to get it powered by solar and wind,” he says. “They invested half a million pounds into an LED company.
“We partnered with the Solar Research Institute at Loughborough University and, after a year of trying to develop these new street lights, I failed. I realised that it wasn’t viable to create a new energy source in cities using solar and wind. I got kicked out of E.ON but I kept thinking about the problem of energy in cities.”
Contemplating that problem got him thinking about how to harness people power. This became his final-year project, then the basis of a competition win that secured him £5,000, then – eventually – the product that saw him creeping about the South Bank with marketing in mind.
These days, his focus is on innovation. In May, the company launched the latest iteration of its technology, V3, at BAFTA in London’s Piccadilly. There was much whooping and clapping from enthusiastic employees and supporters as Kemball-Cook unveiled Pavegen’s new triangular tiles (pictured). Sleeker and more efficient than their square predecessors, the new tiles can generate over 200 times more power than the first model.
They can also capture data around footfall, which Kemball-Cook believes will be game-changing for Pavegen. The company has teamed up with technology firm Tribal Planet to create an app that will help individuals to turn their footsteps into an ‘energy currency’ that they can redeem for access to exclusive experiences and events, or even donate to social causes in deprived areas.
Manufacturing is also high on Kemball-Cook’s agenda right now. It happens predominantly in the UK so that he can keep a close eye on quality control. The tiles need to be able to cope with hot and cold weather, which means the expansion rates of the various components need to be taken into account, as well as things like flooding, vandalism and – of course – the fact that masses of people will be tramping over them every day. This means using different manufacturers for the different technologies involved.
“There aren’t really many production plants that will produce everything that we need under one roof. If we were doing millions and millions of units we could probably build our own unit, but because we’re doing it in the thousands it’s easier for us to get parts made all over the place and bring them together.”
While millions of units may well be in Pavegen’s future, it is some way off. The demands of quality control and a determination not to shoot itself in the foot by taking on more than it can cope with are ensuring that Kemball-Cook keeps his ambition in check.
“We’ve had orders for 100,000 units like years ago, but we are not able to fulfil that volume of orders … so we are keen to create and maximise value by doing projects that are at the right scale for us. So we are just going from the hundreds to the thousands in terms of installations.”
And not all the products it does make are sold outright, either. “We found it was really profitable for us to rent products,” he explains. “So we span out a separate business called Pavegen Live that’s all about rental.” This is popular with event organisers; Pavegen covered the Champs- Elysées in tiles so that runners in the Paris Marathon could create energy for schools, while an installation in Brighton, paid for by American Express, powered the city’s Christmas tree lights.
“My aspiration for the business is to create a billion-dollar technology company. We want to grow that in the most viable way that can allow every community in the world to access our product. [To do that] we’ve got to create a really big, successful, well-scaled company that will obviously have to make significant revenues and profits.
“So our aspirations will be through the most suitable type of capital … and if it’s an IPO that’s one route we’re not ruling out. If it’s a partial investment from joint venture partners, or if we do a trade sale to a vertically integrated industrial enterprise that has the ability to speed up our process, then that’s great.”
The next step, however, will be another round of fundraising with a goal of £15 million, plus looking for international opportunities. “I think it’s key that businesses have an eye on the horizon of the global market because there’s more to the world than the UK.”
He’s also looking forward to making up for his failure outside No. 10 by installing Pavegen tiles at Dupont Circle, just minutes away from the White House. “We haven’t done Downing Street yet, but we are doing the American Federal Government. We’ve got a contract closed and paid for by them.” Still, it’s hard not to imagine that he’d have found a convenient building site nearby to demonstrate his product had that deal not gone through.
Faces of a Vibrant Economy
Laurence Kemball-Cook is one of Grant Thornton’s 100 Faces of a Vibrant Economy.
Images: Nick Wilson