MyAgenda: Laurence Kemball-Cook

Cleantech venture Pavegen is on a mission to redefine sustainability in the built environment, with a flooring technology that generates electricity and data from footsteps – and raises awareness. This month the company won a DigitalAgenda Impact Award for cities. Founder and chief executive Laurence Kemball-Cook answers our questions.

Laurence Kemball-CookWhat’s top of your agenda for change?

 Pavegen is the global leader in harvesting energy and data from footfall. We want to help create smarter, more connected built environments that empower communities. Using our technology, our aim is to raise awareness to sustainability in an engaging, immersive way.”

What are you doing about it?

“Our combination of physical interactivity and rich data can help bring smart cities to life. The Pavegen technology enables people to physically engage with renewable energy, increasing their understanding of environmental issues and connecting them purposefully with brands. We have completed over 150 activations and installations in diverse locations – from the world’s most famous venues to favelas and transport hubs.”

How did you find yourself doing what you do now?

“During a university placement with one of Europe’s largest energy companies, I researched ways to power street lighting and applications within our cities using solar and wind power. Inspired by this challenge, once I was back at university, I thought of a power source that was literally under our feet. Could we harness footfall to convert kinetic energy into electricity and data? Convinced that I had something, after graduating from Loughborough University in 2009, I launched the business with a small seed fund, creating prototypes and securing the first patents from my bedroom. Since then, Pavegen has grown into an international business with a senior team and projects in more than 30 countries.”

How is technology helping you to secure the change you want?

“Pavegen technology allows people to engage and connect with the energy they have personally generated, increasing awareness of sustainability issues. Pavegen is also a simple concept that people can easily grasp and become interested in. As well as harvesting and storing ambient energy in an unobtrusive way, we can gather valuable information and give feedback to people through energy games, an app or various other applications. Our technology is increasing the value of people’s interactions and can provide brands, retail and property owners with useful data insights.”

What’s the project you’ve worked on that has made the most difference to date?

“In 2015, we installed 200 kinetic tiles under a football pitch in Rio de Janeiro. The installation is situated in the Morro de Mineira favela, a deprived area in Brazil. As the children run, their energy is stored in batteries to help power the pitch floodlights after sunset, creating a safer environment for them to play in. The project received media coverage in over 20 countries and was supported by Brazilian football legend Pele. Through projects like this, we are showcasing our ability to unite and empower communities all over the world.”

What’s the biggest challenge for people wanting to make a difference through technology?

“You need to make sure your idea is not only innovative but also that it works. That takes a great deal of effort, prototyping, problem solving and being prepared to start again when what you have planned doesn’t work out. It’s hugely competitive to win funding so being clear with your communications and understanding how to get an idea across clearly is also key.”

What technologies are most exciting you in the space right now?

“We’re constantly on the look-out for interesting technologies – both from an engineering and design standpoint but also as potential collaborators. As guests at the recent SXSW Festival, we connected with some really exciting companies working on technologies, including artificial intelligence and automated vehicles. Hyperloop really stands out for me. It could disrupt the transport industry, with the potential to unite people from all over the world faster and, potentially, with less impact on the environment than aviation.”

What would you have done differently in your work looking back?

“A certain degree of risk is inevitable in business. It was very difficult to initially launch Pavegen as there wasn’t much of a startup ecosystem in 2009. After an expert on a new business helpline told me not to bother, I decided that I needed to do something drastic. I broke in to a building site at 2am, laid the product in the ground, took photos and put them on my website with the caption: ‘celebrating our latest installation’. I did manage to close a project from this but would I do the same thing again? Probably not.”

What’s your piece of advice to people looking to do good through digital?

“Ask yourself a key question. What is the problem you are trying to solve? Anyone can create a product, but to ‘do good’ you need to be meeting a specific need. Entrepreneurs should be thinking responsibly about their product when they’re starting their business career, ensuring it provides both environmental and social benefits. It’s also vital to ensure your brand messaging is consistent and that you reach the right audiences in the correct channels.”

You’ve won a 2017 DigitalAgenda Impact Award. What impact does that make on your work?

“Winning the Impact Award enables us to reach new audiences and networks, encouraging us to keep pushing forward to reach our long-term goals. I cannot explain enough how grateful I am for awards like this – they motivate us and confirm that we have the incredible support of influential figures within investment, startups and technology.”