Six things I learned – Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen
Laurence is the award winning founder & CEO of Pavegen Systems, an innovative clean-technology company based in London. An industrial design engineer by training, Laurence spent his early career working for one of Europe’s largest energy companies trying to develop street lights powered by wind and solar. The challenge of finding new energy sources to power urban life captivated Laurence. The answer came to him on a crowded train station pounded by thousands of feet. Laurence developed the idea into Pavegen tiles, a technology that harvests the kinetic impact of footfalls and transforms it into an on-demand electricity supply.
“There isn’t really anyone to help you in the beginning”.
Securing funding for prototype innovation remains a great challenge for budding entrepreneurs.
Laurence found himself in a chicken & egg situation. Demand for Pavegen’s products – thanks to effective early marketing – came before Laurence had developed a finished product. Finding investors to back a new innovation in its pre-revenue stages, investment in 2007-9 was exceedingly difficult. Laurence found banks would not lend, Venture capital wanted to see revenue before investing, Universities demanded a 50% stake and government subsidy schemes were lacking.
- Government funding has a high impact when it fosters entrepreneurial networks.
In the UK, “Technology Innovation Centers” (TICs) or catapult centers have the potential to make a real difference. These physical centers aim to bring together scientists, engineers, business people and other creative minds into flexible work spaces. TICs offer entrepreneurs a place to meet other people on the same journey and share their experiences (and struggles) – this is invaluable.
Visionary Business Angels also make a significant contribution to early stage funding of innovative products where venture capital, business and banks would reject the risk profile. Schemes such as the UK Enterprise Investment Scheme (which currently delivers tax breaks as a proportion of the investment), have proved a stimulus to investment in innovation with a higher risk profile.
The Future of energy is decentralized power networks
Whilst much of the focus of renewable energy has focused on it’s potential contribution to the grid, Laurence believes we will see more local decentralised networks producing energy when and where it is needed.
Whilst these networks won’t replace the National Grid, they will help drive localised energy savings by providing supplementary power supplies. Energy harvesting products, such as Pavegen, combat the problem of variable demand and peak load spikes by producing energy precisely when buildings / areas are experiencing the highest numbers of people moving through them.
In this way, decentralised networks will help stabilise peaks and troughs in energy demand and work to both reduce the cost to specific sites and reduce wastage across the system as a whole.
The holy grail of the energy industry is better, more efficient storage
Better power storage capabilities is vital. In the midst of national debates about the future of UK energy supply, wind farm operators are being paid to turn their wind farms off at peak production times because the grid cannot deal with the load. With better storage technologies these hours could be used to maximize energy generation at the largest scales.
At a smaller scale, many technologies now require better, more efficient batteries. The goal is to develop batteries that operate at over 70% efficiency – this could have major implications for technology right across the spectrum of production, distribution and consumption.
The Importance of fun: gamification and marketing
Early Pavegen prototypes incorporated a light which lit when stood upon. This visual representation of the underlying technology gave great momentum to early marketing efforts. Despite outputting a small amount of harvested energy, the lights also attracted even more footfall. By making the technology fun and providing a visual reaction to the users action, Pavegen generated a highly engaging product that people would go out of their way to use.
Pavegen’s products now have features which make their integration into buildings and workspaces seamless and discrete, but Laurence continues to be influenced by the power of fun.
For prototyping and production runs 3D printing isn’t going to replace quality manufacturing any time soon.
Industrial Design Engineers have been using a precursor of modern 3D printing for over 30 years under the name of rapid prototyping. As such the luster of the technology and it’s promise to allow entrepreneurs to quickly give substance to their ideas doesn’t hold much value to Laurence. Citing the continued high cost of a 3D print, Laurence recommends that budding entrepreneurs focus on making good links with manufacturers and factory operators locally. A surprising number of high quality, highly skilled manufacturers still operate in the UK and were able to furnish Pavegen with low cost prototypes during phases of research and development.