We meet CEO & founder of Pavegen
13 January 2016
In 2009, Pavegen was launched, when Laurence broke into a building site in the South Bank at 2am in the morning to install his first tile. After this first prototype he soon closed a £200,000 deal with one of the largest retail groups in the world, and it suddenly went from an idea to reality.
We caught up with Laurence to talk about the inspiration for Pavegen and his revolutionary approach to the energy efficiency industry.
Where did the original inspiration for Pavegen come from?
During university, I completed a yearlong work placement working with E.on and they asked me to go and spend a year developing street lighting for them. The aim was to make stuff that used a new form of renewable energy. The project failed and hanging my head in shame, I left the company. Having failed to do it at E.on I was frustrated. In my final year as an undergraduate at Loughborough I had come up with the concept of getting energy from footsteps and spent a year developing it. Everybody told me it wouldn't work, including the government and every VC in London.
It was just me on my own and I broke into a building site in the South Bank at 2am in the morning, installed my first prototype which kind of worked. It allowed me to get my first patent on it. I installed it, cemented it and took a photo. I put the post on my website, and I said, 'Celebrating our latest installation'. No one had celebrated it apart from me, but soon after I closed a £200,000 deal with one of the largest retail groups in the world, and it suddenly went from an idea to reality.
I believe entrepreneurs should know no barriers, you should do whatever it takes to get your company out there. As the sole founder, it was just me, and that was my process through disruptive growth to get it out there, and make it real.
What is the concept of Pavegen?
Pavegen is a flooring tile that generates energy from your footsteps. Every time you walk or stand or run on the tile, it'll generate about seven watts per step, meaning it can power a streetlight all night long, by using the energy of people walking all day long on about ten tiles. As well as generating energy, it can store energy. The energy can be built up in the day, so imagine if you walk to work in the morning, it can power the lights during your walk home in the evening, and that's how the concept works. We also generate wireless data from each step. The data is generated, and then we can use that to understand how people move in cities, and get a really, really granular look at how people behave in those city environments. Ultimately our vision is to make our floor tiles the same price as normal flooring, and to be the Intel Inside in smart cities.
An ongoing challenge for us is to make the tiles smaller and cheaper. It's essential that we can install our product anywhere. It's easy to install in new builds, and the great thing about the new system is that if you are retrofitting, you can just lay it on top of existing flooring. We've also just made something very clever that goes within that, that can be our data hub, Wi-Fi hub, Bluetooth hub, everything. All connectivity can be powered from the floor, but then also generate energy to power the lights inside the building the building.
What has been your biggest challenges since launching Pavegen?
Building a team and maintaining company culture is absolutely vital. 100 people might be right for a role, but only five of them might fit the culture, so that's key. We have to believe in what we're doing. I think being passionate about the environment and sustainability, not being afraid of innovation, and having a quite young approach to things with fresh ideas. I believe strongly that there is a steep correlation between corporate culture and starving creativity. Studies show that only 2% of adults are creative. I actually think a lot of people are polluted by years in corporate companies, to the point where they'll never be able to work in an organisation like ours, because they won't be able to handle it. So, you've got to have creativity, that's inherent to what we do
Secondly, the entrepreneurial journey is like jumping off a cliff and learning how to swim on the way down, not many people can stick with you through that, as it's constantly evolving and always changing. The biggest difficulty is that our growth is very disruptive. It may be perceived as slightly haphazard, but you've got to grow really quick, then catch up. That’s what it’s all about. There are a lot of megatrends at the moment around sustainability, urbanisation, global warming, smart cities which I look at like waves. Those waves hadn't really got momentum when we launched - now, we're just coming out of the top of a wave. So, we were a bit before our time when we first had the idea for the technology, now we're at a point where everyone knows what we're talking about. We're one of the few technologies that actually works and can be rolled out. So, we're ready and we're scaled to deliver.
What’s your vision for Pavegen in the next five to ten years?
Right now we're set up in about six or seven countries, including, Japan, South Korea, Australia and we’re just building up a US office. Over the next five years, we plan to have partnerships with some large, industrial flooring companies who are ready for scale. We plan to license into different sectors and bring a portfolio of products out in the kinetic space. We plan to be deployed in the thousands, if not millions, in every major city in the world.
How did you go about funding the business?
Today, we've over 1,500 shareholders. We raised £150k from friends and family in 2010 and then £350k from London Business Angels in 2012 and £500k from the Harvard Business School Alumni Association in 2014.
Two months ago, we closed a £2m round through Crowdcube. We started the campaign with a target of £750k and to launch it I did an installation in Canary Wharf. We used the energy from all the people walking in the Plaza to power the streetlights there. Within the first hour, we got £300k invested, within 59 hours we hit our target of £750k, and then we just went on overfunding and overfunding and hit £2m which was way more than we expected.
Our valuation's not far off £20 million, which, for a tech company in hardware, of this size is a really great valuation. It was one of the highest grossing clean tech fundraisers on Crowdcube. We're launching a Series B next year and we’re going over to the US for that for strategic reasons, to help build the US business.
The UK is really good at engineering design and creativity. Our British brands are some of the most valuable brands in the world. UKTI are phenomenal, the government is really good at helping the companies who are based here and your time zone is pretty spot on for being globally ready to deal with East and West.
I flew with David Cameron to Milan, he was my salesman. He has promoted my business to the Italian and Chinese Prime Ministers - we've got one of the best salesmen on the world on our side! Other individuals with the UK establishment have been absolutely vital for us. The clout of a consulate member is phenomenal.
I spend six to eight months of the year travelling abroad. Doing business in places like South Korea and Nigeria is very, very difficult and different. You've got to be ready to ride a storm and be ready to face some tough situations. I've had some crazy experiences setting up the factory in Eastern Europe as a 23-year-old, but I've built a team, a factory - you have to shake hands with someone, look them in the eye and say, “You won't let me down. I won't let you down."
I did the first ever Iron Man in Korea after doing a week of business with the government there and came in thirteenth place out of 85 in my age group.
You also like to push yourself to the extreme in your downtime from the business...
You've got to constantly challenge yourself in every part of life, and push yourself harder. I definitely won't do this forever, but right now, I love it, and we're pushing the business as hard as we can. We're pushing the team, taking on challenges of technology, and then if we can all do that, on our own time we can achieve so much more than we do. You've got to try and push it as far as possible. The next challenge is doing the hardest race in the world. We're going to cycle across America in twenty days. That's my next challenge in 2017. It's going to take a long a time to train for it. You do it without sleeping. You can have, maybe, one hour sleep a night, and you're timed the whole way through.
You've created some amazing things in your business, what are you most proud of?
I want every community to have the ability to access our technology. In order to do this, we've got to do everything - industrialisation, scaling, building out a team, making it really efficient, because it won't work in every community unless all those things have been done. It's very important to me, I want every community to benefit.
There is a social enterprise side of what we do. One of our projects I’m most proud of is when we went to a favela in Brazil. I was a finalist with Shell Livewire Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010, and I made it my challenge to sit really close to the Shell Directors. Together, we had the idea to power a football pitch in Morro da Mineira favela in Rio de Janeiro. The aim was to show how an energy mix of the future could actually power things tangibly. So, we powered a soccer pitch using the energy of people walking and playing soccer with over 200 tiles. As well as being an energy source, it also inspired the next generation (see video below).
There were kids walking around with Kalashnikovs. On the first day, I wandered off to take some photos and was chased down by a teen, who said, “Whatever you do, do not go in there on your own". I got three death threats. I spent a lot of time with the community, and that was really important for me, to take part and make a big difference. We hung out and spent a lot of time together. I even bought my dad out and they welcomed him in too. So for me I actually feel like I have changed the community.
If you could give any piece of advice to someone who's starting a business now, what would that be?
Believe in the idea and never give up, and there's no such thing as luck. You've got to create it yourself. If you want to meet someone, do whatever it takes to meet that person, don't just hope that they will email you back. Make a dove fly through their front door with a chocolate bar. Print your picture inside the chocolate bar, deliver it on the desk. You've just got to do whatever it takes to get to those people who can help you.
I've also done 4 TED Talks globally in cities such as Rio and Berlin. I won the World Technology Summit award in the 'Energy Category' for our business and Loughborough University made me an Enterprise and Innovation Fellow.
Natalie Langley: That's brilliant and congratulations again for your awards. Thanks so much for your time.
2nd Image: Karl Axon