Laurence Kemball-Cookseems like the kind of young man any mother would want her daughter to bring home. He has a neat, healthy, clean-cut appearance and a polite, even charming manner. His office near London’s King’s Cross Station is relaxed, a little scruffy, filled with informally dressed staff who all radiate the same air of youthful enthusiasm as their boss.
Yet this 30-year-old engineer, inventor and entrepreneur is, by his own admission, an obsessive workaholic. “Some people would probably say that I’m a perfectionist, to a point that can be quite frustrating,” he says.
He’s also the creator of ‘Pavegen’, a paving tile for which he now holds a patent, that turns the force of people’s footsteps into clean, renewable energy.
“My vision is for Pavegen to be to cities what ‘Intel inside’ is for PCs,” he says. “I want to cover every single city in the world with our tiles. I want to turn every bridge, road and building into a kinetic-energy device.”
The idea first came to him while he was studying industrial design and technology at Loughborough University. As part of his course he was sent to work at the energy company E.ON.
“They said, ‘Laurence, can you design a street light that’s powered by solar or by wind?’” he recalls. “But when the sun’s not shining there’s no power and when the wind’s not blowing there’s no power. So I tried for a year and I failed.
“I was really upset. Then one day I was walking through Victoria Station in London and I thought about all the people there. I’d read that 38,000 people an hour walked through the station. What if we could harness that energy as a power source?”
Laurence admits, “The idea of generating energy from footsteps isn’t new and other people have tried it. They’re using things such as the piezoelectric crystals you find in cigarette lighters to create a charge. But the power is so low that you can never do anything meaningful with that energy.”
Laurence took a different route. The weight of a footstep on his tile makes a horizontal flywheel inside it rotate.
“The more people walk, the more this flywheel spins,” he explains. “Then we withdraw the power from the flywheel as we need it. We can suck it out bit by bit.”
Every pedestrian that passes over a tile generates around seven watts in energy. These tiles generate electricity with a hybrid solution of mechanisms that include the piezoelectric effect (an electric charge produced when pressure is exerted on crystals such as quartz) and induction, which uses copper coils and magnets.
At the 2013 Paris Marathon, where Pavegen installed tiles at the finish, the runners crossed 176 tiles, leaving 401,756 footsteps that generated 3,141,926 joules – enough to recharge 1880 mobile phones or power an electric Nissan Leaf car for 24 km.
Today Laurence manufactures the tiles at a factory in Romania. “I love the people in Eastern Europe,” he says. “My engineers there speak very emotionally about the Communist days. They couldn’t buy anything from outside Romania, so they had to make everything themselves. It’s amazing, that can-do attitude.”
He’s already exporting his tiles from Romania via London to the world. “We’ve done more than 135 projects in over 30 countries. We’ve been contracted by the mayor of Washington DC to install Pavegen just outside the White House. We covered the Champs-Elysées in Paris with our tiles for the Paris Marathon. At the Milan Expo we made a system for Coca-Cola so that as people danced on the floor it powered the music and made it go louder.”
But his ambitions are as much moral as commercial. Once the tiles are manufactured, the system requires no fossil fuels, generates no CO2 and produces no pollutants, which is why he says, “Some people might define their aims as wealth or success, but for me it’s just, Let’s get it out there and do good.”
But could this really make a difference to energy use? Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of Britain’s branch of the non-profit World Green Building Council, thinks so. It is a “hugely innovative technology”, she says.
She likes the way that it “engages users and makes them aware that they’re helping to solve a problem. We certainly need every clever form of renewable solution.”
Hirigoyen sees Pavegen as one of those possible solutions, but cautions that the manufacturing cost – which Laurence estimates as £230–£310 per square metre of tile – remains a problem except in places with very substantial footfall, such as shopping centres, railway stations and airports.
He is well aware that price is an issue but claims, “In the next 24 months we’ll make our tiles the same price as normal flooring. And when you install them, they’ll give you energy for free.”
There’s no doubting Laurence’s good intentions for his technology. In a project funded by Shell in 2014, Laurence brought Pavegen to the Morro da Mineira favela, one of the poorest areas of Rio de Janeiro. Two hundred tiles were placed under the surface of a local football pitch, so now the players help power the floodlights.
This was clearly a project that meant a huge amount to Laurence: “It’s a crazy environment, where the kids run around with machine guns, but it was an honour to work with those guys.”
It’s all a long way from the quiet cathedral city of Canterbury, Kent, where Laurence grew up. At school, he says, “I was really into taking things apart and putting them back together. I just loved it.
“I’ve always had an engineering heritage. My grandfather helped develop early radar technology and worked on the first computers for disabled people. My uncle has also spent his whole life inventing things.”
To that family background he added the determination that’s required by anyone who wants to turn small ideas into big businesses. “Nothing will stop me,” he says, not as a boast, but simply as a statement of intent. “I’ve always said that if I have an idea I’ll do it. I believe as an entrepreneur that you should jump off a cliff and learn how to swim on the way down.”
Laurence says that as a student he “industrialised” the world of univer-sity. He had six desks in his bedroom, each with a specific function – one for electronic engineering, one for drawing and another served as a mechanical workshop. “There were rigs full of springs and generators on my bed.”
His Pavegen idea became his final year project. “When I submitted it, my lecturer swore at me because I had four suitcases of work.”
After graduation, he accepted the offer of an internship with a design company in New York, but then changed his mind. “I owed it to myself to keep going with Pavegen.” There were plenty of low points, he admits. “I survived on bread and water, and sat in my flat for days and weeks on end, working all night, focused on the challenge. I often felt like giving up.”
Laurence wasn’t just searching for a way to generate power. He also had to make a tile strong enough to survive out on the streets. “You’ve got weathering, you’ve got vandalism,” he points out. You have to withstand 15 million, 20 million steps. And you also have to take excessive point-loads, whether they are women in stilettos or fire engines going 50 miles per hour.”
Slowly, things started coming together. He displayed his work at a design show in London with 1000 other young designers and “suddenly it went viral”. The media picked up on the idea of paving stones that could generate power and that, in turn, attracted Laurence’s first clients.
The developers of a huge shopping mall in London contacted him because their planning permission depended on the use of sustainable energy, which Pavegen could provide. Transport for London, which was planning for the 2012 Olympics, asked if it could put Pavegen tiles into an underground station close to the Olympic Stadium. During the course of the games, a million people walked over them.
By his mid-20s, Laurence had become a feted young entrepreneur and was invited to accompany UK Prime Minister David Cameron on a trade mission to China.
But he didn’t get everything right. Early Pavegen tiles had large, round lights that lit up whenever anyone stepped on them. They looked great, but, says Laurence, “when we started installing them we saw that women all walked around the lights. They were worried there were cameras in there, looking up their skirts.”
There’s also another side to the tiles: they can be used to gather data about footfall. Shopping-centre companies could see exactly how many people go where, and when, and determine precisely which are the most valuable spots in their developments. Managers of stations, airports or stadiums could detect and prevent dangerous levels of overcrowding building up.
To date, Pavegen has earned around £3m and is valued at £20m. But, says Laurence, “I still live in the same bedroom that I did when I started the company and I’m happy there. I have a faster bicycle than I did back then, but that’s it. There’s no point in taking money out of the business at this stage. If I focus on the business, good times will come.”
Laurence’s dedication has come at a personal price. As he puts it: “Total girlfriends lost: three.” He adds, “A lot of my friends have got families and kids at this stage of their lives, but I’ve chosen not to because this is my challenge – and until I’ve done it I don’t want to worry about that.”
So when he’s not working, Laurence likes to compete in cycle races and Ironman triathlons. “I’ve cycled [from London] to Amsterdam in a day, cycled to Paris in a day. At the weekend I’ll run a half-marathon or go swimming in the Serpentine in London. I learn a lot about myself when I’m training. It’s like a meditative state.”
On the walls of his office, alongside the mass of framed awards that Pavegen has won for technology, environmentalism and entrepreneurship, are printed inspirational statements from thinkers and businessmen from Albert Einstein to Sir Richard Branson.
One day, if he really does manage to power the world’s cities with his tiles, Laurence Kemball-Cook may be as celebrated as Einstein and as rich as Branson. And perhaps young entrepreneurs of the future will look at their own office walls and his exhortation: “Jump off a cliff and learn how to swim on the way down.”