I recently sat down with the founder of Pavegen, a company whose aim lies deep in providing an alternative energy source through its sustainable off-grid energy technology. Laurence talks me through the early days of the company, its growth, their technology and plans for the future.
Laurence, I’m absolutely delighted to have you on YHP, how are you doing?
Hi Joseph, I’m doing great, thank you for having me!
So how or where did it all begin? What were your earliest moments of being entrepreneurial?
Things definitely started small. I started when at school by looking for used circuit boards in skips, which, for some bizarre reason, my classmates wanted to buy off me for about a pound. Unfortunately I couldn’t keep this business going when my teacher found out!
Tell us a bit about life pre-Pavegen? What entrepreneurial ventures were you involved in?
I had a small DJ business when I was about 16, playing at local parties. Although it was a fun enterprise during sixth form, it was only when I arrived at university that I began to focus my ‘entrepreneurial energy’.
How did the idea for Pavegen come about?
It all started while I was on a work placement at one of the world’s largest energy companies during my Industrial Design and Technology degree at Loughborough University. I noticed a requirement for an alternative renewable energy solution where low-carbon technologies like solar and wind were not practical; such as in cities.
I always felt that involving people in the energy-generating process was vital. A typical person walks over 50 million steps in their lifetime, or something around that level. It made me question: “What if you could harvest a small amount of energy from every step, that the user wouldn’t notice, and convert that into renewable electricity?” Think of the millions of footsteps the average person takes in a lifetime. Now, multiply that by the billions of people on the planet. That’s a lot of steps.
You are creating a company that’s absolutely mind blowing, I could try explaining but might fail so I will leave it to you. What is Pavegen? And what are you trying to solve with it?
We essentially make floors that generate electricity from people’s footfall: every time someone walks over the Pavegen tile, clean renewable energy is harvested. The technology converts the kinetic energy of the footstep to electricity which can be stored and used for a variety of applications. The Pavegen system is best suited to high-footfall urban environments and offers the first tangible way for people to engage in the renewable energy generation.
The aim is to provide an alternative energy that could play a key role in the smart cities of the future. Imagine if your run or walk to work could help to power the lights for your return journey home in the evening. Pavegen is a sustainable off-grid energy technology that could make this a reality.
It must have been tough getting a business such as this started, how did it all unfold?
It was a tough experience; having graduated, all my friends were settling down to their stable 9-to-5 jobs whilst I was working on my own all hours day and night, out of my simple bedsit.
However, my hard work paid off and I won the Lloyds TSB Enterprise award and so was able to gain fantastic experience of the business world by working directly with accomplished manufacturers.
Once I had a prototype, it was just a case of showing it off to lots of schools and in busy town centres, simply to see if people would walk on these green slabs. Of course, I was “asked to leave” a lot of places for doing so. But with the help of some positive media coverage, interest in the technology began to grow and Pavegen was founded as a company in 2009.
What was the hardest part of setting up the business?
I think it was the time in which we did so - the economic recession was in full force just as things were seemingly getting exciting. Not only were government development agencies being forced to show less support than ever, but also attempting to find investment capital when everyone seemed to be tightening their purse strings was tricky.
All this on top of the fact that it was really difficult to initially find access to the vast networks that support young entrepreneurs through grants and competitions, made it a very tough, yet exciting challenge.
How were you able to fund it?
Like I said, we had the prize money from the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards. In 2010, support from friends and family also allowed us to perform a whole run of vital tests on the product. Finally, in mid-2011, we attempted our first external funding round, and successfully received the financial support we needed to really take Pavegen to the next level.
Can you remember those early days, thinking of the company name, opening the company’s bank account to the first six months or so of running the business, how excited were you?
Developing a sustainable solution in a rapidly growing eco-efficiency market was fantastic. We had a product that we felt could really be transformative and so the early stages were a very exciting time for us, full of all sorts of opportunities, challenges and surprises.
There are so many challenges that entrepreneurs go through trying to build a company, or making it successful, can you share a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
I guess one of the greatest challenges was the validation of the technology. We needed to show that the idea, which some may have viewed as too good to be true, could do exactly what we promised. We especially needed to prove that the design could deal with the high impact of footfall, so we thought that there was no better way to test this than in a school, with students devoting their days to destroying a Pavegen tile in their corridor!
We could’ve done it in a lab but that would never have been the same as putting it up against a young person who really wants to hurt it! We decided to take a risk and install one in my old school and filmed how the students interacted with it. The response was fantastic and it seemed that the product could be used as a tool to educate and inspire people to learn about energy efficiency.
What would you say were some of the key fundamentals that were implemented to accelerate the growth of the company?
We were lucky to establish a great support network from the family and friends that believed in us. I feel that had we not listened to the advice that some of these very experienced business people had to offer, things may not have developed as efficiently as they did. When dealing with your own brainchild, it can be far too easy to just consistently rely on your own judgement. However, taking on board fresh perspectives from those around you can really make a difference to the day-to-day running of a company.
Can you tell us some of the little things that you miss from the early days?
Aside from the lonely days in the bedsit and the work-induced sleep deprivation, I do miss the hands-on element of the early days and the process of inventing the Pavegen tile. I had just finished an industrial design and technology degree that I really enjoyed and I felt lucky to be able to continue doing something I was passionate about. I loved every minute of the whole nitty-gritty engineering side, but unfortunately I can’t dedicate all my time to that now as I have become involved in all aspects of running a business.
What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?
I will never forget the moment of realisation when we first properly set up the business. In what seemed like a minute, it had gone from being a one-man project based in a University bedsit to suddenly being a 20 person strong company trying to shift people’s perception of renewable energy.
There was now a synergy within the company that obviously I had never experienced before this point. It resulted in fresh, dynamic ideas being unearthed daily which really accelerated development and I finally knew that Pavegen was a truly viable organisation.
Some of the recent projects we have undertaken have also been extremely memorable. We recently had our largest installation to date at the Schneider Electric Paris Marathon where around 40,000 runners were generating electricity simply by running on our 176 tile platform, spanning the iconic finish line at the Champs-Elysées.
It was a real chance for us to show, to a global audience, how disruptive technologies are the best way to change people’s ‘energy saving’ perceptions and reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and grid power. The installation received a great profile and has made us even more excited about the potential of Pavegen and how flexible it can be as a key part of smart urban living.
What do you do outside work to unwind?
I’m really into cycling and when I can, I love to spend my weekends going on long distance bike rides through the countryside, there’s nothing better. Last summer I cycled through Europe for a week which was awesome. One minute, speeding through empty rustic villages and the next, meandering through the buzzing streets of the some of the world’s coolest cities… It doesn’t get much better.
What are your plans for Pavegen and yourself in the next 5 years?
As the reality of a changing climate begins to impact the daily lives of increasing numbers of people around the world, the international community will realize both the necessity and the incredible opportunity that sustainable technologies represent for economies, businesses and individuals.
We have scaled up production, using new techniques to increase the efficiency of the units and bring down their price. We are currently testing a prototype of the Model 2 Pavegen, which will incorporate even more low-carbon materials and help us reach price parity with industrial floor coverings.
In the next five years we would like to have secured our place as a key part of the smart cities of the future. We want to help distribute energy more efficiently around our communities, homes, offices, and public spaces.
Before I leave you today Laurence, this is something I think a lot of our readers would want to know. What advices do you have for anyone reading this interview hoping to start a business or perhaps even started and struggling for attention, investment or a proof of concept?
As soon as you have the product or idea you believe in, the most important thing is just to be completely dedicated to it and persevere with it no matter what. Not everyone is going to love what you’re offering but you can’t let that affect your confidence. You have to live and breathe your product and then all it takes is for one person to like what you’re doing.
As I said earlier in the interview, it’s so important that you take on board as much advice as you can from anyone you can, especially friends and family. There are also lots of initiatives designed specifically for this as well, and these can be great ways of teaching young entrepreneurs about important parts of the business world.
Of course, in the world we live in today, a business can rarely be successful without the use of social media. As an entrepreneur, it’s so important to be confident with social media and just really go for it on all platforms. It’s by far the quickest and easiest way to reach the masses; their interest in your business, through a click of a button, has the power to bring you success on a whole range of levels.
Thanks so much for your time, Laurence
No problem, it’s been a pleasure.
This interview was conducted in June 2013.