Six years ago, Laurence Kemball-Cook had a brainwave. A graduate of Loughborough university, he was doing a placement year at the energy company Eon, where he was given the job of finding a way to power street lighting with solar energy and wind. It didn’t work, he says, in part because there’s a lot of shade in cities. This got him thinking about other potential sources of power in busy urban spaces. The answer, he realised, was underneath his feet.
“My idea was a floor tile that would convert the kinetic energy from a footstep into electricity,” he says. “Every time someone steps on the tile, they generate seven watts of power. The energy is stored within batteries, and then used to power lighting when it’s needed. It’s an off-grid power source for cities.” We are talking in the headquarters of Pavegen in King’s Cross. He set up the company in 2009 but it took several years to develop the technology and convince people to take it on. His first installation was unorthodox, to say the least. “Investors wouldn’t invest without tiles in the ground, so I broke into a building site on the south bank of the Thames at 2am, installed the product illegally, took photos and put them on our website saying: ‘Celebrating our latest installation.’ I closed a deal with Westfield pretty soon after that.”
Since then, Pavegen has worked with brands such as Coca-Cola and Siemens. The company has tiles at Heathrow terminal three and recently did an installation outside the White House. During last year’s World Cup, it went into a favela in Rio and laid a whole football pitch with tiles, hooking them up to spotlights so that play could continue after dark.
Light isn’t the only thing it generates. When Kemball-Cook and I have a go on the demo tiles in the Pavegen office, our jumping around causes a radio to turn on. And there’s another, potentially more powerful application. “When you stand on a tile, it sends out wireless data. This is useful for crowdflow modelling – seeing how people move through cities. You can use it to control lighting more efficiently. It’s also a really key way for retailers to know how many people are visiting their shops. We imagine Google will cover streets with this in the future and use the data in interesting ways.”
Pavegen’s product, which looks like a regular floor tile until you lift the rubber (or Astroturf) surface and see the hub of circuitry within, is manufactured in eastern Europe. “We didn’t find the Far East was viable for us,” says Kemball-Cook. He cites concerns over IP violation, shipping times and travel costs as reasons for choosing a manufacturing hub closer to home. In eastern Europe: “There’s a really strong industrial base and a we-can-fix-it attitude,” he says.
The company has now has 30 employees and a second office in Los Angeles. But Kemball-Cook acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. One major obstacle is price – it costs around £1,250 to cover one square metre of ground with Pavegen tiles. “The holy grail for us is to make our product the same cost as normal flooring,” he says.
“It takes a lot of time and investment to get there,” he adds. “Solar took 58 years to get to the point it’s at now. I reckon we’ve done about the first 20 years with our technology. Our investors know it’s not an overnight play. We are establishing a whole industry that never existed before.”
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