Ground hero

Pavegen founder Laurence Kemball-White discovered a way of converting footfall into off-grid electricity. Now he’s taking his bright idea a step further

Laurence Kemball-White

Laurence Kemball-White came up with the idea of a kinetic tile that harnessed human energy while watching commuters rush through London's Victoria Station.

What was your earliest entrepreneurial venture?
In my early teens I started organising skateboard events which were very popular among my peer group, but frightened the parents a little. This idea evolved at uni where I ran a monthly breakdancing event where we had a budget, an events calendar and talent to manage.

Did you have a mentor or role model?
I come from a long line of engineers and was always inspired to disrupt and create. One of my school teachers, Brian Hurlows, really encouraged me to pursue a career in design. I went on to study Industrial Design and Technology at Loughborough University.

What ignited the Pavegen idea?
I'd already tried and failed to bring a solar powered streetlamp to market for a power company. The Pavegen idea came to me during my commute from my home in Brixton into uni. I would pass through Victoria train station which has around 80 million visitors rushing through it a year. I realised that we might be able to harness some of that human energy by converting the kinetic energy from footfall into off-grid electricity.

You spent a couple of years developing the technology, how did you maintain your focus?
Pavegen is a relatively simple idea to get across, even if it's proved very complex to deliver. So the people that I've met – from engineers to science communicators – have been really supportive. Also, climate change is a massive issue that once you're aware of, you can't forget. Being part of a solution to something so challenging has been very motivating. I'm proud when I see people's reactions to the potential of their footsteps being converted into off-grid energy.

What was your big break?
Once I had managed to put together a working prototype, my biggest barrier to market was proving that it could work in a live context. I wanted to get the product under the nose of a developer so that they could see its potential. I picked a construction site and then cheekily broke in, installed the Pavegen and filmed the results, which I then shared via social media with the developer. This led directly to my first contract. I took a chance – it's not for everyone, but it worked for me.

How did you raise the finance for your first project?
With the support of family and friends I was able to create the first version of Pavegen and officially launch the company. This proved there was a market for it, which led to further investment from London Business Angels and crowdfunding.

You were Shell Entrepreneur of the Year – what doors did that open?
It's helped us in many ways. The media exposure we helped to generate means that brands and communities are more aware of us and can see the potential that we can bring to projects. And our network has grown, leading to partnerships with companies like Tribal Planet, investment and of course, many business opportunities.

You've worked with some very high-profile figures – who was the most inspirational?
Working with the singer songwriter Akon during Shell's #makethefuture campaign was a real highlight. I got a unique and really personal insight into the work that he's done, both as a businessman and performer. The work and commitment he's put into helping disadvantaged communities in Africa through sustainable projects is something I'd love to emulate.

What's been your biggest challenge so far? How did you overcome it?
One of the key challenges for us is that it is a highly engineered product that needs to be resilient and reliable in all conditions. There's no real way around that apart from extensive field testing. It takes patience!

What do you wish you'd known when you started out? What are your ambitions for the company?
It would have been good to have found a strong digital partner early on. In terms of the development of Pavegen, we are currently working closely with Tribal Planet, a Silicon Valley digital marketing company. The future for us is looking at expanding into a data-rich platform that rewards users for interacting with the floor. We want to grow our market share and achieve economies of scale, making the system affordable for more communities.

What one piece of wisdom would you pass on to a would-be entrepreneur?
Don't give up. If you're not failing, you're not really trying.


Portfolio Profile: Nick Wheeler & Chrissie Rucker

The husband and wife team are worth an estimated £427m. In this profile, we chart the careers of ex-fashion journalist Rucker who built a business on towels and bedlinen, and Wheeler who launched shirtmakers Charles Tyrwhitt in 1986 while still a student at Bristol University.

Nick Wheeler and Chrissie Rucker

Huge business empires often spring from young, enterprising souls desperately trying to buy something, failing, then doing something about it. Take the geography undergraduate who wanted a decently made shirt that wasn't astronomically expensive – £99 worth of mail-order leaflets made on an Amstrad word processor later, he'd changed that. Or the 25-year-old girlfriend trying to kit out her boyfriend's flat stylishly and cheaply to impress him, but finding simple homewares were too pricey or flimsy and cheap – she knew there was a gap in the market.

These entrepreneurs were similar creatures – fittingly, dear reader, they married each other. Now Nicholas Wheeler and Chrissie Rucker are two of the most successful businesspeople in Britain, worth £427 million according to the 2017 Sunday Times Rich List.

As founders of clothing retailer Charles Tyrwhitt (those being Wheeler's middle names), and homewares business The White Company, Wheeler and Rucker's success has rocketed in recent years. Tyrwhitt's company now has 28 stores internationally, and 21 in the UK – not bad for a business started in student rooms in 1986. Founded seven years later, The White Company is doing even better, The Sunday Times revealing its profits were higher than Charles Tyrwhitt's by £147,000. The White Company has 55 shops in the UK, and recently opened a huge flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue. Earnings in 2016 were also up an astonishing 51%.

Two factors lie at the heart of both companies' success – canny ideas and a focus on simple business objectives

CVs

1965
Nick Wheeler born

1968
Chrissie Rucker born

1986
Wheeler starts shirt business

1994
Rucker launches The White Company

1997
First Charles Tyrwhitt shop opens in Jermyn Street. Rucker launches The Little White Company

2001
First White Company store opens in Sloane Square

2010
Rucker receives MBE

2016
Charles Tyrwhitt wins Queen's Award for Enterprise

2017
White Company store opens in New York

The couple have somehow also managed to bring up a family while building their businesses. They live with their four children, nine horses and three dogs in rural Buckinghamshire. "There are times when we tidy up and get everything to look gorgeous. Other times it's chaos," Rucker told The Daily Telegraph in 2015. "Dogs do sleep on the sofas!"

Two factors lie at the heart of both companies' success – canny moneymaking, and focus on simple business objectives. Wheeler has been good at the former from day one, convincing his bank to give him a £17,000 loan to add to a £8,000 legacy from his late grandmother – he bought a £25,000 Aston Martin, and sold it for £100,000 a year later. The latter, however, he learned the hard way. "The danger when you have a business is... you start to do too many things at the same time," he said in a 2016 interview with thisismoney.co.uk (in the 1990s he bought a children's clothes company, which closed quickly). "The mistake I made was doing things not really related to my business, which is selling shirts... so take what you want to do and just do that".

Rucker also realised the importance of staying focused on your core business after an ill-advised diversion into aubergine in the early 2000s ("now we have very strict colour rules – shades of white, cream, grey, ivory, with a little bit of black every now and then"). Rucker also started up her company with a legacy, and got up at dawn to pack orders, queue at the post office, and deliver items in her sister's Mini Metro. Before that she was a 24-year-old fashion magazine assistant, who had done well thanks to her commitment to her jobs. Her early boss at Harper's & Queen, Tina Gaudoin, shone a light on her character in 2015. "She dropped off her CV at 5am," she told the Daily Mail. "I was so struck by her ability to be focused and unflappable".

Behind both business brains too, of course, is the perk of having free advice at home. "Nick helped me spot the mistakes as they were coming," Rucker said of The White Company's early days. "He is fantastic at staying focused; I am prone to add on." They are still hands-on bosses too, and own the majority of their companies – Wheeler has 95% of his, while Rucker has 99% of hers (rather brilliantly, she gave her husband the other 1% as a wedding present). The investment company, Bectin, also handles holdings for both of them, and nobody else, and its profits doubled in 2016 from £8.7m to £15.8m. No more proof needed that working together – as well as living and loving together – is worth an "I do".


Lightbulb Moment

Paul Lindley, baby food maverick.

Ella's Kitchen founder Paul Lindley, author of Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler, built a multi-million pound business by channelling his inner child. His decision to develop an ethical children’s food brand was inspired by his efforts as a dad to coax his daughter Ella to eat healthily, using "silliness and mess" In 2004, he quit his job at children's TV channel Nickelodeon and gave himself two years and £20,000 to get a product to market. His vision was completely child-centric – from the recipes that mixed and matched fun flavours, to the cartoon-covered squeezy packaging. The first product, a fruit smoothie, was simply called The Red One (Lindley's four-year-old son named it). Sainsbury's took a chance and listed Ella's Kitchen in 2006; today, the brand is the UK market leader and is sold in 40 countries. In 2013 Lindley sold Ella’s Kitchen to US health and wellness brand Hain Celestial Group for a very grown-up $104 million. Proof indeed of the power of toddler thinking.

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