“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.” He set up a company in 2009, Pavegen, in King’s Cross, London to exploit his new idea, 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 are planning 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 you stand on a tile, it sends out wireless data. This is useful for crowd flow modelling – seeing how people move through cities. You can use it to control lighting more efficiently. It’s also a 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 looks like a regular floor tile until you lift the rubber (or Astroturf) surface and see the hub of circuitry underneath. The tiles are manufactured in eastern Europe.
The company 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 almost $1,700 to cover 11 square feet of ground with Pavegen tiles. “The holy grail for us is to make our product the same cost as normal flooring,” he says.