My SXSW diary: ‘Why I can relate to Obama’

Pavegen founder Laurence Kemball-Cook on his hectic start to South by Southwest, what he took from Obama’s keynote, and day one highlights

The founder and CEO of cleantech company Pavegen, Laurence Kemball-Cook is reporting for from mega conference and festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Here’s his first letter from America… 

Day one at South by Southwest (SXSW) and I’ve already met, attended Obama’s democrat fundraiser event, and partied with some new friends. With such a great start it’s hard to believe that I still have five days to go!

I was super excited to see Obama and experience his speech in person, the event felt more like a hip hop gig with J Cole warming up for him. I almost got a chance to meet him before the actual keynote, but Secret Services were not too happy at my lack of security clearance!

I joined, who introduced the president. He’s a long-time advocate of Pavegen’s technology and has contributed to the environmental change agenda.

The President’s keynote focused on all his achievements during his time in office, especially surrounding the changes brought along by his administration. I found it incredibly inspiring how he proved the sceptics wrong and worked against the controversy to make a huge difference in America.

On a smaller scale, I think I can relate! When I first started Pavegen I had little to no support from investors and VCs, with everyone telling me it “wouldn’t work”. It was definitely a challenge fighting the disbelief and getting to where we are now.


Since being in power, Obama has cut the country’s unemployment to 4.9%, combatted terrorism (most notably the demise of Osama Bin Laden) and fought against climate change. On top of that, he demonstrated his friendly and charismatic attitude, giving a shout-out to Honest Dollar – the ‘Airbnb of financial services’ company that took SXSW by storm in 2015.

The company’s success reached new heights after that promotion, and Honest Dollar were acquired by Goldman Sachs’ Investment Management Division shortly after! Towards the end of the keynote the crowd had gone wild, chanting “four more years, four more years!” as Obama left the stage.

Other highlights of the day included the talk in the morning – “Big Data and Artificial Intelligence” at the Moody theatre. Dr Doug Lenat, CEO of Cycorp, gave a brilliant speech on AI and how its development would aid humans with anti-terrorism, education and other amazing concepts.

I definitely think the potential for a human-AI future is possible, already on its way – but a better synergy is required between humans and AIs, especially in a digital age, when patterns and data are coming together.

The Austin start-up event was another high. I caught up with the founders of Preschool2me and Your Trainer hitting the stage. Preschool2me aims to revolutionise the way our schools operate through an online system of reports, child monitoring, and more, and Your Trainer is a smart trainer app, which could become a Pandora for the fitness world. It has a number of virtual trainers and can identify different exercises, which can be carried out at different levels. I made some great connections and hope to keep in touch!


Great Britain_opening-SXSW.resizeNetworking events and conferences aside, I still had time to enjoy the evening and meet more people! I, along with several of my friends, including Anthony Bunnell – chief product officer of Honest Dollar, pulled on pink wigs and fake noses on behalf of Lyft the ride sharing app!

My day ended at the Great Britain House Reception Opening, where I managed to get Dan Rutstein, regional director of UK Trade & Investment, jumping on a Pavegen tile.

UKTI has been a great support when it came to taking our technology to the US, so it was an honour to attend their reception – and attend SXSW as a British Ambassador overall!

P.S. Today I’ve walked over 17,000 steps, which could have powered a mobile phone for 120 days…

Next time we might power SXSW!

That’s all for today – I’ll keep you posted!

Laurence Kemball-Cook is the founder and CEO of cleantech company Pavegen, the flooring technology that turns wasted kinetic energy from footsteps into renewable electricity. You can follow him on Twitter at @laurencekc


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