Lord Drayson on new technology that could power devices for free

THE MT INTERVIEW: The fast-moving tech entrepreneur may have found the next big thing with his wireless power - Freevolt.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 06 Jul 2016
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Photography by Julian Dodd

It's often said that entrepreneurs are among life's natural rule breakers - in which case Paul Drayson must qualify in spades. Because the rule he is currently wrestling with is one of the most incontrovertible natural laws of the lot - the first law of thermodynamics.

This, as any A-level physics student will tell you, states that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. What that actually means is that when it comes to the power we need for so many aspects of modern life, it all has to come from somewhere - coal, gas, nuclear or renewables - and it all has to be paid for, not only financially but often also with negative consequences for pollution and climate change.

Drayson's latest venture - wireless power technology Freevolt - is a brand new way of, if not quite breaking that law, then at least subverting it a little. Freevolt harvests tiny amounts of energy from the radio waves that fill the air around us (Wi-Fi, TV signals and so on), 'borrowing' almost unnoticeably small currents and using them to power tiny super-efficient sensors and their associated software. Requiring no battery, solar panel or mains connection, Freevolt's ambient power could be exactly the right idea at the right time.

It's not enough juice to power a smartphone, never mind an electric car of the kind that the wiry Drayson likes to race in his spare time. But it could produce enough current to light up the next big thing in tech, the Internet of Things (IoT), in which billions of objects from washing machines to lamp posts will be connected to the web. Freevolt is about the closest thing to an energy-free lunch that you can get.

No wonder its irrepressible, always-on founder (90s biotech millionaire turned science minister, peer of the realm and part-time racing driver) is so eager to talk about it.

'Right, let's get on,' he says, after a brief pre-interview warm-up in the new office of parent company Drayson Technologies, a floor in a west London co-working space at the thriftier Kensal Green end of Ladbroke Grove. He may have made £40m personally from the sale of his first business, needle-less injection and flu vaccine specialist PowderJect in 2003, spent five years in government and be in the House of Lords, but past glories are less interesting to him than victories that have yet to be won.

Freevolt's pitch in the IoT revolution, he reckons, is that of selling pickaxes to gold miners. 'The Internet of Things will be the third wave of connectivity and Freevolt will provide the tools for building it. People are still trying to figure out the business case for it and we're very unusual, because our own implementation has really taught us where the value is.'

The IoT is long on big promises but rather shorter on working examples. But Freevolt does work - the first application of the technology is the CleanSpace Tag, a smartphone-sized personal air pollution monitor/app combo, which retails for £75. It continuously measures carbon monoxide levels and uploads them via the app to a communal air quality map in the cloud. Every CleanSpace user not only gets a personalised pollution profile but is also a node on the network, contributing to city and potentially country-wide smog maps, with a level of detail much higher than even the best official fixed-site monitoring can't hope to rival.

A lifelong asthmatic, it's a project which is close to Drayson's heart. They've only been in the new office for a few weeks but already the place is patrolled by tiny stick-on Freevolt sensors, a live experiment that doubles as a workplace. (They had to leave their old base in Hammersmith because the air quality there turned out to be so bad.)

'We have been really fortunate that here in the UK pollution and air quality have gone right up the agenda - that was just luck. But it's a great proof case to explain the power of networked devices.' It also points the way to wider and more business-oriented developments.

'What we have learned from a business point of view is that the cost of collecting data, getting it to where you want it to be and presenting it in an actionable manner all adds up. So if you can deploy a sensor network just by sticking them up with no wires or batteries, and with the right software you're good to go, then that's really powerful.'

Freevolt is resolutely pre-commercial. Nonetheless he has persuaded his investors - including star City fund manager Neil Woodford - to stump up a total of £26m and counting to bankroll this foray in to the unknown.

If it takes off then Freevolt-powered sensors could sell in the tens or hundreds of millions. If it doesn't - well, he'll probably figure out a way of making it work anyway. 'I believe that success as an entrepreneur comes from surviving your mistakes,' he says cheerfully. If you are going to do difficult and risky things then you are probably not going to succeed in the way you expect. You have to accept that. When bad things happen I am always looking for the positives that might take us in another direction.'

He is one of those rare types who happily embraces off-the-scale levels of uncertainty that would have lesser beings reaching for the Prozac. Why? 'I'm driven,' he says. 'I don't know where the drive comes from but if I do something - business, government, motor racing - I have to do it to the best of my ability. Ten-tenths, maximum attack, that's what I am like. I push myself and I push the people I work with.

'And I love the freedom of being my own boss. At the end of my PhD at Aston, I had a choice between tech consulting - the job came with a Golf GTi, which was quite a consideration in 1986 - or following an entrepreneurial path. But my professor, Keith Foster, said to me "Consulting is for old men".'

His natural intensity is balanced by a schoolboyish love of 'jaw-dropping' technology and a thoroughly grown-up desire to find like-minded people to share the excitement with. 'You have to be open to spotting things because you never know where the opportunities are going to come from. I believe in trusting your instincts - cool tech but also people you can get on with.'

It was just such a serendipitous meeting with a team of Oxford researchers that led to the founding of PowderJect in 1993, which he sold a decade later for £542m. (It also gave him his first brush with political controversy, over donations to New Labour in the late 90s.)

He's hoping that Freevolt, which like PowderJect is a spin-off from academic research, might repeat the formula. It's started on the right track - he met Manuel Pinuela (now CTO) by chance when he was researching wireless power at Imperial College. 'The tech was really cool, but if I hadn't thought that Manuel and I could get on then it would have been a case of "well, good luck with that".'

The plan now is to roll out CleanSpace Tags in global pollution hotspots (Mexico City is underway, with China and India hopefully to follow) while also looking to license the technology to other third-party developers.

Unusually for a tech entrepreneur he has not stuck with the same industry or technology but has switched around throughout his career. 'I love learning a new industry, and trying to understand new things from first principles.'

Perhaps this thirst for new experiences lies behind his otherwise head-scratching leap into politics in 2005. 'I had an epiphany in my 30s,' he says. The cause was the increasingly fractious animal rights movement of the time, with direct action aimed at pharma companies and their employees and families. 'It was completely unreasonable the way these people were behaving. I also thought it was completely unreasonable that, although international law required us to do animal testing to make sure the drugs we produced were safe and effective, no one in government would defend that.

'So I started campaigning and I discovered that I loved it and also that politics really works, which was an amazing discovery. It does open you up to a whole new level of accountability, so you have to be sure that what you are doing it for is worth all that scrutiny for you and your family, but for me it absolutely was.'

His first post was with the MoD, then BIS and finally he was science minister from 2008 to 2010 (including a sabbatical to race at Le Mans in 2009). His USP in government, he says, was essentially the same as it was in business. 'I was very hands-on, I chaired meetings myself rather than delegating them and I got things done.'

It also helped he says that he was not seen as a rival by the career politicians around him. Laure Thomas, his press secretary during the dying days of the Gordon Brown government and now head of communications at the Tavistock Clinic, recalls 'It was refreshing to work for someone who didn't have to get re-elected or toe the line. His reputation among the science and business communities was always more important to him than his reputation in the party.'

He's proud of his legacy, especially the Office for Life Sciences, the government body which he set up to champion the importance of science and biotechnology in the UK. 'There's something in the water in this country, we're a bunch of risk-takers and we're really good at science.' A paid-up space enthusiast, he is also the man who negotiated a seat for a British astronaut on the ISS, paving the way for Tim Peake to tweet us all from orbit.

So which does he enjoy most, business or politics? 'Government was the most intense, demanding and fulfilling thing I have ever done. But you're not building anything. The thing I missed about business and the reason that I enjoy it more is the creativity of building something block by block, day by day.'

After he left government he raced again at Le Mans, and also took the world land speed record for electric vehicles in 2013 - 204.2mph in a car of his own design. Despite being born blind in one eye (he had to get the rules changed before he was allowed an international racing licence) and ending up and inch and a half shorter after a bad crash at Monaco in which he crushed two vertebrae, he still likes to get behind the wheel of a racing car. Why?

'I've always loved speed. The times in my life when I have been most in the flow, when every molecule of my body has been focused on this thing at this time, have been driving racing cars. It's transforming - like mindfulness at 200mph.'

Home is an 18th-century manor house in Oxfordshire bought from Prince Michael of Kent (which he shares with his wife Elspeth and five kids, aged 12 to 20), and he has been a member of the House of Lords since 2004. But if he is a grandee then he is a contemporary and down-to-earth specimen of the breed. 'I think that talent will out, but that social mobility in the UK is not as good as it could be.'

He encourages his kids to find their 'thing' and to get the best education they can, as long-time colleague and friend Gordon Saul, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, says, 'When we were going up and down the Sand Hill Road talking to VC investors, in the breaks he'd be on the phone to his kids helping them with their homework. He gives them all the time he can and you don't often see that.'

His wife Elspeth has also been his business partner for over 20 years. They even sit on opposite sides of the same desk at work. 'It's really fun and it always has been. It's the most wonderful thing to meet someone you really love and spend all this time together. Elspeth is a physicist, she's really clever and she's better with people than I am. And it's great to have someone who you know has not got an agenda and will really tell you what they think.'

Perhaps the secret to living and working together is not only knowing when to break the rules, but also when to leave them well alone.


To sign up more licensees for Freevolt

To sell a million CleanSpace Tags

To build an electric car he can race at Le Mans


1960 5 March, born Blackheath, London.

1986 PhD in robotics, Aston University

1993 Founds PowderJect

2003 Sale of PowderJect for £542m

2005 Junior minister, MoD

2008 Minister of state for science & innovation

2013 Sets new world land speed record for an electric car, 204.2mph

2014 Founds Drayson Technologies

2015 Freevolt CleanSpace Tag launched.

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