The Digerati: This is the thinking computer's man

He started out in 1990 with pounds 2,000 and a lot of enthusiasm. Today, Mike Lynch is at the helm of a $1.2bn business.

Mike Lynch is a soft-spoken, polite individual. Some have remarked on his resemblance to The Master, the fictional adversary of Dr Who, but in real life he's much less forbidding. He's slightly deaf (from nights as a student spent programming synthesisers for rock bands) and passionate about his otter hound dog, Gromit. He's enthusiastic about Tesco's Internet delivery service and numbers among influences Blackadder and an American cartoon that features mice trying to take over the world. All in all, a man who doesn't take life too seriously.

Except when it comes to business. At 34, Lynch is a player to be reckoned with; his company, Autonomy, is now worth $1.2bn, second only to Freeserve in the UK in market capitalisation. He has come far since his fireman father advised him "not to get into a job where you run into buildings on fire". At Cambridge, he took a summer job at a large electronics firm, and recalls: "It was deadly boring. I enjoyed the technical work, but there was no enthusiasm, no excitement."

He started a PhD, researching neural networks - how to get computers to recognise things automatically - and developing the work of Thomas Bayes, an 18th-century clergyman who spent his spare time formulating theories about probability. Lynch began to think about commercial applications. But back then in 1990, there was no established path.

"A lot of venture capitalists didn't really understand technology. They weren't very impressed," says Lynch. "I ended up being lent pounds 2,000 by an eccentric impresario in a bar in Soho - I think he saw in me the enthusiasm of youth." Thus began Cambridge Neurodynamics.

"The big problem when you start," he recalls, "is that you have a better mousetrap theorem - this idea that the world will beat a path to your door. In reality, they buy the acme mousetrap. You begin to learn about customers, about selling to markets. We only had pounds 2,000, so we had to learn quickly. The most precious commodity was time. A lot is about admitting you don't know what you are doing, and trying to find people who do; having an open mind."

In 1996, Autonomy became an offshoot of his original company as Lynch began to concentrate on the problem of getting computers to recognise words. Computers may work in ones and noughts, but Lynch perceived that they needed to be able to distinguish, like humans, between varying shades of grey. "The way our technology works is to look at words, and understand the relationships, because it's seen a lot of content before. When it sees the word star in the context of the word film, it knows it's got nothing to do with the word moon. Because it works from text, it can deal with slang and with different languages."

Marketing this was the next big battle. "We knew we had to be successful in America. It was a question of Go West, young man, go to San Francisco and be ignored," says Lynch. "They found it hard to believe that anyone from England could have anything powerful. People often use proxies to measure companies, so rather than actually looking at the product, they will ask who your VC [venture capitalist] is. If you don't have one of the star VCs, they won't even look at your product."

The PR cart may come before the techno-horse, but, says Lynch, even finding a PR firm was a battle. "My marketing director and I decided the only way to crack this was to be outrageous and do what the Americans do - make an incredibly over-the-top pitch about how we were going to take over Europe. They realised we had a good story, and worked on how we were going to explain it."

He found the "cold-hearted schmooze" harder. "There are these pseudo- social gatherings, where people will be watching others over your shoulder and will walk away in mid-sentence. When you talk to seriously capable Americans, they are more European; its the upper-middle management who are the most ruthless. I am very shy and find it hard to talk to people, and in the early days that was difficult. One trick is to become incredibly English - as soon as you use that accent, they assume you're intelligent."

Back in Britain, Lynch, who took Autonomy to Easdaq last July, has become an elder statesman of the industry. He commends Gordon Brown for making "brave" tax reforms which will aid enterprise, but bemoans the lack of a decent technology market and of angel money - small investments in start- ups in the UK.

The most exciting development on the cards, he says, is Wireless Application Protocol, which will allow consumers to use their mobile telephones for anything from buying groceries to online banking.

Crucially, says Lynch, this development will happen faster in Europe than America, because of the former's congruence of phone standards. "This is the most interesting place for technology; the rate of change here is faster than I've ever seen, and were still on the cusp," he says.

"In the States, the mobile phone standards are a complete mess. Europe has a key secret position because here, they are coherent. The problem is to work out the killer application."

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee