The Guardian - 'VisualDNA named one of five British tech companies to watch'
April 18, 2014
For a British company few people knew about, £400m seemed a lot of money. But Google’s acquisition of DeepMind Technologies earlier this year, founded by a former child chess prodigy only two years ago, will be followed by more big-money transactions involving home-grown tech companies.
DeepMind specialises in artificial intelligence, or creating computer programmes that match the human mind. But several of its UK peers are at the cutting edge of their own areas of the tech world – from property websites to mobile phone keyboards.
Here are five British companies tipped to follow DeepMind by attracting multimillion pound valuations, through stock market flotations or being bought out by one of the major technology outfits.
With its headquarters south of the Thames, far from Silicon roundabout, SwiftKey is one of London’s quieter tech successes. The company is best known for a keyboard that redesigns typing with a smartphone and touchscreen in mind. Its SwiftKey Flow product allows users to type whole words without lifting their finger from the screen, while predicting the word they are typing before they have written the first letter. For example, once a user types “on my”, SwiftKey knows that the next word is likely to be “way”.
The company has raised more than $20m (£12m) and is ripe for acquisition. Its technology would let any handset maker leapfrog the opposition, which will be interesting to Apple and Microsoft, the owner of Nokia, which both need to catch up on rivals in this field. Facebook, which is rumoured to be interested in entering the smartphone market, may also be interested in acquiring some in-house expertise.
One UK business is taking on PayPal and Western Union in the multibillion-dollar money transfer market. TransferWise, which recently closed a $6m funding round led by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, allows individuals and companies to send money oversees for a fraction of the fee charged by banks and Western Union. The trick is that much of the money transferred does not cross borders: if someone in the UK wants to send £10 to someone in Ireland, TransferWise finds a transaction worth the same value in the same countries and matches them together. So if Alice in the UK sends £10 to Bob in Ireland and at the same time Charlie in Ireland sends €12 to Dan in the UK, then all that happens is Charlie’s money goes to Bob and Alice’s money goes to Dan.
TransferWise recently processed its billionth pound and claims to have saved its customers more than £45m since it started. With rapid growth and a worldwide market waiting to be tapped, it is tipped for flotation.
Green Man Gaming
Green Man Gaming sells downloadable copies of PC games, often at deep discounts from the retail price. It has attracted sniping from some quarters of the tech world because much of its success has come from selling access to games including The Walking Dead (see image above), Half Life 2 and Dungeon Siege III on Steam – a popular online gaming platform. The company also sells physical copies of games, while a merger with gaming social network Playfire has given it a wealth of information on its customers. In the first quarter of 2014, the company sold 41,000 games per employee and has already turned its attention towards a stock market flotation.
GP Bullhound, the British tech investment bank, has described VisualDNA’s founder, Alex Willcock, as an “internet visionary”. Like DeepMind, VisualDNA is an example of a company that has no public profile but is a ground-breaker in its field. However, VisualDNA operates in an area that goes to heart of public sensitivity over transmission of personal information on the internet.
It aims to make money from your personal information by selling it to retailers – but with your consent. The company invites users to take quizzes that are like simpler versions of the Myers-Briggs personality test, which characterises people as one of 16 types of personality along the lines of introvert/extrovert and thinking/feeling. The quizzee uncovers their attitudes to money, relationships and career; the quizzer builds out their profile of a potential customer. And sells it to retailers and credit card companies. If that doers not sound like a fair deal, Willcock’s ultimate aim for VisualDNA is “to be the place where every internet user safely stores their digital persona and gets to decide who can use it”.
“We’ve got all of the platform ready that actually enables people to store and control their information,” says Willcock. “But in terms of people being able to benefit from it, that depends how quickly the market can respond.” He estimates it is likely to be about two to three years “before we the consumers can have total control”.
This online property company is the jewel of London’s tech scene and a flotation is imminent, having hired advisers to work on a listing amid reports that it will be valued at £1.3bn. When the company’s largest shareholder, the Daily Mail & General Trust, said in February that Zoopla was considering “strategic options”, the newspaper owner’s shares shook off their old media shackles and reached a 13-year high.
Despite stiff competition, Zoopla has become a one-stop shop for property research by combining historic sales prices, current home values and local schools’ positions on league table on websites such as PrimeLocation.
Through a long chain of mergers and acquisitions the company has eaten up competitors and it is now battling the older RightMove for pole position in the property market.