Stan’s the man for Cambridge technology innovation
One of Cambridge’s celebrated serial entrepreneurs is Stan Boland, whose hands-on involvement in the technology cluster began when he joined Acorn Computers in September 1997 and helped sort out what was, frankly, a bit of a mess.
Post-Acorn, Boland caught the bug and helped manoeuvre the heady twists and turns during 20 years of Cambridge technology growth.
He steered Acorn spin-out Element 14 to a $642 million acquisition by US giant Broadcom in 2000, then co-founded Icera, a multinational fabless semiconductor company headquartered in Bristol with a big team in Cambridge, in 2002. It was acquired by Nvidia in 2011 for $367m.
His ability to identify and leverage the core value of a tech business was recognised again when he was appointed to maximise the potential of Cambridge wireless technology company Neul – brimming with potential but regarded by seasoned observers as rudderless.
As CEO, he engineered an acquisition of the business by Chinese telecoms and silicon giant Huawei. While the price was said to have been a modest $25 million, Huawei used the deal to ramp its presence in Cambridge and the wider UK – in the process pledging to deliver a potential multi-billion dollar payback for the local and national economies.
Now Boland is working on one of the most ambitious projects he has ever undertaken. And that company is Five, a self-driving technology startup (formerly known as FiveAI), bringing much-needed rationale to the often overhyped autonomous vehicles market.
Boland talking technology business provides a free masterclass for anyone with the brains to listen and his take on his Cambridge portfolio and experiences is inspirational.
On Arm and Acorn
“When I joined Acorn, its core business was by that stage confused: the most trialled IP set top box in the world (legacy of Online Media), the legacy of a desktop PC business (and RiscOS), a JV with Apple for education (Xemplar), various unpaid-for research projects (including projects with ARM/DEC SA1500/SA1501) and a mishmash of consultancy contracts around network computers etc (but basically loss-making).
“It was running out of cash, it had just lost a relationship with Oracle for the network computer and its Board was in the process of suing ARM for non-compliance with financial reporting, having failed to persuade ARM to sell itself back to Acorn.
“It was a public company whose market cap was less than analysts’ views of the pro-rata value of its share in ARM (jointly with Apple, VLSI and NIF). Those were the days.
“It was pretty clear that, unlike Acorn’s ‘business’, ARM was global, focused, successful and developing really deep and important relationships. At the helm of this was Robin Saxby, but his team was coherent, supportive and strong (Tudor Brown, Jamie Urquhart, Mike Muller and colleagues).
“In my first few weeks, I quickly realised that Acorn’s biggest asset was its share in ARM; that rather than try to remerge ARM back into Acorn to save Acorn, its strategy should be to help Robin achieve a successful IPO for ARM and turn our attention secondarily to fixing Acorn. And that’s what I set about doing.
“Hermann Hauser, Andy Hopper and the rest of the Acorn board supported. In April 1998, I’d helped Robin and team achieve a successful IPO, but that achievement was theirs of course, not ours. Importantly, the cash we raised in the IPO gave us fuel to sort out Acorn.
“In July 1999, Acorn asked me to be the new CEO; that meant I joined ARM’s board but the real job was unscrambling Acorn.
“In a year, I’d sold the set top box business, sold the Xemplar asset to Apple, closed the desktop business, licensed out RiscOS, focused some of the Acorn team on a new processor-based business (we called Element 14), hired a team from ST Micro to help lead that effort (including Simon Knowles, now at Graphcore) and unpicked the corporate structure in a complicated deal with Morgan Stanley (the same group that took ARM public) that got Acorn shareholders an attractive exit in the form of ARM shares at a step-up in Acorn’s then market value – oh and put together a $13 million round of funding for a fledgling business we called Element 14 Inc.
“Throughout that, I developed a strong bond with Robin (alongside Hermann, Andy and others) and Robin helped give me confidence we could do something with the remainder of the Acorn assets. We’ve stayed in touch since.
“ARM was clearly operating throughout on a completely different plane in terms of its model, its importance, its scaling and the credibility of its team. We tried to emulate the best of it in Element 14 in a different fabless model – and mostly succeeded. In late 2000, we sold Element 14, now focused on applying its new processor architecture to DSL, to Broadcom for $642m.”
Did he think on initial involvement that Arm would get to a $34bn valuation (through the SoftBank acquisition) and 160 billion chips shipped – 20 times the population of the world? Or to be so influential across so many tech segments?
Boland says: “From the point I knew them, ARM always had a big vision. But no, I couldn’t imagine $34bn and 160 billion chips shipped. It’s a colossal achievement due to ARM’s partner model and Robin’s genuine desire to be Switzerland to everyone.
“The big step up happened, of course, with the wins at Nokia and TI, triggered by Thumb, which came from the responsiveness and ingenuity of some of the ARM founders from Acorn, as well as from Robin’s drive.”
A different Element
Of his other ventures in that era, Boland says that “Element 14 was easily the most fun. And the one where me and my fellow team graduated from naïve UK team to having confidence to build deep tech businesses on a global scale.
“A big credit needs to go to Hermann and Amadeus Capital Partners for encouraging that along with Andy Hopper but also to Rob Soni at Bessemer Venture Partners who helped us think and act like a US venture-backed startup.
“Icera was a much more profound startup; we had huge potential but we hit two simultaneous storms – competing with a big US player with concentrated market share and a tenacious grip on the market they didn’t want to surrender (Qualcomm) and the financial crisis of 2008-9 that forced us to cut our team size and product roadmap at the worst possible time.
“We survived and built a good business in a segment of the market but still with severe bruises and sold the company to NVIDIA in 2011 for $430M (including staff distributions).
“We could have done much more without the headwinds but we did learn the value of tenacity, the courage to always find a solution we can make work and learnt how to build successful triangular relationships, like Icera-Vodafone-ZTE or Icera-AT & T-Sierra Wireless.
“Neul wasn’t a company I founded but the situation became very much a rescue for investors as its focus on technology using TV white space unlicensed spectrum for the Internet of Things just wasn’t going to work.
“My role became diagnosing the problem, synthesising good responses (the best of which was a different core technology which became licensed narrowband-IOT), raising enough capital to execute, building partnerships and selling the business to Huawei for much more than I’d raised. Not a hugely enjoyable experience but much better for investors and the team than where it was headed. And good for Cambridge too.”
Five alive amid Autonomous Vehicles hype
Five has been tackling what Boland calls “the mother of all challenges: building self-driving technology for safe urban autonomy.”
He adds: “I won’t go into the details why this is such a challenge, but it’s a case where imperfect sensors and high complexity software, including artificial intelligence components with uncertain outputs, must perceive and understand the scene, predict agent action and then plan and control robot action in an infinite state space called the real world.
“It draws on every major type of computer science and engineering innovation over the last 50 years! Our first couple of years have been spent catching up with larger US rivals.
“They have typically had much deeper pockets than us but we have learned so much and made such immense progress during this phase, it’s been a massive tribute to the expertise this side of the Pond.
“During the last year, we took the decision to focus significant effort on building a cloud-based development and assurance platform, essentially an integrated, standards-based workflow using web-based APIs, scaleable ETL open source software and databases to help us develop, test and assure complex self-driving run-time system – initially for our own run-time system (vehicle software) but also intended for others to use to develop and assure their vehicle software, too.
“To do this has required those cloud systems to implement very high performance versions of some of the core self-driving technology, as well as some really clever simulation, test coverage and metric measurement tech, and a whole lot besides.
“Building such platforms probably represents the biggest area of investment being made right now in self-driving by bigger US firms and without them it’s impossible to develop and to assure safe operation of any vehicle software system in the complex domain we call the real world.
“The unusual thing about self-driving is that the sheer complexity of the problem is matched by the enormous size of the market to replace human driven transport with self-driven transport; the market is expected to grow to $trillions globally.
“During 2020, our team of 130 of the brightest minds in Europe has started work with several customers to apply our advanced cloud systems to speed up the development of their self-driving systems – each of which will end up being a multi-billion investment – to address that vast market.
“Our opportunity is gargantuan and we are well-placed to build one of the most important businesses in this space. We couldn’t be more excited.”
In broader terms, does he think Cambridge as a life science and technology cluster has made progress as a global player?
“Of course, yes: it’s the biggest and most important cluster in Europe. Could we do more, go faster, build bigger companies, create greater economic value-add? For sure. Do we want to and can we do it? Yes we can.
“The Cambridge life science and technology cluster is beyond world-class. What we have is unique. But it constantly needs lashing to real customers, real markets. And it constantly needs sights raised, ambitions increased, imaginations unleashed.
“That’s the lesson of ARM, Hermann, Robin and the team. We can combine deep subject matter expertise, we can track and better the best in the world; we really can set bold goals, engage confidently with customers and convince investors to back us.”