Mike Lynch, CEO and founder of Autonomy
"The issues surrounding unstructured information have become prime-time."
Backgrounder: Dr Mike Lynch is the chief executive officer of Autonomy Corporation plc, which he also founded in 1996. It is now a world leading company specialising in infrastructure software for the enterprise and which is spearheading the meaning-based computing movement.
Autonomy’s technology allows computers to harness the full richness of human information, forming a conceptual and contextual understanding of any piece of electronic data including unstructured information, be it text, email, voice or video.
The company’s software powers the full spectrum of mission-critical enterprise applications including information access technology, pan-enterprise search, information governance, end-to-end eDiscovery and archiving, records management, business process management, customer interaction solutions, and video and audio analysis, and is recognised by industry analysts as the clear leader in enterprise search.
Dr Lynch studied Engineering at Cambridge University and obtained a PhD in mathematical computing and has held a number of advisory and board roles in the venture capital industry. He is also a non-executive director of the BBC.
1) You appear to be the exception to the rule that brilliant academics good CEOs don’t make; what are the pitfalls aspiring academics encounter in this transition that sees so very few at the most successful spin-outs and how have you overcome these? Autonomy makes something that everyone needs. We all use unstructured information every day, when we make a phone call, write an email or turn on the TV. So it’s a fundamental piece of technology and those are very rare indeed: one comes along perhaps once every hundred years. In contrast, it’s easy for academics to get sidetracked on very exciting but abstract projects that are of no real use. We’re an engineering led company but we’re not interested in ideas that don’t have an addressable market in the near future. That keeps you firmly on the ground. 2) When you began Autonomy, did you have any perception of the scale that the company could attain? For the last 40 years or so the IT industry has only been able to deal with information in rows and columns, what we call structured information. I realised that unstructured information was actually set to become a far bigger area, because that’s the way we as human beings naturally communicate. Computers would need to evolve to accommodate us, rather than the other way around. It’s an absolutely fundamental problem and at the time it was a completely untapped opportunity so I knew that if we were successful the company would grow to become the global leader it is today. Nowadays 80% of the information around us is unstructured, so this is still a colossal opportunity for us. 3) What aspect of the technology gave Autonomy such a commanding and immediate market lead? There’s a very simple idea at the heart of it: computers should adapt to our world rather than the other way around. And the basis for that is meaning. It’s all about understanding the ideas behind the information. If I say the word “DOG” for example then the computer can easily go away and find every mention of that word, but it doesn’t understand that a dog is an animal, it’s man’s best friend etc. When you have that conceptual understanding it becomes possible to actually process the information and do useful things with it, rather than simply search it. This conceptual approach is unique to Autonomy. There are other people that try to approximate it, but they end up resorting to basic tricks to give the impression of understanding. 4) What are the company’s biggest challenges going forward? Because people are so used to dealing with computers in the traditional way, the challenge for us is to show them that it’s not actually the ideal. Searching through massive amounts of information is extremely time consuming and of course the computer isn’t adding any value itself. It’s funny how long it sometimes takes people to change their habits and realise that it’s much more helpful to have the computer do the work for you. In recent years we’ve started to see this realisation take off on a huge scale, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. 5) In what areas/segments are you seeing the biggest growth and which are the areas with the biggest potential? With the current economic conditions we’ve just seen a whole raft of regulatory changes come in. There are over 40 new pieces of legislation that dictate how companies should handle their information. They therefore need to be able to manage, retrieve and harness all their information, irrespective of where it resides or risk multi-million fines, litigation and in some cases jail. So some of the biggest demand at the moment is in areas like Information Governance and eDiscovery and we’ve seen record contracts signed even in the last few months. 6) Will there ever be a home version of Autonomy’s meaning based computing, perhaps running as a default application on one or more operating systems? In actual fact many people are already using Autonomy software at home perhaps without even realising it. We have more than 350 OEM partnerships with companies like Adobe, HP and Symantec, so if you use any of their applications at home then you may well be using Autonomy technology. But the core of our business is for enterprises because that’s where unstructured information often poses the biggest challenges. 7) Is Cambridge likely to remain an important centre for Autonomy and if so why? Cambridge is a great place for new enterprise, and of course Autonomy was founded out of my own research at the university here. Cambridge has a fantastic academic tradition and there’s a world-class pool of talent residing in the area, with other leading companies in Silicon Fen. All of these things contribute to Cambridge being an important centre for Autonomy.
8) Autonomy has superb market penetration, but began humbly enough. What three pieces of advice would you give other entrepreneurs striving for critical mass in their businesses, particularly in light of the current economic environment? When you start a company there are always challenges, but the key to success is having a unique product or service that no one else has and which people fundamentally need. If you have a genuine value proposition then there’s enough support to get off the ground, and in some ways now more than ever thanks to all of the industry initiatives run in conjunction with university departments.
Autonomy has over 17,000 customers spread across a multitude of industries. The reason why we have achieved market penetration on this scale is because only Autonomy can deliver this meaning-based technology. So I would say: get the fundamental idea right at the very start and believe in it. Continue to innovate of course, but always stay true to it. Then I’d probably say that again twice. 9) What role does the entrepreneurial spirit that helped launch Autonomy play in the company today? Entrepreneurship is part of the soul of Autonomy, and testament to this is the company’s ability to grow organically to offer a full spectrum of solutions to our clients. Unlike many other software companies we don’t license any third party technologies; we own everything we offer and that makes things less risky for our customers. At the same time we invest in excess of US$60 million every year in R & D and we are constantly introducing industry first solutions such as Information Governance. 10) People at 3i have suggested that 10 years at the top of a company is enough for most entrepreneurs; now you’re a couple of years past that how do you maintain your drive and has your enthusiasm or ambition dimmed in any way? Well I do one or two other things to help the technology sector but my work with Autonomy has always been my personal dream. We’re actually at the most exciting time in the company’s history where the issues surrounding unstructured information have become prime-time. In addition, we’ve seen Autonomy re-enter the FTSE100, and we’ve seen some of the biggest deals in the company’s history at over US$70m in a single deal – I’ll definitely be around for the foreseeable future. There are still a lot of important developments coming for Autonomy. Rich-media such as audio and video are becoming incredibly important and we’re seeing new regulations come in that will impact this area like never before. We have a lot more work to do here before anything else.