Twitter isn’t the only US tech giant acquiring UK AI startups, with several other significant exits over the last few years.
Evi was acquired by Amazon for a reported £18 million in 2013, DeepMind was bought by Google for around £400 million in 2014, VocalIQ was acquired by Apple for an unknown amount in 2015, and SwiftKey was bought by Microsoft for £175 million in 2016.
The Oxbridge-London triangle is playing an important role in the creation of the UK’s best AI companies, according to LocalGlobe investor Saul Klein. Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, and UCL all have deep expertise in applied mathematics, computer science, and machine learning. Indeed, several of Britain’s best-known AI companies started off as research projects within these institutions before being spun out. Evi and VolalIQ began at Cambridge, for example, while DeepMind has close ties to all four institutions.
Universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, and UCL all have deep expertise in applied mathematics, computer science, and machine learning. Indeed, several of Britain’s best-known AI companies started off as research projects within these institutions before being spun out. Evi and VolalIQ began at Cambridge, for example, while DeepMind has close ties to all four institutions.
But AI startups aren’t just being created within the walls of academia.
Magic Pony Technology — founded by Zehan Wang and Rob Bishop — was born at Entrepreneur First, which is a company that helps deeply technical people to find cofounders they can launch a tech startup with.
At least half of Entrepreneur First’s last cohort focused on machine learning, which is a type of technology related to artificial intelligence that involves a computer teaching itself different processes without someone telling it what to do.
The sale of Magic Pony Technology to Twitter is a major boost for Entrepreneur First, which has been gaining momentum over the last few years as an increasing number of big-name investors look to back the companies that are created through its six-month programme.
Entrepreneur First cofounder Alice Bentinck, who was recently awarded an MBE for services to business, said in a statement on Magic Pony’s acquisition:
“For us, Rob and Zehan’s story is a striking reinforcement of why the Entrepreneur First model works, why we bet on individual talent first, and why we bet on hard technology. We believed that for people like Rob and Zehan, going to work at an investment bank or a big company — for a long time the default path outside Silicon Valley for ambitious people — was a terrible waste of their potential.
“But, before Entrepreneur First, if you didn’t already have a team, an idea, and a product, no investor or accelerator would talk to you, so the path to becoming a founder was closed to you. Today, this announcement proves that not following the status quo when it comes to starting and building companies that solve complex technical problems yields rewards.”
While the Magic Pony exit is likely to be seen as a positive step for the UK AI scene, it does raise questions about whether the UK will ever be able to produce a really big AI company if Silicon Valley keeps preying on the country’s most promising startups.