Buzzy British startup Improbable just got a huge $500 million cash injection

Rob Whitehead and Herman Narula of ImprobableImprobableRob Whitehead (left) and Herman Narula (right) of Improbable.

LONDON — Improbable, a buzzy British startup that builds tech underpinning virtual reality worlds, has landed a $US500 million (£389 million) cash injection.

The investment was led by Japanese firm Softbank and it’s a huge round of funding for a British startup. The cash is going towards tech development and hiring in its London HQ and San Francisco office, which it opened earlier this year.

What does Improbable actually do? Basically, it builds tech that does the heavy lifting required for huge simulations — whether that’s online gaming or scientific research. This frees up the people using the virtual reality software to get on with the business of modelling whatever it is they want to model.

“Today in computer science, people have mastered apps to build things for a single computer,” CEO Herman Narula previously told Business Insider. “And all the power of a single computer, people can use it to do really good things. But there’s this whole other wonderful set of problems that we want to solve — like recreating whole cities, or creating beautiful virtual worlds for us to explore, or being able to recreate economies, or being able to model all the processes in company — things that if we could do, we could do really great things.”

Founded in 2012, Improbable’s initial focus was on gaming — but has since broadened its view to everything from science to defence. In late 2015, it unveiled SpatialOS, an operating system for simulations, and launched a beta version in February 2017.

Narula says in a statement on Friday announcing the investment: “We believe that the next major phase in computing will be the emergence of large-scale virtual worlds which enrich human experience and change how we understand the real world. At Improbable we have spent the last few years building the foundational infrastructure for this vision.”

There’s no word yet on exactly what this week’s $US502 million (£390 million) funding round values Improbable’s overall worth at. TechCrunch only reports that the company is worth more than $US1 billion (£780 million) and that Softbank’s investment is a minority stake in the company — meaning it owns less than 50% of the company.

The investment is an order of magnitude larger than any previous funding Improbable has taken. Its last publicised round was in March 2015, when it brought in $US20 million (£16 million), led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (also known as a16z). a16z also contributed to this more recent round of funding, Improbable says, along with Horizons Ventures, another previous investor.

Tech startups with valuations of $US1 billion are more are sometimes referred to as “unicorns” due to their rarity — and Improbable has now been propelled into their ranks, alongside the likes of TransferWise and Funding Circle in the UK.

In a statement, Softbank managing director Deep Nishar was (predictably) effusive. He said: “Improbable is building breakthrough technologies that are becoming vital and valuable platforms for the global gaming industry.

“Beyond gaming, this new form of simulation on a massive scale has the potential to help us make better decisions about the world we live in. Improbable’s technology will help us explore disease, improve cities, understand economies and solve complex problems on a previously unimaginable scale.”

Improbable says it has already done a proof-of-concept to recreate an unnamed British city, based on open-source map, traffic, gas and electricity, water and sewage, Internet and mobile connectivity data.

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