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Billion dollar questions for Suranga

Suranga Chandratillake OBE
Suranga Chandratillake OBE

Suranga Chandratillake OBE is a keynote at the upcoming Cambridge Start-Up Billion Pound Scale-Up.

The CW Billion Dollar Start-Up Challenge takes place at the Bradfield Centre on February 1
The CW Billion Dollar Start-Up Challenge takes place at the Bradfield Centre on February 1

Suranga Chandratillake OBE will present the keynote at the The Cambridge Start-up Billion Pound Scale-up Challenge at the Bradfield Centre, on Cambridge Science Park, on February 1.

Mr Chandratillake, 41, holds an MA in computer science from the University of Cambridge.

In 2000, after a stint at Morgan Stanley, he joined Autonomy as lead R&D engineer, working on the firm’s core data analysis engine. He became Autonomy’s chief technology officer before setting up video search engine blinkx (now RhythmOne) in 2004. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and won the Academy’s Silver medal in 2012. He is currently a partner at London-based investment firm Balderton Capital.

Suranga Chandratillake OBE, is a partner at Balderton Capital and has maintained links to Cambridge after gruduating in the city, and via his successes with blinkx and Autonomy
Suranga Chandratillake OBE, is a partner at Balderton Capital and has maintained links to Cambridge after gruduating in the city, and via his successes with blinkx and Autonomy

Congratulations on your OBE for services to engineering and technology. Was it a surprise?

“They send you a letter six weeks before the announcement (in this year’s New Year Honours) but there’s no warning before that and I’ve no idea who nominated me. It perhaps came from some of the work we did at blinkx and also my involvement in developing engineering technology: I sit on the UK Council of Science and Technology, a government advisory body for the prime minister. I’m an active member of the Royal Academy of Engineering and I think it’s more a reflection of that than anything else because there were so many others with more notable achievements.”

What’s the ethos at Balderton Capital?

“First and foremost it’s a firm of financial investors. Usually when we invest in a company we take a minority stake, mostly 20 to 30 per cent, so that means a seat on the board. I’m involved in engineering technology. The team is the most important thing when making an investment decision, plus our conviction that we can help build a credible company.”

Are there any preferred themes with the firms you invest in?

“There are 30 or 40 active investments in total, I have around six. The firm is geographically bound, so invests only in Europe. As a team we do a sector split based on background, for me that means AI and anything that’s machine learning-based – everything in the enterprise software world. That’s what Autonomy did, along with blinkx.”

Do you have any Cambridge investments? And anything in cyber-security?

“The Cambridge challenge is that I don’t have any Cambridge investments! I only do information technologies, from hardware to software, it’s very much deep tech and algorithm firms. Grapeshot is one firm working in AI technology here. Cyber-security we’ve looked at a lot. There’s Darktrace of course, and Bromium, which was started by one of my old fellows at college [co-founder and CTO Simon Crosby].”

Is blockchain on your radar?

“We’ve looked a lot at blockchain, though there’s not so much going on around that in Cambridge. It’s a fascinating area. Personally I think it’s very early on in its development, which makes it a lot of fun. The speculative crypto-currency part of it – whether the value goes up or down – is not for me. But blockchain says you don’t need a marketplace and that’s a much more exciting concept.”

What else are you looking at?

“Robotics is fascinating – like Cambridge Medical Robotics. There’s lots going on in the crossover between healthcare and computer science. There’s some really international companies bridging that divide, and these are some of the areas Cambridge is very well positioned for.”

Do you hanker for a return to the front line yourself?

“No. I’ve no plans to get back in the short term. Entrepreneurial business is driven by an irrational need to succeed and I don’t have that today – I don’t have that particular fire I want to put out.”

What will your keynote at the Cambridge Start-up Billion Pound Scale-up Challenge focus on?

“Well, of course the rationale behind the event, and the fantastic people with great ideas in Cambridge – but there’s a huge gap between that and building a company worth a billion dollars.

“At blinkx we had a great idea and we learned a lot, about how you finance the next stage of growth. You need a good team around you. It’s actually mostly prosaic but we struggle with it. In Cambridge the struggle is partly because people want to cash out earlier, that means there’s not so much experience available.

“You can build that in by creating as many places for people to be with others who have done it before. That’s what Silicon Valley does really well and Cambridge is getting there. We need to keep working on that.”

Do you think the issue may be scientists becoming business people?

“With the academy we have a number of programmes to help commercialise what they’re working on, I think that actually engineers and scientists are really good business people but society says they’re not.

“The easiest way is to point to the examples. This country has a very bad track record on this, but in the US it’s very different – Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber… they’re all run by the technical founder. By boxing technology people into the ‘boffin’ box we fail them. We do a lot of work on that with the Academy of Engineering. Commercial skills like sales, marketing or accounting are actually fairly simple. If you want to, you can learn them – but the reverse is not true, for those wanting to learn how to develop the technology.

“The really successful companies are ones that are constantly reinventing themselves.”

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