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Accidental Hero: Suranga Chandratillake

A victim of the dotcom bust, Suranga Chandratillake never expected to end up at the helm of Britain’s most talked-about young technology company. He talks to Todd Cardy about separating from Autonomy, working with Mike Lynch and the future of video search

It was not the most auspicious of career beginnings for Suranga Chandrarillake. After just four month in his first job - a dream position at fast growing American dotcom Trilogy - the tech bubble burst right in his face. The company collapsed and he lost his job.

If unemployment wasn’t hard enough, the Cambridge computer science graduate had only a term or two earlier been gossiping about classmates who had dropped out and were reveling in new-found wealth after cashing in their start-ups.

‘It was really horrible actually,’ Chandratillake recalls. ‘At university, we were living this kind of excitement vicariously, but by the time we graduated the dotcom boom was ending. The few of us who got dotcom jobs lost them immediately, and the smart ones, who had gone and got a bank job, first felt really smug but then lost their job six months later when the market crashed as well.

‘A lot of us thought we should have dropped Out of university halfway through. We asked ourselves, “Why didn’t we have the guts?”, but it’s a difficult thing to do.’

GAINING AUTONOMY

The regret was short-lived though, and in hindsight, his misfortune didn’t divert Chandratillake from a successful career as a technology entrepreneur. At 33, he is the founder and chief executive of blinkx, the fast-rising spin-out from data search company Autonomy Corporation.

In seven years, the video search company has grown from start-up to major media player. After floating on AIM in May 2007, in a complicated demerger from Autonomy, the company was valued at an impressive £125 million.

Chandratillake says, ‘I always wanted start-up but I thought it might not be possible, and then it snuck up on me as an opportunity through the blinkx project.’

He explains that in 2004, while chief technology officer at Autonomy, based in America, he and others began thinking about how to make the company’s technology more useful for the average consumer. He says he wasn’t quite sure what a product would look like, or which aspect of the Autonomy technology should be used, but there was ‘an inkling, a feeling’ that something could be done to ‘help people in their daily lives’.

‘The break that we got, the really lucky break, was that Autonomy founder Mike Lynch heard these ideas and told us, “I’ll give you time to figure this out.” We were given a break from our day jobs, a tiny team and a little office in the corner of the building, and became a start-up.’

The pressure was on to produce results. ‘We knew we had a very short period of time and so we really went for it. We trialled different types of products and ideas on a wide range of stuff actually, but the one that really obviously became valuable was video search.’

SPINNING OUT

Over the next few months, the idea quickly turned into a business, and the small group of corporate executives-turned-entrepreneurs were faced with a decision: would blinkx become a division of Autonomy or a separate company?

‘Once blinkx took off and it became obvious that it was capable of being its own business, that was when we realized we had a prospect,’ Chandratillake comments. ‘For a long time I thought we would be a division of the company. But at that point, the management team said, “Look, we could do that, but actually what you do is so drastically different to what we do that we arc actually going to be a drag on your speed and agility. You are going to have to go out and do this on your own.”’

This was the really hard part. ‘There was quite a bit of soul-searching. We went and asked ourselves: do we want to do this or should we stick with our safe corporate jobs? We chose to continue.’

Chandratillake says his belief in blinkx is down to three things. ‘We are in the right market, we have the right tool and we do a good job of executing it. Video search is hard. It is a deep tech problem, but having access to technology [through Autonomy] that does speech recognition and analysis has been huge for us. We have a totally unfair advantage in the marketplace.’

LEADING EDGE

Chandratillake explains that every video search engine indexes video by analysing the text, such as titles and descriptions, which can be found surrounding the video on a web page. Search inquiries are then assessed against the index.

However, in addition to text analysis, he says blinkx’s software ‘hits the play button’ and uses speech recognition, scene change detection, facial recognition and text found in the video for better indexing and more relevant results. Put simply, ‘Everyone else is judging a video by its cover, while we are actually watching the video,’

The best results can be found when searching informational videos, such as news clips, and instructional series including DIY and cooking shows, where there is usually more embedded text.

blinkx claims to be world’s largest and most advanced video search engine, and has indexed more than 35 million hours of audio, video, viral and TV content, all searchable on demand. In the six months to September 2010, it reported revenues of $27.4 million (£16.9 million), more than twice what it generated in the same period of 2009, and pre-tax profits of just over $2 million, compared with a previous loss of $7.3 million. Its market capitalisation is around £300 million.

POWERFUL PARTNERSHIPS

The company has signed a number of partnerships with major media companies, most notably with Samsung in December last year, which sees blinkx’s search software included on the multinational’s first tablet device, the Galaxy Tab.

It has also diversified into the internet browser add-on market, launching Cheep, a social shopping service that provides current price comparisons on products searched online. The service went live in the US in October last year.

Chandratillake credits much of his success to the mentoring ability of his former chief executive. Speaking of Mike Lynch, he says, ‘He’s definitely a character. He is a non-executive on blinkx’s board. I work with him fairly regularly, and he is a genius. There is no doubt about it technically, but also from a marketing and sales point of view.’

It doesn’t follow that everyone loves him. ‘Geniuses tend to have a point of view, and their point of view tends to be right. But that doesn’t mean that everyone always likes their point of view thrust over and over again, let alone being proven right over and over again. But if you can get over your ego a bit, he is an amazing mentor.’

Despite blinkx being part-based in California, which is also the home of Chandratillake, his wife and one-year-old son, he says the UK will remain the business’s ‘roots’ and it will be listed on AIM for the foreseeable future.

‘The technology came from the UK and we still have an R&D team in Cambridge, who are very important to us. When we listed the company in London, we were asked, “Are you sure that you are doing it in the right country? Do the investors here get technology companies or do they not? Could you not do this in the US?”

‘We stuck with it because our adviser, Citibank, said it would work here and I have been really impressed. We found a great roster of investors who understand blinkx and we have done really well Out of it.’

While wary of the big players making powerful moves in video search, Chandratillake is bullish about the future, adding that he expects the uptake in mobile devices, especially tablets, and ever-faster internet speeds to drive growth in video search demand. ‘Google is interesting to watch because, being the scale they are, they will always be dabbling in things that are relevant to them and relevant to us, but actually their focus is elsewhere.

‘In the case of video, their focus is on YouTube, not on video search itself - that is a great opportunity for us. AOL and Yahoo have focused more on video search than Google, but they are still far behind blinkx,’

VITAL STATISTICS

Marital status: Married

Year of birth: 1977

Born: Kandy, Sri Lanka (moved to the UK at the age of three)

Hobbies: Hiking, and his one year old son. ‘I used to think that the start-up was hard work. If you have lived through having a child, then you can probably start a company because there are many of the same requirements, such as a belief that it is going to get better and coping with no sleep’