The news this week that a 17-year-old British school boy has sold his app company to the Internet giant Yahoo for an estimated $30 million (£20m) should come as a massive wake-up call for the IT industry.
Nick D'Aloisio from Wimbledon taught himself to code at age 12. After creating several apps, including Facemood, a service which used sentiment analysis to determine the mood of Facebook users, and SongStumblr, a geosocial music discovery service, D'Aloisio founded Summly in December 2011 with backing from Horizons Ventures.
Summly is a free iPhone app that automatically summarises lengthy news stories and features for consumption via mobile devices. Before making the deal with Yahoo the app had been downloaded almost a million times from the App Store, and had been featured as one of Apple's best iPhone apps of 2012.
“When I founded Summly at 15, I would have never imagined being in this position so suddenly,” said D'Aloisio. “With over 90 million summaries read in just a few short months, this is just the beginning for our technology. As we move towards a more refined, liberated and intelligent mobile web, summaries will continue to help navigate through our ever expanding information universe.”
The deal makes Nick one of the world’s youngest technology millionaires. Indeed, he is still too young to be a director of his own firm, so the money from the sale of the business will go into a trust fund. Even Mark Zuckerberg was 20 by the time he founded Facebook. Like D'Aloisio, Zuckerberg began writing software as a hobby at the age of 12.
It is significant that neither of these successful businessmen learnt to code as part of a formal education process. Perhaps it is a indication of their entrepreneurial spirit that they chose to teach themselves - or perhaps they were just mega-geeks.
The point is that D'Aloisio's success does not have to be a one-off. There is a whole new generation of 'digital natives' currently making their way through high school who are equipped with an intuitive understanding of digital content. What many of them lack, however, is formal skills training.
If the UK wants to build up a reputation for IT innovation, then we cannot continue to rely on the odd kid learning to code in his bedroom - computer programming has to become a central part of the school curriculum, as it has in many other countries. Moreover, we need more role models like D'Aloisio, and more backers like Horizon Ventures to put up the seed money.
Moves are being made in this direction. The IT curriculum is being updated, and last week's budget introduced some measures designed to make investing in start-up technology businesses more attractive. But everything seems to be moving at a glacial pace and, really, these are things that should have happened years ago.
What we also sorely lack is incentives for successful UK businesses to stay in the UK. Summly is yet another example of a nascent British tech company selling out in its early stages to a US giant before it has had time to fully bloom. This has to stop if we are ever to build a UK tech giant.
D'Aloisio has chosen to
stay in the UK for now, but the the Financial Times notes that two of
Summly’s employees will move to Yahoo’s HQ in California. No doubt Yahoo is also hoping to tempt D'Aloisio over to the US when the time is right.
It is therefore up to the government and the IT industry in this country to ensure that, by the time D'Aloisio has finished his A-levels, the tech investment environment in the UK is sufficiently attractive that he and his peers will choose to found and grow the next generation of technology businesses on this side of the pond.
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