The downfall of Mike Lynch, “Britain’s Bill Gates”

Mike Lynch © Rex Features

Mike Lynch is an outstandingly clever and stimulating character who sold his “tech darling”, Autonomy,  for $11.7bn in 2011.  Since then he’s been mired in legal wranglings over that sale. Jane Lewis reports.

When an FT reporter interviewed “the UK’s answer to Bill Gates” in November 2010, he was struck by the sheer breadth of the Autonomy founder’s conversational scope. Mike Lynch “is, it’s clear, outstandingly clever” and “stimulating in debate”, Peter Whitehead reported. “I was also struck by how many topics we had managed to cover in a relatively short time” – ranging from “corporate growing pains”, through Lynch’s “untrainable dogs”, to his enlightened strategy of hiring anyone he rated as “bright” whether they were technicians or not.

The deal that felt wrong

Then, at the height of his pomp as architect of the UK’s most celebrated software house, Lynch cashed in his chips when he sold Autonomy to Hewlett-Packard for the eye-popping sum of $11.7bn in 2011, says The Daily Telegraph. The management of the ageing Silicon Valley firm savoured the idea transforming their “creaking hulk, dependent on sales of office printers and overpriced ink cartridges”, into a punchy software innovator. But the deal felt wrong from the start.

Within a year, HP’s new broom, Meg Whitman, wrote down the value of Autonomy by $8.8bn, claiming HP had been conned in a giant fraud perpetrated by Lynch and his team, who had used every devious ruse imaginable to artificially inflate Autonomy’s figures prior to the sale.

Lynch & co countered that HP was trying to cover up its own botched absorption of the former British tech darling. Cue a six-year legal slug-out which reached a climax last week when Lynch, 53, was charged by the US Department of Justice on 14 counts of fraud and conspiracy, says The Sunday Times. If convicted, he will certainly face the full wrath of Uncle Sam.

Lynch’s legal struggles are a sad finale to a stand-out career, says The Guardian. He was one of those rare people capable of marrying technical genius with hard profits – “a top-class European academic who not only made the transition to tech entrepreneur but went on to create a global company”.  Born in Ireland, he was raised near Chelmsford in Essex where his mother was a nurse and his father a fireman. Lynch won a place at Christ’s College, Cambridge, to study engineering before taking a doctorate in mathematical computing, specialising in “adaptive pattern recognition”.

A tech pioneer

Before setting up Autonomy in 1996, Lynch cut his entrepreneurial teeth on two tech companies. But what made Lynch’s fortune, says the FT, was his “pioneering work in the field of meaning-based computing” – a form of intelligent search that sifts unrelated, unstructured bits of data into “valuable information”. That proposition went down a storm with blue-chip clients looking to gain an advantage over competitors and Autonomy, which swiftly floated, grew exponentially.

“For a man with a $5bn lawsuit hanging over his head, Lynch seems remarkably upbeat about life,” noted the Evening Standard last year. Indeed, throughout his legal war with HP (which has also launched a High Court action against him in the UK), he has continued to champion cutting-edge technology via his new venture capital firm, Invoke Capital. And until last week – when he gave up his post as a government adviser and resigned from the Royal Society – he remained at the top of Britain’s scientific establishment. His freedom now hangs in the balance, says the Telegraph. Lynch is reportedly holed up in his Suffolk manor house mulling his options. Navigating the next few months will “require all his analytical brilliance”.