Improbable founder Herman Narula at their offices in Farringdon Matt Writtle
His company has just attracted a landmark $502 million of investment but Herman Narula is bashful. “I’m the least impressive person in the office,” says the Improbable co-founder, who has a closely trimmed beard, crumpled white shirt and a company worth an estimated $1 billion. “There’s someone here with two PhDs, someone who brokered a peace treaty in Afghanistan, someone who ran a marathon every day for a week.”
Fast-talking Narula, 29, and his co-founder Rob Whitehead, 26, met as computer science students at Cambridge University in 2012 and bonded over a mutual dissatisfaction with online games.
They founded Improbable shortly after graduating and created SpatialOS, a platform that can be used to build advanced virtual worlds for anything from games to simulations of city infrastructure and cells in the body.
In the past two years they have expanded from a staff of 50 to 180, and this month that $502 million investment from Japan’s SoftBank Corporation was finalised. It’s thought to be the largest investment made in a European tech firm, earning Improbable comparisons with Google.
Improbable’s Farringdon HQ is high-security, with special windows so no one can see in, but inside it still has a start-up feel with building work going on to put in new doors.
The average age of employees is 29. A man in red shorts vapes in one of the work pods, developers apologise for their desks covered in “tchotchke” — Yiddish for clutter — and one member of staff practises his golf swing. The whole company gathers for a free lunch at 12.30pm and there’s a card table bought through a rewards system where staff can buy objects to improve the company. Narula doesn’t have an office but says with a conspiratorial stroke of his beard that he’s “camped out in a meeting room that is becoming my office”.
Improbable's offices in Farringdon
They celebrated the investment with the usual Friday pizza party, but they’re staying focused on future achievement. The money hasn’t affected Narula, who “rarely buys anything” and proudly shows off his battered iPhone 6 (he broke the last one by sitting on it).
“It might seem like a lot of money,” he says tipping back in his chair. “But given what we are trying to achieve it may not be enough. We are building something like The Matrix and what that means is running virtual worlds on thousands of machines. Virtual worlds give a chance to rehearse and train thousands of people in real-world situations in everything from heavy industry to defence. If we could recreate a cell in enough detail to test drugs on it, that could lead to a lot of advances.”
The deal is “the opposite of selling out”. “We are an independent British company which happens to have investment from someone else. We want to build a big, successful, hopefully British, platform company. That’d be transformative. America has Google, Facebook, Amazon. China has Alibaba. We need businesses in Britain that can become big.” Could the Government help more? “Make the country attractive for investment and make deals like this easier.”
Narula was born in Delhi, where his father is a billionaire construction magnate, and grew up between the US and the UK. His father was initially unconvinced by Improbable and Narula gave up a family inheritance to focus on his own company. “My family are still sceptical but slightly more convinced.”
The first game Narula played was Magic Carpet, which he stole from his two older brothers, and he speaks lyrically about games, seeing them as entwined with a wider progressive mission to change the world through simulations.
“This will sound lofty and crazy but games represent a form of mental liberation. It is an opportunity to grow your mind beyond your physical self. Young people go into becoming programmers because they can accomplish more at that age than their real-life circumstances will allow both in terms of freedom of expression and engaging in intellectual problems.” He breaks off to sneeze, apologising that it will be “apocalyptic”.
“Games are one of the last few environments where race, gender, background don’t become the instigator of how you interact. You can meet people you wouldn’t otherwise. People think virtual reality is escapism but it’s a way for us to lead richer lives in the real world.” He compares it to literature “increasing understanding”. “My first language was Hindi but I credit games with improving my English.”
But what about if games are addictive and violent? “Violence in games is not like in the real world,” says Narula. “It’s like if you are interested in crime novels — that doesn’t mean you will become a murderer and want to kill someone in a way Poirot will never solve. It’s just a context to explore ideas.”
"We are building something like The Matrix," says Narula (Matt Writtle)
Improbable’s work is a mix of city plans and models for society but it still makes games. Its latest is called Worlds Adrift and was made with Bossa Studios, based a few streets away. It allows you to create a character and explore a universe building ships, finding treasure and meeting other players. Unlike traditional games, which run on just one server, it runs across many so is able to be more pacy, realistic and engaging.
So do non-gamers risk missing out? “Yes, there’s no other way of putting it,” says Narula apologetically. “Games are an ability to have empathetic interactions, learning things in contexts you would never usually encounter. You look at this amazing digital world and think how do I improve it. Then you come to understand programming.”
Improbable's latest game: Worlds Adrift
At night Narula switches off his phone and he meditates every day for 45 minutes, either at home or on the Tube in from Barnet, where he lives alone in a house that his family owns. He isn’t seeing anyone and jokes that all his friends are in the office. When he has time he watches Arsenal (“tech companies need to be cohesive like football teams, not thinking founders are magical”) and is listening to Kyla La Grange’s album. “She’s a Cambridge graduate, philosophy.”
Demis Hassabis, the DeepMind founder, is a friend and he would love to meet Elon Musk “because of his grand vision”. What really inspires him, though, is history and he cites Nelson as an example. “That’s leadership, if you’re unconscious and your people still know what to do.”
The next challenge is to hire more women. Only 25 per cent of Improbable’s staff are female, around the industry average, and Narula says it is not enough. “It’s a travesty that tech companies like us have so few women. We are part of the problem though we hope to be part of the solution.” They’re considering a scheme to train women to become engineers on the job. On the flipside, it is a diverse company with “22 nationalities and different sexual orientations”.
Brexit’s impact is still unclear but he advocates London’s humble approach over the braggadocio of Silicon Valley. “One of our values is relentless humility — a more British approach suits us.”
He tries to be a good boss, letting new parents work four days a week. But he doesn’t remember his own last holiday. “Does a weekend seeing friends in Cambridge count?” It’s the antithesis of Channel 4 tech comedy Loaded and Narula laughs at the champagne bath one of the show’s characters had to celebrate success. His own deal “creates the burden not to mess up”. Narula leaves the final word to chief operating officer Peter Lipka, who joined early on and has been up all night fixing a technical glitch. Lipka sums up Improbable’s ambition. “The biggest development will come from outside. It’s an open system, available to everyone, so someone will build something beyond what we expected.” He breaks into a smile, “But first we should get new office doors.”