16-year-old tech prodigy Nick D’Aloisio visits Singapore, new app in the works


Nick hanging out with SGE at Starbucks. Photo: Rusydi

Nick D’Aloisio is a 16-year-old technology prodigy.

But like any ordinary teenager from London, he enjoys rugby and cricket, doesn’t get baseball, and relishes playing sports with his friends on weekends. He loves attending school as well, possessing a deep interest in learning and wishes to do philosophy in university someday.

“I also kinda miss the environment of being in a classroom, like you know, the whole thing?” he says, as we hang out in Starbucks. He orders orange juice while I settle for a cup of cappuccino.

Here in Singapore for a few days with his investment banker dad, he was previously in Japan, where he met up with Nobuyuki Idei, the former Chairman and CEO of Sony. In Singapore, he scheduled meetings with Google, Ubisoft, and other major tech firms, as well as investors and entrepreneurs.

Nick, who grew up in Australia but now lives in London, has not been in school for four weeks, as he was exempted by the British government from attending classes. But he does plan to go back in September, once he has his company “pretty set up and self-sustaining”.

His startup is Summly, now making waves in the tech scene and drawing press coverage from major news outlets. He is quite likely the youngest individual ever, at 15 years old, to get seed funding for his venture, at reportedly over US$250k. His backer is Horizons Ventures, the venture capital firm of Li Ka-Shing, a Chinese billionaire and the 11th richest man in the world.

Nick’s iOS app (downloadable here) has just crossed the 150,000 download mark.

Summly basically summarizes articles on the Internet for easy viewing, through the use of an algorithm. Users can install a bookmarklet on their mobile web browser, and use it whenever they come across an article they want shortened. The condensed content then appears on the Summly app. He claims it outperforms other text summarizers by 40 percent, and works on any language.

He developed much of the technology himself, picking up Objective C and learning the iOS SDK three years ago. He has also read papers on natural language processing and machine learning, emailing questions to the best experts in the world.

He has more in store. He told me that he is in the midst of developing a brand new mobile app, based on Summly technology, but he’s unable to disclose further details, he says, grinning.

The young entrepreneur hopes to launch it around August 2012.

“The underlining technology is very good, there’s going to be a very nice user interface design and experience… we’re very confident that it’s going to do very well.”

He hopes the new app will generate a lot of attention from consumers towards his company. But that’s just one part of his business. Ultimately, his dream is to see Summly technology become ubiquitous on the Internet and in everyday life.

Nick aims to achieve this by beginning the licensing his technology at around the same time as the launch of the new app.

He sketched out how the world could benefit from his work. Summly can be integrated into the preview layer of search engines, giving users an idea of an article’s content without clicking on it. It can also be used in news aggregation sites, and even social networks like Twitter and Facebook, giving users the ability to preview and better decide what content to consume.

“Tons of other verticals can benefit,” he says, “like financial services where they get a lot of information, wire services where they get thousands of press releases. We can use the summarized text as meta data for another algorithm. You could take the summary and feed it to a algorithm that’s shown to the end user, so it’s like a bit of a content layer.”

Executing his plans take a lot of work. Nick has been shuttling back and forth between Silicon Valley, New York, and his home in London. Investors in the Valley are following his startup very closely.

With so much activity going on, visiting Singapore is a sort of respite for him. He had many serious meetings in San Francisco and New York, so he didn’t get to meet other startup founders.

“It’s fun to just hang out with other entrepreneurs,” he says.

Nick visits UbiSoft Singapore with Khairul Rusydi, co-founder of Reactor, a startup incubator for students.

Nick is surprised at how the tech scene in Singapore has developed.

“I didn’t expect to meet a community like this in Singapore, which is really cool. There’s a lot of startups and incubators. I think it’s a lot better than London, which is kinda disjointed,” he says.

He attributes the difference to the fact that the tech scene there is smaller than in Singapore. In England, the tech community congregates around an area in London called Shoreditch, but if you do not reside in that part of the city it is hard to get within the community.

But even when he is here, he is unable to escape the media glare coming from this publication. So I had to ask: Have you gotten used to the spotlight yet?

“Not really,” he says, sighing, “the first time I was on TV in London was a bit crazy. It was ‘live’ TV as well. ITV was one of the first followed by BBC. After that some American stuff as well.”

“I think actually it’s quite surreal, but I don’t feel nervous because it doesn’t feel real, like things haven’t sunk in in that regard. But I’m confident in the product and the idea.”

He continues: “This month I was in Forbes magazine, that’s kinda weird, seeing people reading that. The media side has been fun, but I’m surprised that the idea has gained traction actually, among users, investors. I really love seeing that come to fruition.”

The media hoopla started from an article in TechCrunch, a prominent American tech blog, and snowballed from there. Summly (then called TrimIt) eventually got the attention of Horizons Ventures, who did not know about Nick’s age at first.

“When I released the fact that I was fifteen, they loved that, because that means I was a digital native, and I grew up on the internet, and that generation can see things differently,” he says, “and because they saw my age, they want to help out, to foster me as well as invest in the company, and they got some really good mentors, and advisors, some really high profile people, so I’m really grateful of it.”

With the backing of his lawyers and advisors from the London tech scene, Nick managed to secure a fair deal from the negotiation process. After looking at the term sheet, he was convinced that their interests and those of Horizons were aligned.

Nick is taking time off from school to turn his company into a serious, self-sustaining operation. He plans to move his team into a proper office within a few months, with a core team of ten in London. His team has also found an “awesome” COO that has been in the industry for about 20 years, someone “very, very, very” senior. He will essentially be what Sheryl Sandberg is to Facebook.

“We’re quite lucky that we actually got this person because this person has been offered a lot of jobs, as you can imagine right? But we have a lot of influential backers already so that helps to draw talent over.”

“I will remain kinda a founder, probably the CEO, but semantically a CEO. I will do the media stuff and the spokesperson of the company, always talking about the ideas because I founded it. The operator comes in to handle the managerial stuff, the money and legal stuff,” he says.

He will also continue to work on the product, and he aims to retain control over the direction of the company even though his equity would eventually dilute.

“I’ve kinda proven that it’s going in the right direction so we don’t want to muck things up now,” he cautions.

Nick believes that his company is reaching a tipping point where they will soon be set for the future.

“Once we launch this big new product, and we kinda combine that with the licensable technology we should be able to take off quite fast.”

After that, it’ll be back to revising for examinations for him, where he hopes to work on Summly part-time while completing his studies — just an ordinary day in the life of a sixteen year old.

No matter how big Summly grows though, Nick would like to be constantly involved with his most successful project so far.

But that does not mean he won’t start new initiatives.

Already, he told me he’s working on an “awesome” art project, borne out of his interest in art and design. He can’t disclose what its about at the moment though.

And given the pattern of his life  — Summly is actually his third iPhone app — I’m not surprised if he has much more in store.

Reflecting on his path so far, he seems cognizant of how fortunate he is to be in this position.

“It’s pretty exciting at the moment to be involved in technology, you can still as a nobody basically and create a company and become successful.”

“I had no contacts in the industry at all, with a bit of luck and a good idea you can kind of get noticed and recognized, that still exists, but i’m not quite sure in ten years time. The market might become too saturated, or too established.”

Here’s how Summly condensed the article:

  • Nick hanging out with SGE at Starbucks.
  • The young entrepreneur hopes to launch it around August 2012.
  • Nick D’Aloisio is a 16-year-old technology prodigy.
  • But like any ordinary teenager from London, he enjoys rugby and cricket, and relishes playing sports with his friends on weekends.
  • “When I released the fact that I was fifteen, they loved that, because that means I was a digital native, and I grew up on the internet, and that generation can see things differently,” he says, “and because they saw my age, they want to help out, to foster me as well as invest in the company, and they got some really good mentors, and advisors, some really high profile people, so I’m really grateful of it.

Special thanks to Khairul Rusydi of Reactor for setting up the interview.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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