An Improbable investment: Why did SoftBank just invest $502m in a breakthrough UK start-up?

12 May 2017

London’s Smithfield Market, near where Improbable is based. Image: Cedric Weber/Shutterstock

SoftBank is behind a massive investment in Improbable.

London software start-up Improbable, which has created a platform for building virtual and simulated worlds, has raised $502m in a Series B round led by Japan’s SoftBank.

The investment is one of the largest of its kind in an early-stage European software start-up.

‘Along with machine learning and IoT, Improbable’s distributed computation technology represents a critical next frontier in computing’

Series A investors Andreessen Horowitz and Horizons Ventures also participated in the round.

The company, which is located beside London’s Smithfield Market, was set up just five years ago by Cambridge computer science students Herman Narula and Rob Whitehead.

Their platform enables third parties such as games developers, civil engineers and architects to create virtual worlds.

London start-up Improbable raises $502m in monster funding round

Improbable’s technology holds the key to the future of new category-defining games. Image: Improbable

The secret sauce is its SpatialOS operating system. For example, game developers can build and develop bigger multiplayer games faster and with smaller teams, while architects designing smart cities or transport networks can develop realistic simulations of new rail networks or motorways. Other uses include simulating future telecoms networks and the behaviours of fleets of autonomous vehicles.

SpatialOS has been in live beta since March.

The company has also forged a partnership with Google to put its system on the cloud, enabling users to build a virtual environment without having to own vast server infrastructure.

The valuation of Improbable has not been disclosed but the SoftBank-led investment is understood to be for a minority share in the company.

The next frontier of computing

All the funds will be invested in developing Improbable’s technology, including SpatialOS. Improbable’s plans include accelerated recruitment in its London and San Francisco offices, and investments to develop a vibrant ecosystem of developers and customers.

“We believe that the next major phase in computing will be the emergence of large-scale virtual worlds, which enrich human experience and change how we understand the real world,” said Narula, CEO of the company.

“At Improbable, we have spent the last few years building the foundational infrastructure for this vision,” he added.

Narula believes Improbable is already a game-changer for the gaming industry.

“The global games market is already huge, and we believe that far more growth is possible. The kinds of games enabled by SpatialOS – multiplayer games allowing players to form meaningful relationships with games worlds and with each other – will be category-defining, and attract new audiences.”

For real-world applications, proofs of concept and pilot projects have included the simulation of the internet’s backbone as well as an entire UK city in terms of traffic, gas and electricity, water and sewage, internet, and mobile connectivity data.

“Improbable is building breakthrough technologies that are becoming vital, and valuable platforms for the global gaming industry,” said Deep Nishar, managing director of SoftBank.

“Beyond gaming, this new form of simulation on a massive scale has the potential to help us make better decisions about the world we live in. Improbable’s technology will help us explore disease, improve cities, understand economies and solve complex problems on a previously unimaginable scale.

“Along with machine learning and IoT, Improbable’s distributed computation technology represents a critical next frontier in computing.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years