Nick D’Aloisio The Genius

In 2011, a 15-year-old Wimbledon schoolboy, Nick D’Aloisio, received a strange-looking email supposedly written on behalf of a Hong Kong billionaire. “It sounded dodgy,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I didn’t respond first time.” Fortunately, his correspondent was persistent and tried again. It turned out to be Li Ka-shing, the tycoon behind the giant conglomerate, Hutchison Whampoa.
It soon transpired that Li’s investment people at Horizon Ventures were in the dark about whom they’d been emailing to discuss an app that had appeared in Apple’s App store. Called Trimit, it offered subscribers a neat news summary by compressing long pieces of text into a few key sentences. The information that had been listed by its developer spoke of a London technology company.
“It failed to mention that the company’s management and technology teams – in fact, its entire workforce – consisted of a single kid in a suburban bedroom who wasn’t yet old enough to drive.”
A few months later, D’Aloisio attended a slightly surreal meeting with Horizon Ventures, accompanied by his parents, which resulted in a seed investment of $300,000. After that things got even crazier. When D’Aloisio released an improved version, renamed Summly, it caught the attention of a raft of celebrities. By the time D’Aloisio was 17, his company was snapped up by Yahoo for $30m. Just as well that his mother, a lawyer, was there to sort out the contracts.
D’Aloisio, who started designing iPhone apps when he was 12, learned to programme almost entirely by himself. Given that kind of dedication, you might assume he was “a geeky specimen… prone to mumbling, averse to eye contact”, says The Wall Street Journal. Think again.
As one early backer point outs, D’Aloisio – who can confidently expound on everything from Chomsky’s theories to the Buddhist concept of jnana – also has the power to “captivate a room”. No wonder Yahoo wanted him so badly (see below).
Having spent 18 months on and off in California working on the app’s latest iteration, D’Aloisio is back in Britain, reading computer science and philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford. He’s very happy, says The Guardian. “You’re meeting really intelligent people who have completely different interests. What I find refreshing at Oxford, compared to somewhere like Stanford, is that computer science is seen as very theoretical or mathematical, it’s not seen as entrepreneurial. In the Valley everyone cares about making money; at Oxford they’re the opposite.”
D’Aloisio was bowled over when Jeremy Paxman mentioned Summly on University Challenge, says Wired. “It was one of my favourite things, I freaked out.” How nice it is to know that ridiculously talented and overachieving teenage multi-millionaires “can still get excited about Paxman”.

The next big change in tech

Nick D’Aloisio’s aim when he uploaded his app was to earn enough to buy a new computer, says Seth Stevenson in The Wall Street Journal. Now he is “changing the way we read”. Don’t worry – we’re in the hands of an expert. “He has an eerie maturity,” says Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School, Wimbledon, where D’Aloisio cut his linguistic teeth on Latin and Mandarin.
He went on to become fascinated by concepts such as grammatical frameworks, morpheme parsing and the 1960s work of linguist Richard Montague, who “theorised that natural language could be described like a syntactical programming language”. Throw in “his youth, his energy and his undeniable it-factor” and it’s clear D’Aloisio was the ultimate “acqui-hire” for the once “musty” Yahoo – “the person being bought” was “just as important as the product”.
The app’s latest version, Yahoo News Digest, offers two daily news briefings, at 8am and 6pm, containing summaries of stories from across the web, says James Vincent in The Independent. Yahoo claims it’s “algorithmically produced, but editorially curated” – a “blend of technology and journalism”. The app is designed to mimic the traditional newspaper cycle, because we need something more “definitive” than “infinite streams of information”, says Ian Tucker in The Guardian. “There is this visceral moment where people throw away newspapers, which was totally missing in digital.”
D’Aloisio’s new project, says Liat Clark in Wired, “is to shrink that simplicity down further”, translating the minimalist design of the app “to an even more refined alternative” for the Apple Watch. “Wearables are a massive catalyst for shortform content,” he says. But the challenges are big. “What does a person really want when they look at their watch?” At best you have “a five-to-ten second window”. It will be interesting to see his solution when the Apple Watch launches in March.