Tech

'Britain's Bill Gates' is facing extradition to the U.S.: Here's all you need to know

Key Points
  • Lynch, 56, sold his software start-up Autonomy to HP in 2011 for $11.7 billion, instantly making him one of the wealthiest and most celebrated tech founders in the U.K.
  • HP's offer was 64% higher than Autonomy's market value and the IT giant's share price on Wall Street collapsed 20% on the day that the deal was announced.
  • One year later, HP announced an $8.8 billion write-down on the company, claiming that "accounting irregularities" led it to pay too much for Autonomy, which sold its data analytics software to businesses.
Mike Lynch, former CEO of Autonomy.
Hollie Adams | Bloomberg via Getty Images

LONDON — Mike Lynch, one of the U.K.'s most notable tech entrepreneurs and a man that has often been referred to as "Britain's Bill Gates," is on the brink of being extradited to the U.S. to face criminal charges related to the sale of his firm Autonomy to Hewlett-Packard.

Lynch, 56, sold his software start-up Autonomy to HP in 2011 for $11.7 billion, instantly making him one of the wealthiest and most celebrated tech founders in the U.K.

HP's offer was 64% higher than Autonomy's market value. The IT giant's share price on Wall Street collapsed 20% on the day that the deal was announced, while Autonomy's soared by over 70%.

One year later, HP announced an $8.8 billion write-down on the company, claiming that "accounting irregularities" led it to pay too much for Autonomy, which sold data analytics software to businesses.

HP's main accusation is that Autonomy's execs inflated the company's revenues by around $700 million and it sued for $5 billion. Lynch counter-sued, leading to a highly complex legal battle that has been rumbling on for a decade.

There are signs, however, that things could be drawing to a close.

Crux moment in the legal battle

On Friday, U.K. Home Office Minister Priti Patel approved Lynch's extradition to the U.S. Earlier that day, a British judge ruled in favor of HP in a civil case against Lynch over claims he plotted to inflate the value of Autonomy before it was bought by HP.

HP won the majority of the charges, Justice Robert Hildyard said, though the damages would be significantly lower than the $5 billion sought by the company.

Lynch wouldn't be the first Autonomy employee to be charged in the U.S. In May 2019, former CFO Sushovan Hussain was charged with fraud and jailed for five years.

A spokesperson for HP told CNBC Monday that the company is happy with the judge's ruling.

"Dr. Lynch and Mr. Hussain defrauded and deliberately misled the market and Hewlett-Packard," they said.

"HPE is pleased that the judge has held them accountable."

Lynch's lawyers did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment but they are reportedly planning to appeal the rulings and the process could take 12 months, according to legal experts. If his appeal is unsuccessful then he could face a 20-year prison sentence.

Some in the U.K. tech industry including Lastminute.com co-founder Brent Hoberman don't believe Lynch should be extradited.

"Is it the right thing that a U.K. businessman operating under U.K. laws is extradited to the U.S.? I don't believe it is, and I don't think other business people will think so either," Hoberman told The Sunday Times newspaper.

Hoberman, who asked Lynch to speak at his Founders Forum event last summer, described the Autonomy founder as "an iconic figure for U.K. tech," according to the newspaper report.

After writing off three quarters of Autonomy's value, HP sold what was left of the company to British firm Micro Focus in September 2016 as part of an $8.8 billion deal that involved other HP business units.

"It's a sad thing that happened in the end," Lynch said at a tech conference in 2016. "The U.K. model is there's no way of stopping a takeover. So when Hewlett Packard came along and wanted to make its offer, we couldn't stop them."

He added: "The problem was the week after the deal they [HP's leaders] get fired and we're left with a hardware group that used to call us the step-child. All the understanding of clever, high growth, software people wasn't there."

The U.S. is also trying to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the U.K. Assange is wanted by U.S. authorities over the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified military documents and diplomatic cables in 2010 and 2011. They say his actions put lives in danger and they accuse him of 18 counts, meaning he faces a 175-year prison sentence.

Earlier this month, Assange won the right to take his extradition case to the U.K.’s top court.

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Blame Game: HP vs. Autonomy

Following the sale of Autonomy, Lynch went on to set up Invoke Capital, a $1 billion-plus venture capital firm that has invested in European tech start-ups like cybersecurity firm Darktrace and life sciences company Sophia Genetics.

Over the last few years, Lynch has stepped back from his public activities. He left the board of Darktrace, and stopped being an advisor to the British government. He also used to be a non-executive member of the BBC's executive board.

In addition to his legal fight, Lynch has several hobbies that keep him busy. In an interview in 2016, the entrepreneur said he spends a lot of time learning and caring for rare animals, such as Red Poll cattle, at his home in Suffolk, England.

"I keep rare breeds," Lynch told LeadersIn during an interview. "So I have cows that became defunct in the 1940s and pigs that no one has kept since the medieval times and none of them have any Apple products whatsoever."

Humble beginnings

Born on the outskirts of London in Essex on June 16, 1965, Lynch had fairly humble beginnings. His mother was a nurse and his father was a fireman.

Lynch said that his father regretted not having the chance to go to university. "He realized the importance of education so that was something that was very much fostered in my home," Lynch told LeadersIn.

At the age of 11, Lynch won a scholarship to attend the exclusive Bancroft's School, which today charges standard pupils who aren't on a scholarship £19,761 ($26,569) a year. At school he was a keen musician and a member of a five-piece jazz band.

Lynch went on to attend the prestigious University of Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences, focusing on areas including electronics, mathematics and biology. After completing his undergraduate degree, Lynch did a PhD in signals processing and communications.

Toward the end of the 1980s, with his studies complete, Lynch founded a business called Lynett Systems Ltd, which produced designs and audio products for the music industry. One product included a sampler for Atari ST computers known as the Lynex. That was followed by the ADAS sampler for Atari, Mac, and PC.

A few years later, in the early 1990s, Lynch founded a fingerprint recognition business called Cambridge Neurodynamics, which counted South Yorkshire Police among its customers.

But his big break came with Autonomy, which he co-founded in 1996 with David Tabizel and Richard Gaunt as a spinoff from Cambridge Neurodynamics.

The company, which scaled into one of Britain's biggest tech firms, began by launching a virtual dog for consumers that was designed to take commands and help people manage information as they browsed the internet.

The virtual dog — based on Lynch's otterhound, Gromit — proved to be very popular with businesses, who paid for access to the technology in large numbers. This, coupled with the fact there were a growing number of free consumer products online, convinced Lynch to focus on corporates. It was a key strategic decision that paid off.

Autonomy's software, made up of pattern-matching algorithms, was touted as something that could help employees to abstract meaning from a jumble of information.

After initially floating on the Easdaq exchange in Brussels in 1998, Autonomy went on to list shares on New York's Nasdaq stock market and the London Stock Exchange in 2000.

It experienced the full boom and bust of the dotcom bubble.