The rock star of smartphone innovationComment on this story
London - Without knowing it, millions of people around the world use Hossein Yassaie’s technology every day. His name, and that of Imagination Technologies, is never emblazoned on the sides of gadgets or across billboards alongside the likes of Apple or Google.
Nor is he a “tech pin-up”, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Steve Jobs or Google supremo Larry Page.
Nevertheless, everyone who uses an iPhone, or any of the smartphones available on the market, owes a significant debt of gratitude to the 55-year-old Iranian.
The casing, the software, and the final devices may be Apple’s or Google’s or Samsung’s, but the brains of the gadgets - from the graphics to the processing power - are designed by Imagination.
“We put the ‘smart’ into a lot of these devices,” he says. “Phones weren’t smart until they started using our technology.”
When he joined Imagination - then called VideoLogic - it was a small company with 40 members of staff that built technology used in Microsoft’s DOS system, the forerunner to Windows.
Two decades later he employs more than 1,100 people across 12 countries in a company with a market value of £1.7bn and fingers in every technological pie going.
Equally impressive is the group’s customer list, which doubles as a Who’s Who of the high-tech world.Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Intel, Research in Motion, Sharp, Sony, LG and Fujitsu are just some of those who pay to use the firm’s intelligence.
So wide is the spread that Hossein refuses to talk about individual customers or cases, for fear of upsetting their rivals.
Rather than making the chips that go in the devices, Imagination designs the Intellectual Property - or IP - for the chips.
It sells this brain-like function to chip makers, who pay to use the technology.
When each finished device is shipped to market, the group receives further royalty payments - getting a second bite of the cherry. Even though it collects less than a dollar for each item, the sheer volume of products sold means the group can still rake in hefty sums. Between May and October last year - the most recently available figures - royalty revenues came to £23.6m.
This combined with other revenue streams to give the company a half-year pre-tax profit of £10.4m. Some 10 years ago Yassaie also kick-started the digital radio market by launching the Pure brand.
It, too, has grown since inception, and now provides four out of every five digital radios sold in the world.
In a dark suit, shirt and tie, Yassaie is quietly assured. He only raises his hands occasionally to illustrate points, the rest of the time fidgeting with his pen.
When he gets most animated is talking about the need to energise British youngsters to become the next wave of technological entrepreneurs.
Even though he says he is not religious, it is a subject about which he is evangelical. He says: “There are not many children in the UK that by the age of ten want to be the next technology leader.
“A lot of them would like to be the next rock star or X-Factor star or football star. We go into the schools and tell them they could be technology rock stars.”
He is therefore pleased that the number of people studying physics has gone up - “the more the merrier”.
But the UK still has a long way to go to bridge the 5,000-mile gap with Silicon Valley.
He adds: “What’s the difference between here and the US? If you drive on Route 101 through Silicon Valley all you need to do is look either side and there are big brands. If you live there you are exposed to this - there’s an ecosystem. “Some of the American companies are started when a couple of kids get together and do amazing things.
“The talent is here in the UK - we have some of the best engineers - but linking them to the market and exploiting it; that’s the key thing.”
He adds: “We need to allow people to be ambitious. I’ll put my neck on the block by saying this, but in the UK success is sort of never positively talked about.”
Raised in Iran, his first brush with technology was at the age of four.
He said: “I remember I got electrocuted when I was four years old after sticking my hands into a huge radio with valves in it and trying to work out what was going on.
“So I ended up permanently interested in computers and computer science”.
After leaving the country to come to the UK in 1976, he was told he could not attend university without having passed his A levels.
“I wouldn’t have it, so I came in January and took my A levels in July that year,” he says.
After studying computer science at Nottingham University, he worked as a consultant for BT before joining micro-processor group Imos.
“I remember back then if you said you have this grand plan the first reaction you get is ‘are you really sure?’ or ‘how about cutting it down to something really small?’. We need the opposite in Britain - we need to encourage people to go for it.”
The growth miracle at Imagination, under Yassaie’s tenure, is proof that it can be done.
Yassaie transformed a small firm with 40 employees into a £1.7bn tech giant. - Daily Mail