VCs price True Knowledge at £20m pre-money. Is this the UK's Powerset?

It’s fairly rare to find VCs clamouring over a startup, virtually throwing term sheets folded into paper aeroplanes through any open window they can find, but this appears to be the situation surrounding UK search company True Knowledge, which only launched late last year.

The chatter I’m hearing is that True Knowledge is being talked about in hushed tones, as if it might be the Powerset of the UK. To put that in context, Google has tried to buy the Silicon Valley search startup several times, and they have only launched a showcase product, not even a real one. However, although True Knowledge and Powerset are similar, they are different in significant ways, more of which later.

I understand that True Knowledge has been given a pre-money valuation of £20m, according to one VC’s term sheet, and the startup – from what I can gather from my sources – is in communication with at least two other VC firms (I’m still in the process of trying to dig out which firms are involved). Of course, I have put this to True Knowledge but they have declined to comment on anything to do with fund-raising. What we do know about True Knowledge though is that early stage private investor group Octopus Ventures put around £600,000 in back in September last year.

But what I have heard makes for an interesting scenario. The idea is to use a large series A round to accelerate the startup to almost Google-like recognition levels in about two years – no small feat.
Currently in private beta, True Knowledge says their product is capable of intelligently answering – in plain English – questions posed on any topic. Ask it if Ben Affleck is married and it will come back with “Yes” rather than lots of web pages which may or may not have the answer (don’t ask me!).

One sign that the startup is on the right track is that they have brought on William Reeve as a non-executive director, a veteran of a number of prominent UK startups who has seen many a profitable exit for all concerned. Reeve co-founded Fletcher Research in 1997, which became the UK’s leading Internet research firm before being acquired by Forrester Research in 1999. In 2003, he co-founded, backed by Index Ventures, Benchmark Capital, and DFJ Esprit. It subsequently merged with LOVEFiLM in mid 2006 and now has operations in five countries. Reeve remains its COO.

The key difference with True Knowledge versus any old search engine is this. It only interrogates structured data, whereas PowerSet is going to look at unstructured documents. That makes True Knowledge more complimentary than competitive to PowerSet.

Here’s why the difference matters. True Knowledge can infer answers that the system hasn’t seen. Inferences are created by combining different bits of data together. So for instance, without knowing the answer it can work out how tall the Eiffel Tower is by inferring that it is shorter that the Empire State Building but higher than St Pauls Cathedral.

Currently True Knowledge is working on an API beta with over 2.1 million geographical places, plus time zones. So in theory web and tele-conferencing services could use this to help you place calls at the right time for both parties across the planet.

AI software developer and entrepreneur William Tunstall-Pedoe is the founder of True Knowledge. He previously developed a technology that can solve a commercially published crossword clues but also explain how the clues work in plain English. See the connection?