Demis Hassabis, the CEO of Google DeepMind, has revealed how tough life was while running his previous company, Elixir Studios, in a candid podcast with entrepreneur Rohan Silva and BBC journalist Kamal Ahmed.
Hassabis, a genius who raced through school and had to defer his place on a computer science course at the University of Cambridge because he was too young, said that some of his darkest hours were at his video game company, admitting that it’s probably the closest he’s ever come to burnout.
Asked about the “dark hours” at Elixir on The Disrupters podcast, Hassabis said: “We were working all hours. Ridiculous hours. Every hour there was. My whole team was doing that and it was just not sustainable. I would say we’ll do it for six months and then it would be two years later. It was bad.
“What you realise now is a lot of those hours of pain that we did, didn’t make any difference to the outcome. How is that smart? That is not smart.”
Hassabis, a chess grandmaster by the time he was 13 and a former professional poker player, added: “It was hard. It was six or seven years of 80 or 90 hour weeks every week all year. People were tired and I was quite tired and it was probably the closest I’ve ever been to what people talk about as burnout.”
Founded in 1998, Elixir was a video game developer based on Bayham Street in Camden, London, that wanted to build highly ambitious computer games that were far more technically advanced than anything on the market. The company grew to over 60 people at its peak but it eventually ran out of money.
One of Elixir’s most ambitious games, Republic: The Revolution, tasked a player with creating an ex-Soviet republic and overthrowing a dictator. Hassabis wanted the game to be able to render a whole country in 3D on a normal PC in the late 90s, something that had never been done before.
“We bit off too much,” said Hassabis in the interview, before going on to explain that he simultaneously tried to build his first company, create new graphics engines and new AI engines, and make an artistic statement, all at a relatively young age.
“I was being too idealistic,” he admitted. “There were things I was trying to prove that really had no business in being proven at that juncture.”
He added: “We were way ahead of the hardware and frankly the way the market was. The games overran partly because the games I tried to make were, I now realise, too ambitious. We were too ahead of our time.”
One former Elixir employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “Nobody doubted Demis’s ability but let’s say Demis’ ability to sell things was rather greater than his ability to deliver them.”
The former Elixir employee said that Microsoft wanted to buy Elixir at the height of the dot-com bubble for an “insane amount” of money but Hassabis said no. “It [the acquisition] looked like a good move. Subsequently, my share options ended up being worth zero.”
Elixir’s intellectually property was eventually sold to Rebellion Developments in March 2006 for an undisclosed sum.
Hassabis has recruited several of his former Elixir staff at his DeepMind AI lab, a company he incorporated in 2009 with childhood friend Mustafa Suleyman and university friend Shane Legg after completing a neuroscience PhD at University College London.
David Silver, the cofounder of Elixir, also works at DeepMind, and has previously been referred to as one of the company’s unsung heroes.
Prior to Elixir, Hassabis worked for Peter Molyneux at Bullfrog Productions and Lionhead Studios. When he was just 15-years-old, Hassabis led development on Bullfrog’s Theme Park game, which sold 3 million copies.
Hassabis sold DeepMind to Google in 2014 for £400 million, making himself and some of his former Elixir staff wealthy in the process.