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Exclusive: $10m a month, celebrity marketers and a Las Vegas launch disaster: Behind the scenes at fallen unicorn Wejo

Wejo's AV at the 2022 Data in the Desert event, courtesy

Few involved with the North’s tech industry can have failed to notice the dramatic fall from grace of erstwhile tech unicorn Wejo, which filed notice of intent to enter administration with the US SEC last week having seemingly run out of cash.

Nasdaq-listed Wejo had achieved coveted unicorn status – one of just 44 UK tech companies valued at $1bn+ at the time – following its November 2021 reverse merger with Virtuoso, and counted GM and Microsoft among its key backers and partners.

By the time of last week’s notice, the company’s valuation was below $10m, with shares hovering around the $0.10 mark, and at the time of writing this had sunk to $0.065 after a year and a half in which Wejo had at times burnt through around $10m a month. Trading in Wejo’s shares is expected to be suspended from Friday following Nasdaq notification. 

It had successfully reduced this figure to around $6m a month by last week’s notice, and anticipated a further 50 per cent reduction to $3m by the end of this year. With all staff instructed to stop work with immediate effect last week while the directors seek a buyer, whether it will get the opportunity to register this achievement is very much open to debate.

Since the firm announced its administration plans last week, Prolific North has spoken to a number of former senior members of the Wejo team, all of whom agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, about just what went wrong at this one time darling of the UK tech scene.

They recounted tales of high-profile celebrity marketers on near-six-figure monthly fees paid to hype the company around its listing; of six-figure sums paid for articles in Forbes, only for reality to reveal that the article was in fact published in the franchised Forbes Monaco.

That title itself folded soon after, so the costly vanity publishing project doesn’t even survive for posterity in cyberspace.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of a company out of control, however, comes in the form of the tale of the Wejo Autonomous Vehicle, aka DLIVEREE, a vehicle that was developed to both develop and demonstrate Wejo’s Autonomous Vehicle Operating System (AV-OS).

Our sources tell us that DLIVEREE began life with the creation of a £0.5m off-site research facility in Wigan codenamed Skunk Works – possibly in homage to Lockheed Martin’s top secret rapid prototyping arm of the same name, which is thought to date back to the Second World War and was formerly known as Lockheed Advanced Development Projects.

Skunk Works’ aim was to develop Wejo’s autonomous vehicle prototype and Wejo CEO Richard Barlow, a big Formula One fan, gathered some of his most qualified pistonhead friends and acquaintances to tackle the task at hand.

“What came out of the other end was basically a half-million-pound radio-controlled car,” one source revealed.

“The LiDAR cameras that were on top of the car, they aided the vehicle seeing the road ahead, they’re the eyes, receiving LiDAR three dimensional radar. They were held onto the top with gaffer tape. The whole thing was built on a KIA chassis, and they bought an autonomous vehicle kit from a company in Silicon Valley.”

Of course it wouldn’t be the first time a prototype had featured some make-do-and-mend improvisation, particularly in the storied world of eccentric British inventors.

There was just one small problem – this prototype was being shipped to Las Vegas a few days later for Wejo’s Summer 2022 Data In The Desert event, launching the prototype in the Nevada Desert at a cost, our sources tell us, of another £500,000, complete with business class travel for all and decorative racing drivers in attendance.

One source added: “The writing’s on the wall in terms of ineptitude when the printed panels to go on the vehicle turn up and they’re about 50 per cent too big. To be stuck on the car, they basically had to manually cut them to fit, rather than reprint them which would’ve taken too long. We had a testing day in Wigan at Three Sisters [racetrack], and it was a bag of shit. Bear in mind, the following day we were shipping this thing to Vegas for a launch.

“And here’s the rub – It ‘was’ autonomous, as long as somebody was inside it with an XBox controller, being fed instructions from somebody externally with the LiDAR setup in front of them.”

With the launch imminent, our sources tell us that even the company’s own PRs, on seeing the completed prototype, told them “we can’t let anybody near this thing,” but matters appeared to be in hand: “We’d picked a date that was in tune with a major event in Vegas that everybody in the industry would be at, so only about 20 people turned up, it was a fucking disaster.” Or perhaps not, if the idea was for nobody to see the finished product anyway?

Data in the Desert,
Data in the Desert,

For the 20 or so who did make the journey out to the desert, there was still a further dose of slapstick to come.

“At one point, to get the door open, we had to get the mechanic to come in and prise the door open to let the person out who was melting inside in the 40-degree desert.”

Another member of the team involved with building the prototype puts a less humorous, but equally valid spin on things: “The autonomous vehicle software we were building definitely had potential, but it just wasn’t ready,” they told us. “It was a good two years away from being ready. We went all the way to Vegas, and there was really no return on that investment.”

What should be emphasised, despite the clear exasperation of some of the former Wejo staffers we spoke to, is that at no point did any of the sources we spoke to appear to hold any animosity towards Barlow, the company’s senior management or Wejo itself.

From the employees we spoke to, the overriding impression was of a leadership high on ideas, but low on execution, of flitting from one high concept to another without really completing the concept that had just been flitted from, and of a fundamental lack of oversight ultimately resulting in the sort of cash haemorrhage that, outside of the tech bubble, would probably have brought another company to its knees long before last week.

One source told us: “One element of Wejo that I’m definitely proud of is we were very mindful of data privacy and data consent. All this may be a shock, from a financial perspective, but we had the highest levels of security, there’s none of what you might think could come with that.

“We were tight. We made sure all the data that we received was consented, and we’ve got all the security wrappers around that data space. That’s something that I think we’re all individually particularly proud of. Whatever else may have happened we weren’t sharks with the data, or lax with the data. So most of it’s bad, but not all.”

Prolific North has attempted to contact Wejo for comment.


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