Web searching gets personal for Israeli teen


In an attempt to organize the Web experience on a whole new level, 19-year-old Daniel Gross and his $4.7 million budding company have created a personalized search toolbar to index and sort through all of the user’s online data.

“More and more people in the world are approaching this point where a lot of information you have is online on a bunch of different websites,” Gross said, reminiscent for the times when computer users could just press “Control+F” and find necessary information on their computer hard drives. “What hit me hard was events,” he added, frustrated that a whole host of places, like Evite, Facebook and Gmail, could all contain different appointments and social gatherings.

The result – a free tool called “Greplin,” which allows subscribers to add as many websites as desired to their accounts so that the program can search through all the data in one place. If a user knows he or she had scheduled a meeting at a local coffee shop, for example, but can neither remember the time of the meeting nor where that information was stored, Greplin’s goal is to provide a quick answer.

Greplin – whose name comes from a combination of the words “grep,” a programming term used in search utilities, and “zeppelin,” the online “cloud,” or network – currently has around $700,00 worth of angel investments and about $4 million in series A (first round) finances.

“More and more of the information we have and consume is not sitting on our hard-dive – it’s on some other service,” Gross said. “Why can’t I have this box and type text into it and get results about items that I own on the Internet?” “If you think of Google, it’s a great way to search the public Internet – we’re primarily building a ‘Google’ but for your things,” he added.

Gross, who for the last 15 months has been living in San Francisco, was born and raised in Jerusalem, after his parents made aliya from America. After finishing high school in Israel, he successfully applied for a grant from Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley seed funder for start-ups.

“Y Combinator is boot camp for start-ups,” Gross said, explaining that participants are generally awarded investments between $12,000 and $20,000. “The goal is for you to take that money and go through this three-month program where they give you basic building blocks on how to be a good company.”

The idea that Gross originally used in his grant application was not Greplin, however, but a website like eBay with a social networking structure so that buyers and sellers could see what their friends’ consumer patterns were. This concept then evolved into yet another idea, which in turn ended up not working at the last minute, toward the end of the grant period. So Gross said he needed to quickly think of something else to impress the judges – representatives from various investment groups that were coming to learn about that season’s Y Combinator projects.

“I essentially built a basic form of Greplin in the last 48 hours,” Gross said, and this basic model had surprising success with the investors who attended the March 2010 event.

Deciding he wanted to expand upon the idea, Gross said he joined up six months ago with company co-founder Robby Walker, an intellectual phenomenon who began college at nine years old and had a PhD by age 20, who at the time was working at Google and had done Y Combinator in the past.

“People like him have this desire to build things,” Gross said. “They love building products.”

Greplin launched an initial public version of the website in November, but because “a lot of people tried to use it,” the site “crashed” and had to be restructured, Gross said. Since then, he explained, the site has been “re-launched a million times before it worked,” but now is working properly.

The company’s most recent developments include a $4 million investment fromSequoia Capital that closed in December and went public in February, along with the hiring of three new employees.

“Greplin has the potential to be a killer app,” said Dr.

Andre Oboler, social media expert and director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia.

“What it adds is the convenience of everything in one place, while at the same time asserting its independence.

With the larger players already having so much information on each of us, the last thing we need is for them to be aggregating our data.

Greplin lets the user enjoy the benefits of aggregation without the need for crosssharing between platforms. I have no doubt that Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and other sites will soon start competing for this space, but personally, I’d much rather trust Greplin.

“Greplin is carving an important niche for itself in a market where there is decreasing trust in the major players.

As an independent aggregation of personal information, Greplin has the potential to put the customer first, and that may prove to be a major commercial advantage.”

Greplin never actually gets to see users’ passwords on their various online accounts being searched, because similar to what occurs in Facebook “app” usage, the subscriber grants Greplin access through each individual site – upon adding Facebook to the index, for example, a Facebook page will pop up asking the user if he or she wants to grant access to Greplin, according to Gross. The same occurs on websites like Gmail, Dropbox, Microsoft Exchange and Twitter, and the technical term for such a process is called “OAuth,” which standards for Open Authorization.

“We have never stored a single password,” Gross said.

While basic usage is free, Greplin is now beginning to charge ($5 and $15 monthly plans) for storing more data and adding certain “premium” sites to user indexes, those that required “quite a bit of computational force” on the part of the Greplin staff, Gross explained. One such site would be Salesforce, which offers businesses massive customer relationship management tools, according to Gross.

“Is it something that business users will have a tendency to use? Is it very expensive for us to index?” Gross said were some the questions that go into deciding if a site should be considered “premium.”

Asked whether the public should be expecting anything new from Greplin in the near future, he responded, “We don’t have any solid product launches coming up in the next few days but we will soon.”

Gross’s interest and skills in computer science stem back to his childhood.

“I was sort of always interested in this as a kid and my father is a computer science teacher in Israel,” Gross said.

“I was always curious and I had the tools to learn.”

Attending university to accrue even more such tools is “on the list of things I have to do,” Gross added, noting that “there seems something to be gained by having education in the arts that I don’t have” – so he plans to apply to college, though not tomorrow.

“My parents are Jewish, so I think I have to,” he said, laughing.

Gross wouldn’t comment on how he is dealing with his requirement to serve in the IDF. He has no immediate plans to return to Israel but he said that he had initially expected to come back right away and still remains surprised that he didn’t.

“I constantly thought to myself I’d be back a month later and then three months later,” Gross said. “But once we actually took funding, I realized I couldn’t just back out. I have other people’s money invested in the success of my company.”

When asked to give a statement about Gross’s case and his obligation to enlist, the IDF Spokesman’s Office said he “did not show up for induction and is currently out of the country. Upon his return to Israel, he’ll be handled by the relevant authorities.”

By Sharon Udasin


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Vying for control of the Temple Mount – on Foursquare

CIE’s Director, Dr Andre Oboler, explains to Sharon Udasin of the Jerusalem Post why the popular US application “four square” is likely to be a hit in Jerusalem. He also warns that geo-location services are not for everyone, and some people should think twice before broad casting their movements.

Vying for control of the Temple Mount – on Foursquare

By Sharon Udasin, Jerusalem Post,  December 16, 2010.

The popular geo-location smartphone application takes hold in Jerusalem.

For Ariela Ross, being the “mayor” of Al-Aksa Mosque and the Old City’s entire Muslim and Christian Quarters is quite natural – as these are the places where she spends much of her spare time.

With 66 total “check-ins” as of Wednesday afternoon, Al-Aksa’s coveted mayorship currently remains in Ross’s hands through her own nine check-ins on the increasingly popular smartphone application called Foursquare, which allows users to tell their friends exactly where they are at any given time.

The app – which has 4 million users worldwide – maintains a history of who has gone where, also providing users with a platform where they can share and view tips about local destinations, according to GPS. The mayor of a site is the person who has checked in there the most times.

“You can see where the party’s going on, what’s a good restaurant to go to and where to avoid if you don’t want to meet people,” says Ross, whose mayorship at the Western Wall and in the Jewish Quarter was recently ended by a user named “Gavin S.”

While Foursquare has been trendy in the US since its release in March 2009 and has also become fairly popular in Tel Aviv and the country’s hitech center, it has only begun to take hold in Jerusalem recently, users find. As in Silicon Valley and New York City, people are generally more attached to their iPhones, Blackberries and Androids in the tech-savvy Tel Aviv and Haifa regions, says Ross, who herself works in hi-tech.

But experts predict that now that Foursquare has caught on here, it has the potential for the rapid growth that American cities have seen.

“Jerusalem is particularly active with events, lectures, launches, think tanks and international gatherings. It’s also a very small city with people who know each other and meet regularly even without the aid of technology,” says Dr. Andre Oboler, social media expert and director of the Community Internet Engagement Project. “In this environment the use of Foursquare and similar services can take off with viral growth. Adding to this is the regular flow of American tourists and longer term students.”

Even among Jerusalem’s currently close-knit group of users, competition is already fierce.

“I’ve noticed a few people checking into places that they’re not exactly at,” says Ross, who herself has 40 mayorships, most of which are in Jerusalem.

“I’ve been fighting with Jewlicious for a couple mayorships,” she adds, referring to fellow Jerusalemite and Foursquare user David Abitbol, who runs Jewlicious, a blog geared toward Jewish 20- and 30- somethings.

Ross says that she and Abitbol are battling at the moment over Al-Aksa Mosque and the Basher cheese shop inside Mahaneh Yehuda market.

“He currently has Basher – he just got back from a trip oversees and within two days he got it back,” Ross says. “It’s just a fun little thing but it’s a game in the end.”

While Abitbol agrees that running after virtual titles is silly and calls anyone with over 20 mayorships “crazy” – he has only 13 – he remains pretty angry when anyone impinges upon his own territories.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was at a place and then got an alert that one of the usual suspects just checked in, when in fact they were nowhere to be found,” Abitbol says.

“I live near the shouk [Mahaneh Yehuda] and every time I go there, I check in. Some people have begged me to not check in so that they can be mayor, others have bypassed that process and simply created duplicate entries.”

Abitbol is currently mayor of the shouk, leading the total 511 check-ins with his 22.

But it turns out that much more than the mere satisfaction of earning a mayorship title drives people – and companies – to take part in this game.

“For businesses, when somebody checks in, it gets broadcasted to all of their friends,” Ross says. “It’s another way to get the word out, it’s another marketing tool.”

Oboler adds, “Foursquare is all about where you are and what you and your friends are doing. Unless of course you are a business, in which case the key is who your customers are, where they are and when they are there.”

Oboler says that in addition to local restaurants and shops, larger offices like the Tourism Ministry could easily make use of Foursquare to attract visitors to various destinations within Jerusalem. But he warns that like other geo-location and social media tools, spreading information about oneself also “poses a serious security risk to certain individuals and types of individuals,” particularly to people like soldiers.

But security risks aside, Jerusalem users hope that yet another American trend will catch on here – namely, the willingness of local businesses to provide secret coupons and special offers to frequent checkin guests and mayors of their locations.

“In the US, some venues offer mayors or people who check in there inducements to do so – like free food or discounts,” Abitbol says. “In Israel that aspect has yet to catch on, but people still get a little crazy.”

Meanwhile, however, users like Abitbol and Ross will continue to enjoy frequenting their favorite spots, some of which are far more holy – and far more contentious – in real life than any smartphone game could reveal.

“I’ve spent so much time at these places,” Ross says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I own the Kotel.’ It’s a fun little joke, but it doesn’t take away from the experience. Think of it as a virtual world.”

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