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Tech entrepreneur Gil Elbaz made it big in L.A.

After leaving Silicon Valley, Gil Elbaz co-founded a company that Google bought and used to create AdSense. His current venture, online-data aggregator and organizer Factual, is based in Century City.

February 05, 2012|By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times
  • "Every day counts. Even the days that you fail count, says entrepreneur Gil Elbaz, whose latest venture aggregates and organizes online information.
"Every day counts. Even the days that you fail count, says entrepreneur… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

The gig: Gil Elbaz is founder and chief executive of Factual Inc., a Century City company that aggregates and organizes huge amounts of online data. Factual, started in 2007, has attracted $25 million in venture funding.

Claim to fame: He co-founded Applied Semantics Inc., which built technology that connects related online content. Google used it to create its landmark AdSense product that automatically displays advertisements based on a Web page's content.

Google bought Applied Semantics in 2003 for $102 million. Elbaz was 32.

Early years: By age 4, Elbaz, who grew up in Cincinnati and San Antonio, loved all things data. The first thing he got hooked on was books of lists, particularly almanacs filled with weather data. He charted the numbers, calculated daily averages and gambled against his family on weather trends.

"It was always about numbers for me, and it drove my parents crazy," he said. "They weren't mathematicians. All I ever wanted them to do was create problem sets for me, so I could do them and get them graded."

Renaissance engineer: Unlike many of his peers at Caltech, Elbaz had no particular ambition while studying there. "Caltech was just a fun place to spread my wings a little bit and be with other people who were somewhat more like me."

He didn't intend to pursue a doctorate or become a professor, but he did play junior varsity basketball and run with the cross-country team. "It's funny, because Caltech is thought of as the opposite of a well-rounded place. But for me, I got to be much more well-rounded."

Perspective: Elbaz spent a summer during college selling $1,400 Kirby vacuums door to door. He learned that if he spent an hour giving a great demonstration, 1 out of every 10 people would buy and he'd earn a $200 commission. He motivated himself to work incredibly hard by telling himself he was earning $20 for each presentation.

"That was the key: to remember that every day counts. Even the days that you fail count just as much. That each attempt gets you one step closer to success."

Thinking big: After graduation, Elbaz hopped from job to job, working on databases for companies such as IBM. By 1994, he was bouncing ideas around with Adam Weissman, a good friend from Caltech.

"We kept thinking: What's something huge and exciting that we could work on?" he said. "Some ideas seemed too easy, like selling books on the Web, where, ultimately, the person that's going to win is the marketer, and it's not as much about the technology."

No way but L.A.: In 1998, Elbaz did the opposite of what just about every tech entrepreneur was doing: He left venture-capital-rich Silicon Valley to start a tech company.

"I had very little experience and track record, so I had no connections to the venture capital world. So I was a guy with a cool idea but no VC behind me." He returned to L.A., where he co-founded Oingo, which eventually became Applied Semantics.

Small world: In 2002, the company caught the attention of Google. Elbaz didn't need an introduction to the search engine's founders — he had met them several years earlier through Caltech friends. "It never hurts for people to know who you are. It helps that the world's so small."

In it for the ride: After the acquisition, Elbaz co-directed Google's Santa Monica branch for four years. But he loved the roller coaster of start-ups, and technology he needed to develop an idea he had in his back pocket was finally cheap enough.

His aim with Factual is to create "the most comprehensive" databases. "Anybody working on any project should have a pathway to getting the knowledge they need — whether it's to do research or answer a question or build a whole company around it."

Data philanthropist: Building on his lifelong love of aggregating data, his nonprofit Common Crawl Foundation "seeks to make a copy of the Web accessible to a data scientist, or to a start-up or to a researcher or to an analyst that just wants to improve the world."

Elbaz also invests in nonprofits such as the X-Prize Foundation and runs a family foundation, focusing on the environment and education.

"This country desperately needs more solutioneers," he said. "And it starts with education."

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