Caltech Trustee Gil Elbaz (BS '91) Featured on Forbes.com

If the whole wide world is made of data, then Gil Elbaz might be the first person to map the vast terrain.

He was the brilliant engineering student that Los Angeles would want to keep here now, as the tech economy is currently growing. But when he graduated from Caltech in 1991, he was drawn — as most college grads are — to where the jobs were. And, at that time, they were all in Silicon Valley.

“It certainly wasn’t methodical to leave L.A. I did what everybody did — I went to the interviews that the career center had at Caltech, and just about every interview was for software companies in the Bay Area,” he said.

After college, he ended up at IBM. After learnings at a tech giant, he worked for several other companies — including Sybase and Silicon Graphics, and then founded his first startup — Applied Semantics.

He eventually he sold his first company to Google in 2003. Applied Semantics became the groundwork for Google’s AdSense business. After then, he remained working for Google, eventually returning to L.A. to be Engineering Director at their Santa Monica hub.

In the last few years, big data has become a white hot field for computer scientists and interested parties, who see business opportunities in the data space. It’s all about information and information is what people seek from the Internet. There are smarter conclusions and better decisions and sharper inferences that all can be drawn from better, more accurate, large sets of data.

The trick is to harness it all. That’s what Factual does.

Elbaz launched the company in 2007. “I had this idea for a new data layer for the Internet. The whole world is based on data, and I wanted to bring that into the modern age.”

Factual is an open data platform for application developers that leverages large-scale data.

They aggregate data from millions of sources, clean and standardize the data, and merge, de-duplicate and map the data. Perhaps that sounds simple, but it is sophisticated machine learning at work.

They work with Yelp, Foursquare, Trulia, and many others — to provide better data to those companies and thusly consumers.

He said about their current work, “Much of our focus continues to be around ever-improving accuracy of our Places data. We are trying to be a single source for information about any point on the globe. This is a grand ambition, and there is a lot of work to getting all that information available, perfectly cleaned and structured, on a nearly instantaneous basis through our API.”

Going forward, the company will also focus on a second vertical, launched just last quarter.

“Our new Products data and API offerings currently include over half a million consumer packaged goods along with UPC codes and core attributes.”

That takes care of information about places and products. But the company doesn’t intend to stop there.

He notes the rapid development in the mobile commerce space as an area for expansion.

“Factual provides global, definitive data to other businesses and to application developers. So while we don’t touch the consumer directly, we are having a significant indirect impact.”

“The rate of innovation among mobile application developers is wonderful. We are seeing an acceleration of tools to help consumers access contextually relevant products, services, and offers. We are excited to be among a set of core infrastructure companies that are enablers of this revolution in mobile commerce that is now underway.”

As examples, he pointed out BlockBeacon and Spindle  – two mobile apps that aggregate daily specials and one-off events, such as a local band playing or an author giving a talk — items that have been traditionally promoted in separate areas (i.e. flyers, chalkboards, Facebook, Twitter, restaurant web pages, etc.), but never in a central location. Both apps aim to make this type of information more easily accessible by attaching it to Factual’s Places data and allowing consumers to search for what’s happening today in their specific location.

“Over the next two years people will be shocked by how helpful a mobile device is in making decisions, whether they involve connecting with people, with shopping, generally getting things done, or having fun,” he said.

So that takes care of places, products, and mobile. What else is there? Much more. There are big data sets for medical records, for government records, for random facts. If you think about it — there are facts around almost everything, from the obvious to the obscure.

Upon visiting the Factual office on Avenue of the Stars, the team is eating together and preparing to listen to a lunchtime seminar. Basically, lots of smart people doing cool stuff, who happen to be deeply committed to making the world a more informed place through data science expertise and experimentation.

In terms of its Los Angeles locale — which may not be the first place people expect a hard data company to exist — it’s clear that Elbaz has affection for the L.A. community. He has faith in it.

“Very quickly, data science, big data, and even machine learning are becoming understood as fundamental strengths that any company needs in order to thrive in today’s marketplace,” he said.

“One trick is marrying that capability with other regional strengths including entertainment, but also e-commerce and consumer marketing, online and mobile advertising, cleantech, and biotech.  A successful marriage is one of deep respect and sees the data side of the house as an equal partner that contributes not just analysis and reports, but deep insight about product and strategy.  I think L.A. has a great opportunity to be a hotbed of such successful marriages.”