This American success story is Israeli at heart

Tomer Kagan, Israeli-born CEO of Quixey, explains why he’s scouting a Tel Aviv location for his fast-growing app search engine.

In typical American success story style, California resident Tomer Kagan worked his way through college printing t-shirts in his garage, and went on to be named one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” notables in 2011.

Yet, Kagan is not a typical American. Born in Israel 30 years ago, he moved with his parents and older brother to Sunnyvale, California, when he was four years old. The Kagans spoke Hebrew at home in their heavily Israeli neighborhood, and the boys were active in the North American branch of Tzofim Israel Scouts as well as the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO).

That Israeli undercurrent runs strongly through his present company, the popular app search engine Quixey, one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley.

“I met my cofounder, Liron Shapira, in BBYO,” Kagan tells ISRAEL21c. “It gets even weirder: Our first investor in Quixey was Dan Appleman, who was our first adviser in BBYO. And we ended up hiring a lot of past presidents of our chapter. Plus, I’ve been running an internship program in the last four years, and our interns are all past members of BBYO.”

So it’s not surprising that Kagan was recently in Israel to find a Tel Aviv-area location for Quixey’s planned Israel branch.

Though some press reports have referred to this branch as a research-and-development center, that is not Kagan’s intention.

“We’ll open an Israel operation, not just R&D,” he emphasizes. “We’re looking to take Israel very seriously as an arm of Quixey. The kind of work we do requires individualistic thinking about the future of the Internet. We’re seeking people who think a little differently to tackle really hard problems, and Israel has a lot of those kinds of people.”

The future of the Internet

With a crew of 90 in Mountainview, California, Quixey powers app discovery – more than 100 million queries every month — for the world’s largest mobile manufacturers, app stores, carriers and search engines. Partners include Sprint, Nokia, Ask.com and Microsoft.

In October, Quixey landed a $50 million funding round led by the Alibaba Group, China’s equivalent of Amazon. That brings its total funding to $74.2 million.

“Imagine a world where you can describe any need, at any time, and find the right app to help. We’re building that world,” says the blurb on the company’s website.

Quixey’s novel algorithm-powered invention, Functional Search, enables users to find apps by describing the task they want to perform. They don’t need to know the names of the apps that fit the bill.

“Our proprietary system automatically gathers millions of pieces of data from across the web, including blogs, reviews, articles, and tweets, to learn exactly what each app can do. Since we know what each app does, we deliver the best results for your query.”

Kagan says that even if he were focused only on R&D, Israel would make sense for Quixey. “If I was going to go to where developers are, Tel Aviv is the second-best place to Silicon Valley,” he says.

He plans on hiring roughly 35 people in the first year, “not a small endeavor by Israeli standards. We’re seeking people who are extremely intelligent on the engineering side, people who want to think about how to look at the future structure of the Internet, from program management to product management.”

Frat boy

For the past eight years, Kagan has been a volunteer adviser to a local chapter of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), the fraternity component of BBYO that provides Jewish and personal enrichment to hundreds of thousands of young high school-aged boys.

“I started a Jewish fraternity in college [at University of California-Santa Cruz] and helped start a Jewish sorority as well,” Kagan says.

He traces his leadership skills to his early involvement with Jewish youth groups.

“Most of my high school days were filled heavily with BBYO. The local chapter is extremely active, with events every Saturday and Sunday, every other Wednesday, and many trips, so it was very all-consuming and it had a very strong leadership component,” he says.

During college, he not only started Static Printing as a way to pay his tuition, but also found time to start a Jewish Student Union and become involved in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He earned his degree in molecular, cellular and development biology, but found that in the working arena, “it wasn’t for me day to day. I do get involved in various companies and organizations in biotech, and it keeps me interested.”

After college, Kagan founded Your Logo Here, a branding solutions provider for companies such as Google and Slide.

As he advanced in the world of cyberspace, he became convinced that everything in our lives eventually will depend on software. He envisions, for instance, personalized food and traveling hospitals.

Due to his visionary tendencies, Kagan became a board member of the Singularity Institute, now called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. He also is an adviser to Innovation Endeavors, Mucker Lab Seed Fund and Upwest Labs.

Still single, Kagan often travels to Israel to visit his brother and family. With the new Quixey center on the drawing board, those trips will increase to one week every month.

An accomplished home chef, Kagan has an insider tip for visitors to Tel Aviv: “There’s a great restaurant on Rothschild Boulevard, HaShulhan [The Table]. Try the fresh-squeezed orange juice.”

About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.