Logo: University of Southern California

Urban Exploration? There's an App for That

USC Viterbi startup gives mobile users a new level of access to their cities of choice from their devices
By: Dale Legaspi
October 16, 2014 —


Ali Khoshgozaran, Tilofy co-founder and USC Viterbi alumnus

New to town? Even if you’re not, you might feel like it after exploring on Watsup, the new location-based mobile app that instantly combs through massive amounts of data to unearth places and events you may not have noticed previously.

Watsup takes users’ location information, pairs it with data from multiple social media platforms and other online resources and delivers a real-time view of what’s happening in the vicinity. Users can instantly find cool restaurants, poetry readings, jazz concerts—whatever interests them.

How it works
The app arranges this view into five categories—food, arts and culture, entertainment, outdoors and sports. As social media users tweet, post photos to Instagram or write on Facebook, that information is aggregated, categorized and delivered in real time. In essence, Watsup is a mobile one-stop shop for dynamic updates on everything going on around them arranged into simple categories they care about.

The app is powered by Tilofy (pronounced TIE-low-fie), a second-year company out of the USC Viterbi Startup Garage, the school’s two-year-old venture accelerator and the region’s only technology incubator focused on supporting companies that are led or co-led by engineers. Tilofy derived its name by mashing up time, location and unify. Founded by Ali Khoshgozaran, a 2010 USC Viterbi Ph.D. in computer science, and Alireza Mojtahedi, the startup is built around a patent-pending technology—the first able to parse the massive amounts of data produced across social media in real time.

“The amount of information people have to sift through on social media platforms just to find what they want has become completely overwhelming,” said Khoshgozaran, Tilofy’s CEO and chief technology officer. “Rather than forcing users to drink from the fire hose, we’ve developed an algorithm that does it for them. So they have access to all that data from all those platforms, but only the pertinent events, experiences and places that are trending in their vicinity are presented.”

Why it’s different
A number of companies have put together social aggregation platforms, but no solution has incorporated the capability to curate and deliver only the relevant content quickly enough to satisfy mobile users’ expectations of immediacy. In other cases, solution providers and the end users they serve are at odds regarding what “real-time” actually means.

“Tilofy’s engine processes and analyzes millions of conversations across social media platforms and the web every day," said Mojtahedi, co-founder and chief product officer. "Building the first fully automated, real-time search and discovery engine is a complicated process, but we are constantly striving to make the engine faster and more intelligent.”

The Tilofy team, which includes former Microsoft and Samsung executives, refined its Watsup app last year in the Startup Garage. In the business accelerator, Tilofy principals wrote their business plan, worked on marketing and met with several mentors, including Brent Weinstein of United Talent Agency, a founding Startup Garage partner.

“When we were reviewing applicants for the initial Viterbi Startup Garage program, I was impressed both with Ali and his team,” said Brent Weinstein, head of digital media for United Talent Agency and a former mentor for the Startup Garage. “We could see immediately that they had an ambitious point of view on how to meld location and search to create a great product.”

It helps when that product solves a common problem but is unlike any other solution on the market.

“This is an intelligence platform—much smarter than any other social media solution on the market,” said Ashish Soni, founding director of VSI2 and the Viterbi Startup Garage. “It looks at the world more from the standpoint of what’s going on, using location information to show users the dynamic that is unfolding around them but isn’t listed anywhere.”

Early market response
Tilofy has generated excitement among investors, as the company has raised nearly $1 million, primarily on its own and through angels. While some funding came from the Startup Garage as well, Khoshgozaran credits the accelerator more with delivering access to the non-financial resources, including the cloud platform on which the app runs, office space and the mentorship necessary to get a startup off the ground.

The Watsup app has received largely positive reviews as well, garnering multiple five-star reviews from users but also generating media coverage, as Forbes.com described it as a “mobile technology [that] brings us one step closer to omniscience.”

The Startup Garage, Southern California’s only venture accelerator for engineering student-led companies, offers financial support, mentoring, legal advice, office space and other strategic resources to a select group of budding business builders. Entrepreneurial teams must be cofounded or led by current USC Viterbi students or alumni to be accepted into the program.

The compelling list of benefits and connections offered by the Viterbi Startup Garage gave the Tilofy executive team reason to stay close to stay home—within arm’s reach of the mentors with whom they’d developed such close relationships. Once its time with the Garage was complete, the company opted for Silicon Beach over Silicon Valley, moving its headquarters to nearby El Segundo.

Led by Khoshgozaran—who himself is an alumnus of Yahoo!, Samsung and Microsoft—and Mojtahedi, team members come from blue-chip companies such as Google, Demand Media and IBM as well. With this unique blend of experience in artificial intelligence, search, data analysis and mobile, Tilofy is poised for continued success.

“There is something about technology that has always been incredibly mesmerizing to me. It gives you the ability to improve the quality of millions of lives and empower people through easier access to knowledge and information,” Khoshgozaran said. “Being surrounded by the brightest scientists and engineers from top tech companies was highly instrumental in shaping my vision for Tilofy.”