Two years ago, Roi Tiger was managing a team of more than 10 software engineers at a startup outside Tel Aviv when a friend took a trip to Barcelona. He returned with a $1,000 wireless roaming bill. Tiger (pronounced Tigger) recalls that he was struck by “how ridiculous it was, that someone goes on vacation and pays twice what the vacation cost for roaming.” In his spare time, Tiger started experimenting with ways to reduce cell phone bills.
That side project became Onavo, the startup where Tiger, 27, serves as chief technology officer. The company makes free apps for iOS and Android devices that help consumers monitor and shrink their data usage—a resonant topic as carriers such as AT&T (T) hike fees and throttle download speeds for heavy users. “We are bringing back control to the user,” says Tiger.
When a smartphone user calls up a Web page, there’s a flurry of back-and-forth communications as the phone requests components—images, text, ads—and the site returns them. If a user has Onavo installed, all that traffic gets redirected through some of the 100 servers the company rents from Amazon.com (AMZN). (The company says it doesn’t store any of the information.)
Onavo optimizes data use in real time. Photos, for instance, are converted to smaller file sizes. And Onavo transmits only the images on the part of the page currently being viewed. In all, the company employs dozens of tricks to shrink data usage by as much as 80 percent. “It’s not about one magical algorithm,” Tiger says. The software also tells users which of their apps are data hogs and how much Onavo has saved them.
The company’s year-old iPhone app and its new Android app, released in February, have been downloaded by millions of users in 150 countries, according to Tiger. Onavo raised $10 million in January from investors including Sequoia Capital, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, and Motorola Mobility Ventures (MMI). The startup’s 20 employees are split between offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco. “There’s deep, deep technology here,” says Gili Raanan, a partner at Sequoia. “They are doing something very unique, very special.” Tiger says Onavo plans to make money by eventually charging users based on the amount of data they save above a certain threshold.
Growing up in Israel, Tiger says he got good grades without trying and spent most of his free time either at the beach or coding. At 16 he was hired to write software for a local startup. During his mandatory stint in the Israeli army, Tiger managed 15 software developers on secret military research and development projects, one of which received a national security award. His last employer, a startup building a phone that could change its looks and functionality with attachable accessories, failed shortly after he left. “One of the biggest things I learned there is, you always have to pay attention to market shifts,” he says, “and understand the exact needs of your users.”