‘Russia’s Google’ eyes Israel with music, data science and maybe taxis

Search portal Yandex, Russia’s biggest tech firm, plans to launch its music streaming service in Israel in a few weeks; 8-month course in data science to start shortly after

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

The Yandex headquarters in Moscow, Russia (Courtesy)
The Yandex headquarters in Moscow, Russia (Courtesy)

Russian multinational tech giant Yandex NV, which runs the search portal of the world’s largest country, has set its eyes on Israel.

The firm plans to launch its music streaming service, Yandex Music — a competitor to Spotify and Apple Music — locally in a few weeks. The launch would be the first time Yandex would be offering its music service, which has 20 million monthly users in Russia, to a country that is not Russian-speaking, Kostya Kilimnik, a company official based in Israel, told The Times of Israel.

In an interview in Tel Aviv this week, 35-year old Kilimnik, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 2000 and has degrees in engineering and information systems from local universities, explained that Yandex’s effort in Israel is three-pronged: the music service, a taxi venture it is mulling, and education.

“Yandex taxi is the biggest taxi service in Russia and operates like Israel’s Gett,” he said. “We are exploring the opportunities in Israel” along with other expansion opportunities for the taxi service in the world, he said. “Yandex will launch Yandex.Music service in Israel” in the coming few weeks.

Kostya Kilimnik is in charge of the YDATA initiative of Yandex in Israel (Courtesy)

Founded in 1997, Yandex, which has more than 9,000 workers globally, operates a wide range of services, spanning search, location-based and mobile services, cloud-based storage services, online news and its music and taxi services. Shares of the company, with a market value of $10.6 billion, are traded on the Nasdaq and in Moscow.

Kilimnik is in charge of the educational push Yandex is planning to make in Israel. The Russian tech giant is planning to open an eight-month course in data sciences, called the Y-Data initiative, that will be similar to the course the company runs in Russia.

“We want to expand this program outside Russia,” Kilimnik said.  Israel, the first country outside Russia to benefit from the program, he said, is “the right fit. It is the hub of entrepreneurship, and startups and people are thirsty for talent in this area.”

The program, to be held at Tel Aviv University, could be a source of talent that Yandex could employ locally should it decide to set up an R&D center in Israel, Kilimnik said.

“Right now there is no decision, but it could happen,” he said. “So, it makes sense that we would first talk to our graduates.”

Data science is an interdisciplinary field that uses scientific methods, like statistics and computer science and algorithms, to process, analyze and get insights from the vast amount of data that is available, to enable a more efficient and better decision- making process.

Yandex set up a data science program in Russia in 2007, and today the program is the “most popular program in Russia in this field,” said Kilimnik, with Yandex employing about half of the program’s 700 graduates since its inception. Being a search company, Yandex is naturally interested in anything concerning big data. Other graduates of the program have been employed by foreign tech giants like Google, Facebook, Spotify and Apple, he said.

Students attending the Yandex data sciences classes in Russia (Courtesy)

Ten years ago, there was not enough talent in Russia in the data sciences field, explained Kilimnik. Russia is very strong in math, physics and biology, but its universities were not producing as many graduates as needed in the new fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, he explained. So Yandex decided to set up its own training facilities, and today operates the two-year MA degree with two local universities, National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

“Universities cannot deliver the big amount of talent the industry needs,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us.”

Yandex has already been operating in Israel via investments in startups like Face.com in 2010, which was later sold to Facebook, and e-commerce firm SalesPredict, sold to eBay in 2016. The Russian firm also acquired KitLocate in 2014, turning it into its local R&D center, but has since shut it down.

“We are not looking at acquisitions in the near future,” Kilimnik said. “I’m not sure about investments.”

Some 450 applicants applied for the YData course, out of which Yandex is going to accept some 50-60, said Kilimnik. The program, which will start mid-October, along with Israel’s other academic studies, will be run in English by teachers from Moscow and locally, and will be open to students who already have a first degree in sciences and technology.

It will include practical work in real tech firms, he said, “to deal with real challenges.

Companies that have agreed to open their doors to the program’s students include Anodot, an AI analytics firm; OptimalQ, which uses AI and machine learning algorithms to analyze user behavior; SenseEducation and Nexar. Yandex is in talks with other firms as well, he said.

Bridging a gap

“Our aim is to succeed and teach people and prepare them for the data science field that is not yet well established,” he said. “We want to help establish this field and contribute our knowledge to it.”

The idea, he said, is to “bridge the gap” between boot camps that provide training in the field and full-time masters degrees. “Universities care less about the needs of the industry,” he said. “They do important work, but the industry often has other needs.”

After Tel Aviv, Yandex would like to expand its education program to other areas within Israel and eventually to other countries around the world.

“Israel is a hub, it has a lot of talent in this area and there are not many places in the world like Israel,” he said.

Do the probes into Russia’s meddling with US elections and concerns the nation may be doing the same with other countries, including Israel, make it difficult for companies like Yandex to business around the world? The Russian government has also reportedly tried to manipulate news stories that appear on the site.

“I am not the right person to answer this question,” Kilimnik says with a smile, “but we get asked these questions all the time. Yandex is a Nasdaq-traded firm and we proved in all of these years that we take data privacy seriously, and millions trust us. We are also not a media company, we don’t write news stories. We aggregate existing news and stories from dozens of different sources.”

(This article has been updated to correct the date of the founding of Yandex to 1997)

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