Start-up wants to enhance your adjectives

Feeling tongue-tied? WhiteSmoke says it can help you find a way to express yourself.

TEL AVIV, Israel--One of the questions received at the help desk at WhiteSmoke was "Do you eat sauce or do you drink sauce?"

The Tel Aviv-based start-up has come out with a service that aims to enhance the style and grammar of business letters, e-mails and other documents. Consumers write a document, send it to the company, and the company, through a computer program, sends back suggestions for stronger adjectives, improved grammar and style points, depending on the document being written.

Initially, the company targeted individuals who spoke English as a second or adopted language, but it turns out that 85 percent of the customers are native English speakers who want writing help, said Liran Brenner, vice president of research.

"It is something of a surprise," Brenner said.

The company, which exhibited at an international summit being held here by Silicon Valley investment group Silicom Ventures, is part of a very small, but potentially growing, number of companies in Israel trying to target consumers directly. The majority of tech companies out of Israel are tech-heavy operations that provide chips or software to brand-name establishments, but the worldwide growth of the consumer market is piquing interest.

Instant messaging got its start here with ICQ back in the mid-1990s. ICQ co-founder Yair Goldfinger is an investor in WhiteSmoke. Goldfinger is now at a new start-up called Dotomi, which mixes instant messaging with Internet advertising.

Israeli venture capital firm Giza Ventures, meanwhile, will unfurl a game company in a few weeks, according to Chairman Zeev Holtzman. Another company, SecureOL, has started to market a virtualization application for PCs that's designed to let consumers visit potentially risky sites safely.

"We (Israelis) are lousy at marketing," said Zak Dechovich, CEO of SecureOL, explaining why the nation has to date not played much of a role in the consumer market.

WhiteSmoke's software looks to improve documents in two ways. First, it runs a grammar and spell check, trying to find things missed by the standard tools found in e-mail and word processing applications. Second, it tries to achieve "text enrichment," Brenner said.

The enrichment and grammar check are determined by the nature of the document. There are four different modules: legal, medical, commercial and literary. Thus, the software will provide different adjectives for "spleen" when the consumer wants to beef up a medical article, versus when "spleen" is used metaphorically in a literary piece.

"We're coming out with a dating one next," Brenner said. "We've had a lot of requests for it."

The price ranges from $17.99 to $249, depending on how many modules a consumer wants. So far, the company has attracted about 50,000 customers and, surprisingly, a number have bought the $249 package that lets consumers check the document under all five different modules. (After the first year, consumers pay $16 a year to continue the service.)

The company has also begun to sell its software to Internet service providers, which in turn sport it as an added feature on their free e-mail services. A large ISP in Israel has already rolled it out, and one in the U.S. will launch it soon.

Potentially, the service presents privacy issues. Consumers, after all, do send in their word documents and e-mails to the company for advice. The documents, however, are reviewed by computers. Besides, "we're too busy to go through things you send us," Brenner said.

And the answer to the sauce food or drink question? It depends on the context, the company determined.

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