Ex-Googlers working on stealth social search

A former product lead of Google News is quietly working on a new social search service he started with the help of two other Google refugees.

Nathan Stoll, former product lead of Google News, has been quietly working on a new social search service he started with the help of two other Google refugees, CNET News.com has learned. The site, called Mechanical Zoo, is poised to launch in beta next month.

The San Francisco company, which is about 9 months old, has an impressive team of tech veterans. It was co-founded by Stoll; Max Ventilla, a former business development manager at Google; and Damon Horowitz, a longtime computer scientist and former lead engineer of Perspecta, a search software company that sold to Excite@Home in the dot-com heyday. Fritz Schneider, who was an application-security engineer at Google for about five years, heading up the Google Firefox team, is also a part of the 12-person staff.

Ventilla started working on Mechanical Zoo last summer, when he left the search giant. Stoll took a leave of absence from Google last fall, but then "broke up" with his longtime employer in December to work full time on Mechanical Zoo. Other engineers at the company include Winton Davies, a founding member of Yahoo Research Labs, and Bob Zoller, who worked on front-end development for social-networking site Yahoo 360. Among Mechanical Zoo's advisers are Sep Kamvar, founder of search technology company Kaltix, which sold to Google.

At a high level, Mechanical Zoo is building an application--rather than a destination site--that will help people tap into the knowledge of their social circle to find information, such as what movie to see or where to go out on a Friday night. The company is not ready to publicly preview or talk about its technology, but it currently has at least 100 "alpha" users testing the service. According to Ventilla, it will be a Yahoo Answers-type product, with more built-in intelligence about your personal tastes.

"We're tackling the problem of subjective search--when no one answer would satisfy everyone--and the answer is not to serve a Web page," Ventilla said in an interview. "We've developed an online social structure that lets users reach out to people they already know" for answers.

Of course, Mechanical Zoo is not alone in working on social search applications. Many companies, including FriendFeed (started by former Googlers), Delver, and Eurekster are packing social context into the task of finding information on the Web, all with a slightly different tack.

The privately funded Mechanical Zoo has raised about $750,000 in convertible debt from angel investors, including ex-colleagues and friends. Two institutional investors have committed another $1.25 million to Mechanical Zoo, but the founders may raise a series A round of funding in lieu of that money, according to Ventilla. The name Mechanical Zoo is an homage to the mechanical workings of its application, as well as several animal-named products that the company plans to introduce over time.

Ventilla, a longtime entrepreneur, said he left Google because it can be tough inside the search giant to make new, big things happen, as well as to marshal enough talent away from the company's main search and advertising products to build new services.

"There's a number of ways companies can connect to Google," Ventilla said.

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