In the age of convenience, on-demand car services such as Uber and Lyft have become so popular that city dwellers across America wonder how they survived without them. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, using a smartphone app to hail a ride was a novel idea. And one of the first to recognize its potential was Weizmann Institute alumnus Dr. Oren Shoval.
Shoval is a co-founder of Via, a New York City-based startup that is taking the transportation space by storm. Since its inception in 2012, the company has provided more than seven million rides and raised an impressive $137 million from investors. What makes Via stand out from its competition? Rather than providing door-to-door rides, the service offers ride shares for passengers traveling in the same direction and drops them off within a couple blocks of their destination. In this way, the company keeps the number of vehicles to a minimum—and guarantees low flat fares. For New Yorkers, it means being able to travel from lower Manhattan to Harlem for $5, “the price of a latte,” as Via’s website points out.
Weizmann alum Dr. Oren Shoval
Now running a growing company and raising two young children, Shoval, age 39, admits his life has changed dramatically in the four years since he earned his PhD in systems biology at the Institute. And yet, the lessons he learned at Weizmann have a great impact on him today.
“The Weizmann Institute taught me to trust my instincts, to feel comfortable with uncertainty, and to take a complicated problem and try to simplify it,” he explained. “It’s a state of mind that is very useful in my day-to-day work.”
This state of mind is vital for game changers in any field, according to Shoval’s mentor at the Institute, Prof. Uri Alon, Department of Molecular Cell Biology.
“Uri told me that if you ask a question you have no clue how to answer—and it causes anxiety—that’s a good thing,” Shoval recalled. “We’re not here to do something that’s already been done.”
A Culture of Curiosity
At the beginning of his PhD program, Shoval’s goals were less about answering challenging scientific questions than learning the basics of biology. Growing up in Rishon LeZion, not far from the Institute, he was always interested in math and science. He was later accepted to a prestigious program in the Israel Defense Forces that allowed him to pursue his studies while completing his military service. He earned a BSc in Physics and Mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as an MSc in Electrical Engineering from Tel Aviv University. After almost 10 years in the military, during which he led engineering projects for the Air Force, he had a brief stint as a consultant at McKinsey and Co. However, he was quickly drawn back to academia.
Although he had no prior experience in biology, he met Prof. Alon through a friend, visited his lab at Weizmann, and decided that this was where he wanted to continue his education. He and his professor shared a background in physics; Prof. Alon works at the intersection of several disciplines, employing tools from physics, neurobiology, computer science—and even improv theater. Shoval was eager to learn from this charismatic teacher and innovator.
"The Weizmann Institute taught me to trust my instincts, to feel comfortable with uncertainty, and to take a complicated problem and try to simplify it."
The experience exceeded his expectations. “He truly is as amazing as he seems on camera,” Shoval said, referring to Prof. Alon’s popular TED Talk. “The way he mentors students is unique.”
After learning what he calls the “language of biology,” Shoval asked his advisor what should be the focus of his PhD. Prof. Alon, however, insisted that his students determine their own paths. “The way I was used to thinking was, ‘OK, there’s a project and I’ll try to solve it,’” Shoval explained. “But Uri said, ‘No, that’s not interesting. If you want to be an interesting scientist, your motivation has to come from within.’”
It took Shoval another two years to understand what this meant, but he eventually pursued questions fueled by his own curiosity, rather than predetermined objectives. In his research, he used simplifying principles, based on mathematics, to explain complex biological systems: “It’s fascinating, because you can take a principle that’s easy to understand and see that it applies to things that have been evolving for millions of years.”
Beyond Prof. Alon’s lab, Shoval found that curiosity-driven science was part of the Weizmann Institute’s ethos. “The whole environment and infrastructure supports this approach—the administration, the physical facilities, the classes, the collaborations,” he said. “Everything is geared to help you make progress when the answers aren’t clear.”
Taking a Leap
The same approach inspired him when he decided to start Via. Although he had planned to pursue a postdoc after he completed his PhD, he and Dr. Daniel Ramot, a friend from the Air Force, felt that the timing was right to launch the company. Their idea was based on shared taxis in Israel called monit sherut, which travel within and between cities. Combining this concept with mobile technology would create a “dynamic bus system” that was both efficient and eco-friendly. At the time, however, they faced naysayers who were convinced Via would fail. Undaunted, Shoval relied on his training with Prof. Alon, who taught him that innovation demands “going into the unknown.”
As they developed Via’s technology, both he and Ramot, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from Stanford, brought their research backgrounds to bear. While the platform appears simple and intuitive, behind the scenes, Via requires complex algorithms and data to build, mix, and match the routes—all in real time. “It’s not just me alone in the lab anymore, so the stakes are higher,” he said, “but the process is similar: you have an idea. Now, you have to develop it, test it, and tweak it.”
Today, Shoval and Ramot are seeing the fruits of their labors. Now providing more than 200,000 rides weekly in New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C., Via plans to expand to other cities. The company is also marketing its technology to public transit agencies, college and corporate campuses, and other entities. Via’s team has grown to include about 100 employees at three offices; Shoval travels regularly between the Tel Aviv branch, which he manages, and the New York headquarters, where Ramot is based.
While the future looks bright for this promising startup, Shoval is not resting on his laurels. Success comes with a new set of challenges, including competition from services that have adopted Via’s carpool model. Fortunately, he understands, as a Weizmann graduate, that creative problem-solving is not merely about getting from point A to point B. There’s value in getting lost—and he’s enjoying the ride.