Jan Koum (b. 1976) was born in Kiev, Ukraine. When he was 16 years old he moved to California with his mother, having experienced enough anti-Semitism and political turnovers. (His father intended to join them eventually, but passed away several years later before he could do so.) The two survived on food stamps and a subsidized two-bedroom apartment. Koum swept floors at a supermarket to make ends meet. At 18, he started learning programming by himself from a set of used books before enrolling at San Jose University. Soon, he got a job working with computers at Ernst & Young, one of the world’s Big Four auditing companies. By 21, Koum had dropped out of school and was hired by Yahoo to work in its infrastructure engineering. After nine years with the company, Koum quit to do some travelling with fellow employee Brian Acton. Upon returning from their trip, the two applied to work for Facebook, but were turned down. Instead, Koum started thinking about a new iPhone messaging app, inspired by how difficult and expensive it was for him to keep in touch with family in Russia and Ukraine (as well as memories of how his parents avoided using a phone in the Soviet Union for fear of being listened to). The following month, he incorporated WhatsApp Inc. Brian Acton later worked together with Koum to make his vision a reality, together with friend Alex Fishman. WhatsApp became hugely popular very quickly, and became the world’s most popular messaging app. In 2014, Koum’s friend Mark Zuckerberg bought out WhatsApp for $19 billion. This thrust Koum onto Forbes list of the world’s richest people. With his net worth now close to $9 billion, he is among the Top 10 richest US immigrants. Meanwhile, WhatsApp expanded to offer voice calls and document-sharing, became completely free (with no advertising), and now has over 1 billion users worldwide. Yesterday, they launched a new form of encryption, making WhatsApp among the most secure forms of communication available to the public. Koum continues to work on WhatsApp, and on the board of Facebook, and has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. He is also a founding member of San Francisco’s JFE – Jews for Entrepreneurship – an organization that provides opportunities for young Jewish entrepreneurs in the high tech sector.
Words of the Week
From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hand are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.
– Sir William Bragg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist
Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) was born near Kiev to Jewish-Russian parents. At 22, he immigrated to the U.S. and began his studies at Rutgers University, where he got a Masters in Science before getting his Ph.D. in biology at UC Berkeley. He then headed back to Rutgers to take over the soil microbiology lab, focusing on the study of soil organisms and decomposition. Building on the work of previous scientists, Waksman soon found that bacterial substances could be used to fight bacterial infections. He shifted his lab’s focus towards finding “antibiotics” – a term which he coined. Over the next couple of decades, his lab discovered a dozen antibiotic compounds.
Most important of these was streptomycin, discovered by Waksman’s student Albert Israel Schatz (1920-2005). Schatz also came from Jewish-Russian lineage and originally wanted to be a farmer. He studied soil microbiology, and after serving in a military hospital during World War II, decided to research treatments for tuberculosis. Working in Waksman’s lab, Schatz discovered and named “streptomycin”, which would become one of the most important antibiotics in history, and is still found on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Schatz made no profit from his discovery, giving up his rights to the drug so that it could be distributed as widely and cheaply to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, he was never given the credit he deserved, with the Nobel prize going only to Waksman in 1952. Both biologists continued their contributions to science, and were decorated with many awards. Waksman also developed microbe-resistant paint for ships, enzyme-enhanced detergents, and a compound to prevent fungal infections of vineyards. He wrote over 400 papers and published 28 books. Meanwhile, Schatz campaigned against the fluoridation of water, proposed new theories for tooth decay and the extinction of dinosaurs, and published over 700 papers and 3 textbooks. Both were ultimately credited for streptomycin, which The New York Times ranked among the Top 10 discoveries of the 20th century.
Words of the Week
“Let there be light” means that all the world – even darkness – should become a source of light and wisdom. It is our job to reveal the hidden light – especially the light that you yourself hold.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,the Lubavitcher Rebbe