Onna CEO is on a voyage of discovery to join up data

Salim Elkhou wants to make enterprise search simpler and connect information islands.


Salim Elkhou has come a fair way but wants to go much further. The Morocco-born entrepreneur leads New York/Barcelona dual-headquartered startup Onna Technologies and his mission is pretty grand: accessing and retrieving the data held in the sea of apps on which modern enterprises run.

You might see this as an enterprise spin on Google’s big picture plan to index the world’s information or you might call it an e-discovery or data governance/compliance play but, however you cut it, the stakes are high. To put a number on it, Elkhou suggests that knowledge economy employees spend about 25 per cent of their time searching for internal information. The challenge: making it faster through connectors that link and interrogate the apps we all use to build a joined-up knowledge repository.

Mixed-up world

Part of the complexity of the modern environment lies in the way we deploy and interact with software today and with the fact that there has been a drift away from reliance on the old software empires. Today’s IT environments are pluralist and the old digital oligarchs and plutocrats must tolerate the company of dozens, or even hundreds, of other players that do one of two things very well indeed. Onna reckons that companies on average use about 88 apps for daily workflows, up by about a fifth over three years.

“Many companies were on Microsoft or Oracle for everything,” says Elkhou over our video call. “[But today] the reality is that every team wants best-of-breed: Salesforce for CRM, Slack for communications… These apps contain enormous amounts of information, contacts, intellectual property, emails, important financials… all this knowledge. And the challenge is that we have all these silos and these apps don’t talk to each other.”

Elkhou says that Onna can help by taking “fragmented knowledge” and serving it up on one platform via an API and with data organised by machine learning. Apps become “searchable really fast and information can be identified [because] search is only half the battle: then you need to do something with it.”

Onna (the name plays of notions of oneness) has picked up customers including Slack, Dropbox, News Corp., EA, Facebook, Fitbit and Lyft based on that promise. It now has about 110 staff, having collected in the range of $43m in funding, more than half of that figure arriving via a Series B raise in June this year when you might think investments could be paused. Dropbox and Slack Fund are among backers.

Searching for the truth

“Search is difficult, even within specific apps,” Elkhou acknowledges, and for maximum security, you need software that can analyse the nature of what it has found. That’s what Elkhou is hoping will make Onna big and specifically, he sees big opportunities in the legal sector, in regulatory compliance and data security.

Onna is in some ways a modern-day update to the e-discovery wares of old that once made firms such as Autonomy so powerful. Those sorts of tools are showing their age and, as Elkhou notes, today “the environment is completely different”. Tools have to recognise the new hiding places for data in various clouds and containers: hence the need for APIs and machine learning to automate the process.

Elkhou’s path has not been well trodden. Brought up in Morocco, he fulfilled his dream of studying computer science in the US and founded eStet, a legal tech company that was acquired by EY. “I always had an entrepreneurial mind,” he says. Today, he bases himself in Barcelona, Spain, in part for family reasons, and Onna is very much the modern, dispersed company with staff based in several locations, including Toulouse, London, Raleigh and San Francisco. That’s no drawback today, especially in the time of the pandemic and startups trying to build from the classic US west coast locations may struggle. “In San Francisco it was a bit of a challenge to hire all the people we wanted,” he says, such is the concentration of opportunities for tech experts and the compensation they can demand.

Elkhou says that annual recurring revenue are below $50m and views the next challenge as building an ecosystem of partners, scaling up relationships with consultants, growing outside the US and nailing the proposition to “connect any app into Onna and start any workflow”. Many challenges lie ahead but the voyage for the new age of discovery is on.