Hopper, With $8M in New VC Bucks, Looks to Leapfrog Online Travel Search Via Big Data

In Baltimore, a “hopper” is a young, street-level drug dealer (as devotees of The Wire can tell you). In Montreal, Hopper is a young travel search company. In Boston, well, we’ll see what happens in Boston.

Hopper is announcing today an $8 million financing round led by Atlas Venture, with previous investor Brightspark Ventures also participating. The company started in Montreal in 2007 but says it is moving its headquarters to Cambridge, MA, soon. The reason?

“We’re making a big bet on the talent pool,” says co-founder and CEO Frederic Lalonde. The company is currently scouting office spaces around Kendall Square and Central Square, and is looking to hire about 15 people, mostly engineers, he says. With a local ecosystem that includes online travel companies such as Kayak, TripAdvisor, Goby, and Google/ITA Software, and “big data” firms like IBM/Netezza, HP/Vertica, and EMC, (my examples, not his), Lalonde hopes to find a “particular kind of programming geek” well-suited for Hopper’s technology challenges.

The idea behind Hopper is to take natural language travel-search queries—things like “best beaches in Spain” or “scuba diving in the Caribbean”—and return a list of places, as well as flight and hotel options for each place, ranked according to measures of quality, convenience, and cost. It’s a more open-ended, “discovery” type of search than what has become standard on itinerary comparison sites like Kayak, Bing Travel, Orbitz, and newer sites like Hipmunk, InsideTrip, WaySavvy, and Yapta.

In other words, if you’re looking for a flight from A to B (and a hotel to stay in), there are plenty of other sites to help you do that. “Travel is a complex discovery process,” says Lalonde. “We’re working on the depth, quality, and intelligence of the search.”

He certainly knows the sector. Lalonde and co-founder Joost Ouwerkerk came from travel firm Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE), which bought Lalonde’s previous company, Newtrade Technologies, in 2002. Together with co-founder Sebastien Rainville, the Hopper team plans to move to Boston, but they aren’t saying exactly when yet. They will also keep some operations in Montreal—notably the technical infrastructure and servers that crunch the firm’s travel data—because it’s much cheaper to do it there, Lalonde says.

Here’s a little more about how Hopper works. Say you type in “scuba diving Caribbean.” The site will access a “giant statistical grid of user information” that takes into account all mentions of relevant scuba spots—from articles, blogs, forums, reviews, social media, and so forth—and returns a list that’s ranked according to those mentions, but also things like distance, flight costs, and time of year, Lalonde says. The goal is to do all of that in less than a second, he says.

The whole approach requires some serious computing power. Hopper’s database includes … Next Page »

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