Nara packs its bags, expands its personalized travel recommendation platform to Europe

By Michael Carney , written on April 29, 2014

From The News Desk

In the decade since Google established itself as the dominant search platform, people have naturally asked the question, what’s will the next generation of search look like? For my money, it wasn’t until I first encountered personalized search platform Nara Logics that I had seen anything approaching a compelling answer. Today, the four-year-old, self-described “computational neuroscience” company uses its technology to power hotel and restaurant recommendations, but the breadth of the potential applications is enormous.

But before Nara tackles new categories, the Cambridge, Mass. company has its sights set on foreign shores. Today, Nara announced that it is expanding its travel recommendation platform into 20 European markets, in addition to its existing nationwide coverage in the US and Canada. The list of major markets will include: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, Edinburgh, Florence, Frankfurt, Krakow, London, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Paris, Prague, Rome, Stockholm, Venice, and Vienna.

“Really, we’re expanding because we can,” says Nara CEO Tom Copeman. “We’ve built a system that’s so scalable and fast that it can analyze the Internet in real-time. Systems like this crave data, so we’re giving it something more to chew on. At the same time, we feel that the European mindset is such that people are drawn to new technologies. That, and, obviously, Americans travel to Europe frequently and we want to serve our customers wherever they travel.”

Nara utilizes its machine learning and big data engine to asses the individual tastes and preferences of its users based on the restaurants and hotels they frequent and the dishes they like. The platform is then able to makes similar recommendations to the user when they’re in a new location or venturing out in their home city.

This is more than category level thinking along the lines of “here’s another Italian joint for you to try.” Rather, Nara looks at detailed attributes like genre, ambiance, entertainment, menu, and wine list, and incorporates existing reviews and each user’s dining history to arrive at its recommendations. Obviously, travel recommendations are just the beginning of the potential for this platform.

With $7 million in Seed and Series A funding, Nara has grown to a 25 person team including a number of MIT data scientists, neurologists, and engineers. Most recently, Nara added former TripAdvisor GM Kristin Pados as its SVP of Product and General Manager.

Nara is already monetizing, although often indirectly. The company has entered a handful of revenue sharing agreements with the likes of OpenTable and Expedia, as well as technology licensing agreements, such as one with Asian telecom giant SingTel. Nara has been fielding inbound inquiries for other similar partnerships, Copeman says

The biggest problem facing Nara today is the risk that for all its personalized recommendation power, people are comfortable with the status quo and human behavior is difficult to change. The reason Google was able to rise to prominence so quickly is that at the time the existing search solutions set the bar so low. That's no longer the case. With platforms like Yelp, UrbanSpoon, Foursquare Explore, and others, there are countless options available for discovering interesting destinations.

Sure Nara’s results may be better and more personalized than the competition, but it’s difficult to quantify that fact, if you can even get users to try the platform. Today we use the word “Google” as a verb. Nara has a long way to go before its brand becomes part of the cultural lexicon.

The other obvious question deals with privacy and security. Given the recent NSA spying revelations, it’s natural to worry about companies that collect personal data. Copeman assures me that Nara takes all the appropriate measures to safeguard user data, and that furthermore, the company has yet to encounter any real user backlash over its service.

“We understand that user education and awareness is an issue, but the reality is that people are waking up and realizing for themselves that they want more relevance,” Copeman says. “User adoption has been really good and the results that we deliver have been speaking for themselves.”

Nara aims to usher the world into the Web 3.0 era in which the software platforms we interact with know us better than we know ourselves. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, and just the thought of this type of technology elicits equal parts wonderment and recoil. Nonetheless, given the way technology is advancing, it seems like an inevitability.

Nara may confine itself today to helping its users find the best pad thai in town, but the truth is, that’s little more than a clever parlor trick. The company appears to have plenty more up its sleeve.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]