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Innovation Economy

5-year-old start-up waiting to start out

Frederic Lalonde is founder and CEO of the travel search website Hopper.

Frederic Lalonde is founder and CEO of the travel search website Hopper.

Highlights from the Innovation Economy blog.

The company was founded in 2007. It has raised $22 million and has more than 20 employees in Cambridge and Montreal. And the founder says there is still no firm target date for launching the company’s product.

Hopper has become a topic of conversation in Boston start-up circles precisely because of all that. Like Charlie, the unlucky commuter who long ago got stuck on the T, Hopper seems to be stuck in an endless loop of data collection, design, and software development.

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The travel search site’s ambitions are lofty: to help consumers plan trips better than any tool that has come before.

But by comparison, Hipmunk was founded and launched in 2010 with about $15,000 in funding from Y Combinator. Less than a year passed between Kayak.com’s incorporation and the debut of its website, although that company raised $8.5 million from investors in the prelaunch phase.

Hopper’s goal is to let you search for what you actually want to do on your trip, as opposed to cobbling together an airline ticket and hotel and rental car reservations. Punch in “surfing lessons in Mexico in May,” and Hopper will return ratings of various surfing schools; prices for hotels, B&Bs, and vacation home rentals; and real-time air fares.

The site will also allow you to think about where you might want to travel by browsing a map, says founder and chief executive Frederic Lalonde: “You can click on Tuscany and see that the focus there is wine and culture, while Sicily says ‘beaches.’ Every place you click, you get flight and hotel pricing. It’s like a guidebook brought online.”

And the site will display scads of photos, mainly user-generated, with links to the blogs and Flickr sets from which they came.

But what exactly is going on?

In 2011, Lalonde said he expected to go live that year, then one of Hopper’s investors said the wraps would come off in 2012. The company did update its website last month, but it still isn’t open for business.

“It has been a long time since someone has made a meaningful difference in the travel space,” says Lalonde, who sold a start-up to Expedia in 2002 and served as an executive there for four years. “The easy problems have all been solved.”

One issue was doing deals with flight information providers. That took almost two years, Lalonde says. The company has indexed 1.4 billion pages about travel, he says.

Jeff Fagnan, the partner at Cambridge-based Atlas Venture who led the firm’s investment in Hopper, says he’s confident the site will go live this year. (The date I’ve been hearing is April.)

I never root against an entrepreneur, especially one with Lalonde’s smarts and experience. But after so many years of stealth mode for the company, expectations for what Hopper will be once it is launched are now extremely high.

Nuance follows the talent to CambridgeYou might think a software company on Route 128 in Burlington would tap the Massachusetts talent pool well enough. Not so for Nuance Communications Inc., the speech-
recognition giant that enables laptops, cars, and Apple’s Siri to listen and understand what you want to do. The company has leased space in Central Square in Cambridge for an engineering office for about 175 people. It should be open by the fall.

“There’s a great population of candidates that just want to be in Cambridge,” says chief marketing officer Peter Mahoney. “It just opens up more opportunities for us — people who are city dwellers, many of whom don’t own cars.”

Nuance acquired Vlingo, a start-up in Harvard Square, in late 2011. Vlingo had about 100 employees at the time, and those who have remained will eventually move to the Central Square space.

“The goal was to get much nicer space than Vlingo had in Harvard Square,” Mahoney said.

Visit www.boston.com/innovation for the full Innovation Economy blog, updated daily.
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