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Boston's highest profile five-year-old startup that hasn't yet launched is...

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 21, 2013 07:34 AM

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The company was founded in 2007. It has raised $22 million, and has more than 20 employees at offices in Cambridge and Montreal. And the founder tells me that there is still no firm target date for launching its product.

Hopper is a five-year-old startup that has become a topic of conversation in Boston startup circles precisely because of all that. Like Charlie, the unlucky commuter who got stuck on the T, Hopper seems to be mired in an endless loop of data collection, design, and software development. The travel search site's ambitions are lofty: to help consumers plan trips better than any tool that has come before. But by comparison, even Google took just two years from its days as an academic project to public unveiling, and just $100,000 in funding. 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, though that company raised $8.5 million from investors in the pre-launch phase.

Hopper's goal is to let you search based on what you actually want to do on your trip, as opposed to cobbling together an airline ticket, hotel room and rental car. Punch in "surfing lessons in Mexico in May," and Hopper will return ratings of various surf schools; prices for hotels, B&Bs, and vacation home rentals; and real-time airfares. The site will also allow you to think about where you might want to travel by browsing a map, says founder and CEO Frederic Lalonde, above. "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 told me he expected the site to go live that year, and one of Hopper's investors told me the wraps would come off in 2012. When I talked to Lalonde on February 7th, he said that the website would be updated the following week, with some "partial screenshots" of the search tool released. That didn't happen, either.

"It has been a long time since someone has made a meaningful difference in the travel space," says Lalonde, who sold a startup to Expedia in 2002, and then 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 startup has indexed 1.4 billion pages about travel, he says. "We were actually kind of shocked at how much was out there. We picked up 530,000 vacation rentals, and about 500,000 tours, activities, and attractions. And it took a lot of thinking to figure out how to present all the data to a user." Also, he says, search results need to pop up quickly. "Even before I have a single user, I need to make our site work fast and well with 1.5 billion things in it. It can't take 12 seconds to respond to a search."

Lalonde, who was out on paternity leave when we spoke, said that for the first three years of Hopper's existence, it was "two or three people in a loft, trying to figure out if this was going to be doable or not." And he says that about 75 percent of the capital that Hopper has raised "is still in the bank. It was raised, not spent." He says that the company is interested in various approaches to generating revenue, like referral fees from booking sites and advertising, but adds, "we're not looking at revenue in this cycle. We're working on something that millions of people will be passionate about using."

Jeff Fagnan, the partner at Cambridge-based Atlas Venture who led the firm's investment in Hopper, says that he's confident that the site will go live sometime this year. (The latest date I've been hearing is April.) Fagnan writes via e-mail, "We have overcome many obstacles to date," including "scaling the back end," finding a partner to supply airline and hotel data, and "creating an elegant user interface paradigm." He says the site will "answer the age-old question of 'where should we go and what should we do?'"

Hopper could turn out to be the hottest new travel site in a string of Boston-bred successes that includes ITA Software (now part of Google), TripAdvisor (now public), and Kayak (now part of Priceline). Or it could be the travel industry's version of "Duke Nukem Forever."

I never root against an entrepreneur, especially one with Lalonde's smarts and experience. But after so many years spent in stealth mode, expectations for what Hopper will be once it launches are now extreeeeeeemely high.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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