Goby—Exploring the Web’s Depths So You Can Explore the World

9/23/09Follow @wroush

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Reprise Media and Waltham, MA-based Lycos. And the company’s final co-founder, Michael Stonebraker, is a leading database researcher, MIT computer science professor, and serial startup entrepreneur.

Watkins says Chip Hazard, a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston, knew about some work Stonebraker and a graduate student, Mujde Pamuk, were doing on new ways to automatically organize information found on the Web. Hazard urged Watkins, who had recently left Endeca, to make contact and see whether the technology could be turned into a startup.

The answer was yes. The fundamental insight Stonebraker and Pamuk had derived, says Watkins, was that “you can learn a lot about a piece of information by the way you find it.”

He explains: “If you go to Expedia and you say ‘I want a plane ticket from Boston to San Francisco for this date and this time and this price,’ you get a list of results. You know that these results are about plane tickets originating in Boston and terminating in San Francisco in a certain price range, but a traditional search engine wouldn’t know that—if Google managed to find that information, it wouldn’t have any idea what it was about. The insight was that rather than just naively crawling a website, you can crawl using a site’s search forms and browsing hierarchy and learn a lot more about the content.”

A Goby result, showing related images culled from Google and FlickrThe buzzword for software that pay attention to contextual data about content is “semantic”—and semantic searches like those Stonebraker and Pamuk were proposing could be applied to any domain. It was Watkins’ idea to see whether it could be used to organize the Web’s welter of travel, entertainment, and recreation-related data.

“My wife is half-Hawaiian, and we go there a few times a year,” Watkins says. “I almost always try to see some music when I travel—for me, that’s a big part of travel, trying to take whatever my personal passions are and doing that. One time, I got home and found out that Jack Johnson [a singer-songwriter raised on Oahu] had been playing just 15 minutes from where we were staying. So I had it in the back of my mind that I would love a service that would let me know about all the things going on my location.”

Watkins wrote a business plan, brought in Russo to build a prototype, and lined up several million dollars in Series A funding from Flybridge and Waltham, MA-based Kepha Partners. (Watkins isn’t saying exactly how much money the 10-employee company has raised.)  The team considered applying Stonebraker’s method to other subject areas, but kept coming back to travel and activity planning—”because it really spoke to us personally, and because, frankly, it’s just a lot of fun,” Watkins says.

It’s also got a lot of business potential. Consumers spend $90 billion a year on travel, and travel-related advertising alone is a $9 billion industry. Goby plans to tap into that revenue stream in several ways, Watkins says—for example, by … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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