Startups Tackle Personalized Recommendations in Business, Education

From artificial intelligence startup Nara Logics to professional review site Dunwello, Boston-area startups are making progress in improving online recommendations through personalization.

Consumer recommendation sites for things like travel or restaurants are not new, of course. Companies such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Angie’s List have built massive businesses around user reviews. Since 2011, Newton, MA-based TripAdvisor has nearly doubled its annual revenue to $1.2 billion and completed 17 acquisitions, according to a statement, but CEO Stephen Kaufer recognizes it has a data analytics challenge.

The best hotel for an individual user may not be the No. 1 rated one on the site, Kaufer said at the TiE StartupCon at the Boston Marriott Cambridge on May 1.

And that’s a key problem that a recent wave of startups is trying to solve, for both consumers and businesses.

“Bigger companies like TripAdvisor and Yelp have such a wealth of unstructured data that they do a decent job of mining that data and providing some recommendations, but it’s still not perfect,” says Alex Rosenfeld, who previously founded Tasted Menu, a now-defunct restaurant review site. “In my mind, there’s still an opportunity there.”

Rosenfeld says that Tasted Menu tried to recommend specific dishes based on individual cravings. RunKeeper co-founder Michael Sheeley is attempting to do something a bit similar, also in Boston, with Chef Nightly. That’s an app that makes personalized meal suggestions and lets users order them for delivery from local restaurants.

But when it comes to providing personalized recommendations, Nara Logics, based in Cambridge, MA, uses particularly advanced technology. With data science, Nara hopes to solve the problem of “getting blasted with irrelevant recommendations,” CEO Jana Eggers said in an e-mail.

The company’s approach is all about making sense of existing data and pairing that with individual preferences and contexts, whether in the lifestyle or financial industry, says Nitya Srikishen, Nara’s communications manager. On the consumer recommendations side, Nara filters tens of thousands of movies and millions of hotels and restaurants, with about 3,000 listings in Boston. For example, if a user wanted a boutique hotel in Back Bay with free Wi-Fi, Nara would return exactly one option: the Charlesmark Hotel.

Nara’s applications to banks and other businesses are more recent. “Companies today have the data to personalize their product or service offers, but until now, they didn’t have the tools to bring this to bear,” Eggers said. “Combining neuroscience and AI, we are showing phenomenal results with actual one-to-one personalized recommendations.”

Better personalization can help business with “increased sales, engagement and customer loyalty,” Eggers said. “One company we work with is able to leverage connections in their data to do comprehensive risk analysis for their customers.”

Nara, founded in 2010 by serial entrepreneur Thomas Copeman and MIT neuro-computer scientist Nathan Wilson, has raised a total of $13 million in Series A funding. The company recently recruited computational neuroscience researcher Sebastian Seung to its board of advisers. Seung was a longtime MIT professor before leaving for Princeton in 2014.

Meanwhile, Boston startup Dunwello allows people to submit and read reviews of individual professionals, with the dual aim of helping consumers find the right people and enabling professionals to market their own services.

Founder and CEO Matt Lauzon told Dave Gerhardt in his Tech in Boston podcast that Dunwello’s goal is “to help match people with the perfect professional for them,” whether it be hair stylists or realtors.

When looking for a hair stylist for coloring, for example, you might choose Chuck Bass at Jean-Pierre Salon based on his 21 Dunwello reviews, mostly praising his coloring expertise. Whereas another stylist has many mentions on Jean-Pierre’s page on Yelp, Bass has none, which points to Dunwello’s advantage of highlighting the professional, regardless of his or her potential job or location changes.

Businesses can also benefit from the site. Turnstyle Cycle owner Rich Downing told BostInno that customer reviews serve as “the most powerful way” to communicate quality. “Put simply, Dunwello puts rocket boosters on word-of-mouth,” Downing said.

More personalized recommendations are also seeping into the education sector. Abroad101 CEO Mark Shay says the “secret” to his site, which he calls the “TripAdvisor for study abroad,” is partnering with colleges and universities to provide them with free program evaluation software, which helps to increase study-abroad enrollment. Abroad101 was founded in Boston in 2007 and was acquired by Shay and Ledra Capital in 2013.

The company’s 37 questions given to students upon returning abroad helps hold them accountable for both the positive and negative experiences, Shay says, making it easier for students to pinpoint which aspects of a certain program match their own goals and expectations. Some schools even give credit for studying abroad only after students complete reviews.

“When students are forced to do this, they tend to be more honest,” Shay says. “The problem in the review world is people who have a good experience don’t review, but people with a horrible experience do. Requiring students to do it gets more of that middle—students where something did go wrong or wasn’t quite right.”

Students expect different experiences, so Shay says that these reviews help “paint a picture” of whether a city like Barcelona that is known for nightlife or a city like Oxford that leans more toward academics is more suitable. “You’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you don’t know,” he says.

The reviews prove helpful not only for students looking to go abroad, but also their parents. Shay says he believes up to a quarter of the website’s traffic comes from parents seeking reassurance. “Reviews are powerful not just in searching and comparing programs, but setting expectations for moms and dads,” Shay says.

Abroad101 follows the model of similar services for making revenue—selling advertisements to providers and foreign universities, with its content being the reviews.

“Our reviews are designed to not just be an instinct and gut impression like Yelp and TripAdvisor,” Shay says. “So many students talk about study abroad as a transformative experience … so review becomes the place to make those statements.”

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