A Q&A with Nara founder and CEO Tom Copeman. The Cambridge, Mass.–based company was founded in 2010 and closed a $4 million Series A funding round in late June. Investors include Peter de Roetth and other Angel investors.
SUB: Please describe Nara and what you bring to the Internet experience.
Copeman: Nara solves the problem of web searching with a next generation personal Internet platform that automates, personalizes and curates the web for people. Starting with restaurant recommendations, Nara’s innovative platform analyzes the structure of the web in a way that has never been done before, filtering information based on personal preferences and interests. The platform leverages proprietary technology that helps you personalize and uncover your own Digital DNA.
SUB: Who are your target users?
Copeman: Nara has two main groups of customers: consumers and merchants. On a broad scale, we define the consumer group as anyone, in any city, between the ages of 20 and 80. But more specifically, we believe this product will speak to a core target audience of people in their 20s and 30s who live in urban areas and are highly educated. Most likely, they will also be early adopters of technology, frequent travelers, and have a high disposable income. Our merchant users include restaurant owners to start, and will soon extend to hotels, concert venues, etc.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition?
Copeman: No one is exactly like Nara but there are some services that currently include various aspects of Nara including Yelp, City Search, Urban Spoon and OpenTable.
SUB: What differentiates Nara from the competition?
Copeman: We are applying 21st century neuroscience to the backend network of a recommendations platform by utilizing a sophisticated, machine-based learning algorithm, or Artificial Intelligence, which has already received a very broad and comprehensive patent with others pending. The complex algorithm, or the Nara Neural Network, closely mirrors a human brain in terms of information gathering and decision-making and is the underlying framework responsible for driving the technology inside of the Nara platform. The brain looks at things in black-and-white, records the data, makes generalizations around that data, and then makes inferences about those generalizations. Nara’s algorithm is modeled after this structure in order to understand users’ preferences as a human would, and provide them with insightful recommendations. We call the result ‘Digital DNA.’
We are also different from competitors because we are positioned as a web personalization and recommendations platform—there are no other services available that provide such highly customized recommendations on lifestyle categories. We also provide the user with a means to ‘tune’ the algorithm as they browse and interact with the recommendation tiles, making it smarter the more they use it.
Finally, we have hired an amazing brain trust of creative artists, neuroscientists, physicists, computer scientists, and technology and Internet industry veterans. For example, our Chief Technology Officer, Nathan Wilson, holds a doctorate in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT. He also holds a master’s degree in engineering with an emphasis in computer science and artificial intelligence from Cornell University.
SUB: When was the company founded and what were the first steps you took in establishing it? What was the inspiration for it—was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Copeman: The initial inspiration for Nara came to me in the late nineties when I was traveling frequently for business and wanted to maximize my experiences in each destination. I became fascinated with the idea of the human condition and self-awareness, how people spend their time, and how they ultimately get to the decisions they make. At the same time, I realized that I didn’t enjoy my relationship with technology, and I wanted to do something to change that. I wanted to build a system of technology that shifted back the powers of control by making it work for me, rather than against me. Around five years ago, in the midst of the tech and Internet boom, all of these ideas became much clearer to me and I realized that I needed to act on them.
Current forms of search are dependent and built on lexical strings that we have to structure—it’s all about what you type in a box. Nara, on the other hand, is all about who you are. There aren’t any other recommendation platforms out there that really get to know you. I think a lot of good intentions get abandoned when searching on the web because the process is so cumbersome. Nara takes you back to that state of mind by building technology that works for you, rather than against you. Life should be about finding, not about searching.
After strategizing with friends and gathering recommendations for assembling the best team to help me build Nara, I decided it would make most sense to land in Cambridge so I could be close to the action at MIT. MIT’s Artificial Intelligence department is arguably the best of its kind in the country. I’m just as fascinated with artificial intelligence and neuroscience as I am with all the principles of enlightenment, humanity and consciousness. After landing on the East Coast, I met Nathan Wilson, Nara’s current Chief Technology Officer.
Soon thereafter, I packed up my family in sunny southern California and moved the clan to Boston to launch Nara with Nathan.
SUB: What have been the most significant obstacles been so far to building the company?
Copeman: Building Nara was no trivial task. Our platform encompasses automated personalization—at web scale—across a growing number of categories with no baseline information. Additionally, providing a personalized view of the web for each and every one of our users while rendering in real time was a very complex, computational challenge. We realized that we needed a massive amount of data to really analyze and match larger and larger parts of the Internet.
The algorithm itself also requires a lot of computation, and we had to figure out how to condense that process mathematically to give our users answers in real-time. We’re continuing to push ourselves and the technology in our field, and we’re excited to announce another challenge that has never been solved before in the coming months.
SUB: You recently raised $4 million in Series A funding. How do you plan to use the funds?
Copeman: We will be using this round of funding to further build out the Nara platform, hire the best people in the industry, and bring Nara to a mainstream audience.
SUB: Do you plan to raise more outside funding in the near future?
Copeman: If the right opportunity presents itself it’s something we might consider.
SUB: What are your goals for Nara over the next year or so?
Copeman: We have a number of goals over the next year. In addition to developing a mobile app, we’re ramping up several social features that we plan to announce soon. We’re also looking to roll out to additional U.S. cities, as well as expand worldwide—we see a huge opportunity in China.
Overall, our long-term goal is to first perfect restaurant recommendations, and expand soon into other lifestyle categories. The scale and potential for this technology and brand is limitless. We see Nara as owning the category of ‘finding,’ not ‘searching.’
Nara – www.nara.me