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After gBETA, UW Prof Patel’s Latest Startup, DataChat, Aims to Ride Chatbot Wave

Virtual assistants have come a long way in the two decades since Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) introduced Clippit, an animated paper clip that suggested tips and shortcuts to users as they worked in Word, Excel, and other Microsoft Office applications.

The bot, commonly known as “Clippy,” drew endless ire and mockery—even from Microsoft—before the company retired him in the 2000s. Many users felt Clippy didn’t presume competence. For example, beginning a Word document with “Dear” caused Clippy to pop up and offer help with writing a letter.

Clippy was arguably a bust for Microsoft, but newer virtual assistants have proven to be more useful and popular. From voice-controlled gadgets like Amazon’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) Echo and Alphabet’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Google Home to the virtual chatbots some organizations’ websites use to greet visitors, many of these tools are helping people find information and carry out tasks more quickly. And, unlike Clippy, most of these modern helpers can be easily ignored.

Madison, WI-based DataChat is one of the newest businesses attempting to ride the wave of high-tech chatbots. The company’s tools are designed to help professionals—-especially those with little or no experience writing software code—retrieve data from different sources by typing a simple query into a text box. Enterprise search is a problem that plenty of tech companies have tried to solve over the years in various ways. Other examples include Endeca, which Oracle (NYSE: ORCL) acquired in 2011; Xendo, which was bought by AppDirect last year; and ThoughtSpot. DataChat’s founders think their approach could prove attractive to businesses, in part because of the software’s ease of use.

Jignesh Patel

Jignesh Patel

“The targeted user could be a decision-maker who has no programming experience,” says Jignesh Patel, one of DataChat’s co-founders and a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “For example, a marketing executive might say, ‘I want to look at the latest data from Google Analytics and Facebook on my advertising campaigns. Tell me which ads are performing the best, and compare my campaigns to the performance of the campaigns from last week.’”

Patel says DataChat is designing its bots to be able to respond to requests for information that employees in specific industries are likely to have. The startup’s technology uses analytics and machine learning techniques to “decipher” what someone is asking with a particular query, he says.

“The bot effectively is writing code in real time to go and carry out the analysis” requested by a user, Patel says. DataChat then displays results in charts and graphs, he says. Eventually the startup may add an interface allowing users to ask DataChat to retrieve information using just their voices, “but in this initial phase, the product is primarily targeting textual input,” he says.

Patel previously helped launch three software companies that went on to be acquired by larger firms. Given that track record, it might come as a surprise to some that DataChat decided to participate in gBETA, a series of free, seven-week startup accelerator programs held in several Midwestern cities. gBETA’s programs are managed by Gener8tor, a Wisconsin-based organization that holds training programs for startups and invests in some of them.

“gBETA is excellent at doing two things: one is really putting you through the grinder in terms of [sharpening] your business plan,” Patel says. “The second one is [helping] us to get out in the local community as we start to engage with big enterprises in the area. Our technology can be applied across many industries. There’s so many great … Next Page »

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Jeff Buchanan is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jbuchanan@xconomy.com Follow @_jeffbuchanan

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