Startups to watch: Ottawa’s AtomicX puts personal touch on chatbots

Dan Cummins / AtomicX
Dan Cummins believes no one in the chatbot space has yet done it right, so he founded Ottawa’s AtomicX to take a crack at it himself. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

An Ottawa startup thinks the biggest weakness in today’s chatbot offerings is a lack of focus on the other side of the conversation: you. AtomicX believes its artificial intelligence, nicknamed Rufus, will stand out from the market with its emphasis on user experience.

The local startup makes its home above the Origin Trade cafe in the ByWard Market. Dan Cummins, who owns Origin Trade and the building itself, is the founder of AtomicX.

He’s also the CEO behind Atomic Motion, a separate web development company that’s been in operation for about 15 years. That company makes its name in high-scale website and app development with a focus on – you guessed it – user experience.

The idea for AtomicX came a few years back when Cummins took a breath, looked around the web development industry and saw some significant shifts on the horizon. Website builders such as Squarespace and Ottawa’s own PageCloud were making it easy for anyone to build a site from scratch, and the higher-end web development jobs weren’t cropping up as readily as before.

“What’s the future of my industry?” Cummins asked himself.

“I identified AI as the next up-and-coming industry that was going to take root,” he answered.

Building better chatbots

Founded in 2017, AtomicX offers a variety of artificial intelligence-related services, but the main focus of the six-person startup is building chatbots. Specifically, Cummins says, ones that actually work.

He’s insistent that nobody – from Silicon Valley startups to Facebook to Microsoft – has figured chatbots out yet. Today, Cummins explains, it’s mostly fixed-language bots that can get a customer’s name and email address for follow-ups, and they might be able to tell you if a customer is ticked off or merely curious.

AtomicX isn’t the only Ottawa company getting involved in chatbots. Ottawa Tourism has experimented with the tech to help guide visitors to the capital’s hotspots.

Shopify has also doubled down on chatbots recently as a way of giving merchants their “first employee.” That tech also has a useful internal role for the local e-commerce giant: It can give merchants tips on promotions to run based on in-store analytics.

That’s not really the kind of chatbot AtomicX is building, though.

According to Cummins, building better chatbots isn’t about perfecting the artificial intelligence underpinning the bot. Instead, it’s about focusing on that curious customer from earlier and changing the bot-user interaction from an “afterthought” to the “front-and-centre experience.”

In other words, AtomicX isn’t trying to reinvent the increasingly crowded AI space; it’s changing the way chatbots are delivered.

Through an app, the web manager can see all of Rufus’s current conversations. It’s currently a lot of the fixed-language standard you’d find on most websites, but it’s also tracking how well the conversation is going through basic sentiment analysis. If one of those conversations starts to go south, the manager can intervene and deliver the personal touch that could salvage the entire interaction.

“We’re the only bot on the market right now that offers that,” Cummins says.

Disruption ahead

Does Cummins foresee chatbots disrupting the workforce any time soon? He’s not shy about the vision.

“Absolutely.”

He sees the Rufus approach reducing staffing at call centres by a ratio of 10 to 1. Instead of chatbots missing the mark or 100 employees manning individual conversations, one agent can monitor 10 Rufus chats at once and put his or her attention where it’s needed most.

“Call centres are a nightmare. We hear it again and again and again. We see chatbots alleviating a lot of that frustration,” Cummins says.

This is a common argument AI proponents will level against skeptics: Artificial intelligence isn’t replacing human workers, it’s augmenting them, allowing them to do a job better. What employers choose to do with those freed-up resources is the next question.

AtomicX is currently split between an R&D team in Ottawa and a sales-focused division in Toronto. The company recently scooped former Shopify comptroller Mike Gagnon as its first chief financial officer. Rufus is still in beta testing, but trials with a local Ottawa business have yielded promising results, the founder says.

These early stages, where the tech is just starting to make a difference, are exciting for Cummins. He believes AtomicX’s startup status will help it break into the chatbot space with better luck than the large incumbents.

“I see all the innovations coming from small startups like AtomicX,” he says.

“We think there’s a lot of potential with chatbots, and we’re just skimming the surface.”

AtomicX

Key players: CEO Dan Cummins, CFO Mike Gagnon

Solution: Artificial intelligence and chatbots focused on user experience

Funding: Bootstrapped