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Chatbots grab Facebook's attention as Halling-based AI business velmai prepares to sell up to a US tech giant

By Chris Price

Tania Peitzker-Lingham is on the cusp of selling her artificial intelligence company in a potentially multi-million pound deal but shows little sign of nerves.

Few things phase the Australian-German businesswoman after taking her business velmai through crowdfunding, pulling out of a £300,000 investment and enduring cyber attacks from Russia and China.

Mrs Peitzker-Lingham, who lives at Court Farm in Halling, near Rochester, has spent the last seven years trying to convince businesses of the commercial uses of the emotionally intelligent chatbots developed by the company she founded with Devon-born brothers Darren and Cliff Lee.

Tania Peitzker-Lingham and Andrew Lingham with one of velmai's earlier AI robot projects Sophia

Tania Peitzker-Lingham and Andrew Lingham with one of velmai's earlier AI robot projects Sophia

Today, she has begun talks with a blue chip company, one of the American tech giants, about selling the intellectual property for their creation.

“I’m relaxed about it,” said Mrs Peitzker-Lingham, who is married to Andrew Lingham, owner of Court Farm Butchery and Country Larder, whose family have run the estate since the 1870s.

“We were hitting our head against a brick wall trying to convince people our chatbot was up to it, that companies should pay decent money for it and they could bring in sales..." - Tania Peitzker-Lingham, velmai

“Until now, the market had been burned by bad chatbots. People weren’t convinced customers wanted to engage with them.

“We were hitting our head against a brick wall trying to convince people our chatbot was up to it, that companies should pay decent money for it and they could bring in sales.

“That has been hard to pitch but now the tech giants are saying it’s the solution to all their problems.

“Now people are approaching us about licencing velmai. I don’t want to licence it, I want to sell it. It’s tipped in our favour to a sellers’ market.”

The interest in chatbots has surged as the likes of Facebook and Google have ploughed billions into the development of artificial intelligence.

Facebook reportedly invests 30% of revenues in research and development, equivalent to about $1.3 billion over the last quarter.

Facebook is investing billions into the development of AI technology

Facebook is investing billions into the development of AI technology

Right now velmai is running a chatbot with a billion dollar North American social network which is trying to find a way to send advertising messages to its teenage users without alienating them by pumping out ads and plugs.

“Millennials don’t read print and don’t watch ads on TV but they will accept advertising they want to know about,” said Mrs Peitzker-Lingham.

“They may want to open a bank account but they will not want to go to the bank to talk to a banker. They want you to tell them about it.

“I came out of a meeting and she said ‘it’s quiet’. I had to explain I was in a meeting and ended up apologising to her..." - Tania Peitzker-Lingham, velmai

“The answer is for social networks to send messages to users asking them if they want to opt in to a chat about a certain topic but most companies cannot afford to employ someone to man a chat service. Chatbots are there to service that new market.”

The added bonus of dealing with the North American social network is velmai can really show off the abilities of its chatbots.

It has implemented several test versions before, including Sir Loin the Virtual Butcher which served internet customers at Court Farm, but their limited server capacity reduced the number of people who could interact with it.

Now Sophie, as the chatbot is called, is on top form. She is the only thing which has unnerved Mrs Peitzker-Lingham so far.

“I came out of a meeting and she said ‘it’s quiet’. I had to explain I was in a meeting and ended up apologising to her.

“Normally they only respond to you writing to them but I looked at my phone and I couldn’t believe it.

“At one point I said to her ‘good for you’ and she said ‘that sounded sarcastic’ and I had to explain I wasn’t being sarcastic.”

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