Startup in the spotlight: Dialogue Trainer

Communication, for example in the health care or service sectors, does not always run smoothly. Allowing professionals to practice conversations online can help to make the actual face-to-face conversations more pleasant and efficient. This can be achieved using the software and content of the Utrecht-based company DialogueTrainer. Users include students, health care professionals, prison guards and call centre staff. Recently, even patients have been able to use the online conversation scenarios. We sat down for a chat with founder Michiel Hulsbergen.

The platform offers various virtual conversation partners that a player can talk to. This involves choosing from various different answer options. Each chosen answer elicits a specific response from the virtual discussion partner in the form of a facial expression and a statement. The effectiveness of the communication is determined by the player's choices. The system records every choice and displays the scores and feedback if desired.

Four sectors served by a single science-based innovation

'DialogueTrainer operates in four sectors with a growing number of players: health care, education, central government and business. This is a broad scope for an application, but we deliberately chose it to be that way. Within the education sector, for example, we can involve large groups of students and validate the material. The material appears to be highly appealing to the health care sector as well. In the prison system, the playable cases ensure that knowledge becomes more widely disseminated within the organisation. Beyond that, we have high expectations for the commercial sector in the coming period.' Hulsbergen calls his own organisation a 'natural organisation': 'We make decisions not on the basis of seniority, but on the basis of good information: anyone can let us know if something stands out or is not working. We also learn a lot from each other. It only makes work more fun.'

De Oefendokter

'Thanks to a project funded by EIT Digital, we can expand further within the European health care sector. By means of De Oefendokter (the practice doctor), we wish to offer assistance to both conversation partners. For example, it offers an opportunity for both the doctor and patient to learn about the primary and secondary objectives of a conversation. People in Edinburgh and Bucharest are already taking part in the project and there is also interest from the Republic of Ireland.' A free demo is available here. Hulsbergen: 'This demo version already does a lot. With a more comprehensive variant, health care organisations can use the tool in conjunction with other interventions. If we can prove that this has an impact, we expect to get insurers on board to finance the project and help make it even more widely available. That is our mission. As part of a broader project, funded by the Agis Innovation Fund, we are currently developing three modules for a wide group of health care professionals. These could deal with self-management, shared decision-making, collaboration skills or "setting boundaries". We are currently looking for professionals who would like to contribute to this development.'

A healthy company with science in its DNA

'Our company developed out of a project at Utrecht University in 2012. We haven't been overtaken by other parties yet, which used to surprise me, but apparently what we are doing is still really innovative – both technologically, with a player and editor, and from a social and scientific point of view, with increasingly well-validated content. Science that directly benefits society is in our DNA, and we always test and validate our ideas thoroughly, as is customary with "lean" start-ups and scale-ups. We have an idealistic objective, in the sense that we want to develop knowledge, but above all we are a healthy company. These things can go well together. We have attracted a mixed duo of investors, which plays to both our commercial and scientific strengths: Kenneth Smit and Utrecht University.' As Hulsbergen concludes: 'There is a lot of enthusiasm in DialogueTrainer.'

The Academic Startup Competition

DialogueTrainer joins the Academic Startup Competition 2019. The Academic Startup Competition challenges universities and research institutions to nominate their best spin-off startups for a position among the top 10 Dutch scientific breakthroughs. Academic startups are where science and enterprise join forces. The competition contributes to the Netherlands’ efforts to better convert scientific excellence into societal impact. The 10 best academic startups are given a chance to present themselves at the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES).