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Gerard & Anton Award winner Neople: Your virtual colleague

Written by Innovation Origins

30 October 2023

Written by Innovation Origins

30 October 2023

Innovation Origins is putting the winners of the Gerard and Anton Awards 2023 in the spotlight. This edition: Neople.

Although the list of clients is already impressive and the amount of staff exceeds two dozen, Neople is still in its first year of existence. Starting with the idea to perform some consulting around the use of AI for companies, the concept quickly evolved into providing the AI itself. Co-founder Hans de Penning: “At that moment, we realized that we’d better practice what we preached. That’s when we stopped explaining how artificial intelligence could benefit a company but implemented it for them.” 

That’s how Neople, came to be the virtual colleague who can help the staff with any question that may come up. Neople are designed to work harmoniously with your team, just as any good colleague would. 

It all started after Hans de Penning came back from his sabbatical trip to South Africa. He had the experience from start-ups Vention and Amber, and was eager to start something new. Together with co-founders Job Nijenhuis, Bas Ploeg, Sander Kok, and Menno Zevenbergen, he began to visit companies and ask them about their needs around the integration of AI in their work processes. “AI was something that did interest me a lot already. Because obviously, with Amber, I did quite a lot with it as well. The same was true for Job, who graduated in Neural Networks. So it was actually already pretty logical that this would be the angle.”

The pitch

After having done a bunch of conversations with potential customers, it was time for a pitch. “Then we thought, yeah, we can just start providing consultations ourselves. But you know, why not just go there as AI instead of ourselves? So that’s what we made the first pitch for. We were not pitching, but our AI employee Emily was. And so we could perfectly explain what the problem was, how Emily could solve it, and what this would ask from the company’s employees. Because we knew from the conversations we had had that most companies think of AI as something difficult or even scary. By showing that we didn’t want to bring a new set of tools into the company’s systems, we could also show that our solution could be integrated into their already existing systems. So the only thing we needed to make sure is that our system could work within the existing operation. And it does. For everything we integrate with, we don’t really have to create a tool or an app at all. It just works in Teams or Slack, for example. Systems that these people already use. We build technology that adapts to their needs.”

Although at this moment, there’s only one type of Neople available, behind the scenes all the specific experts are already built and ready to be rolled out. “What we’re really actively deploying now is the support employee. We also have a lawyer, we have an accountant, we have an HR person, and a planning officer; we have all kinds of types ready to be deployed. But we are now really putting full effort into the support employees. That’s our focus. Thanks to his learning capabilities, this employee will get smarter and smarter. With every interaction, he learns.”

Bossche Bollen

The company now has three main departments: the revenue team, the product team, and the AI trainers. Together, they are a staff of already more than 20 people. For now, finding the right colleagues is the most challenging part of building the company, De Penning says. “For one specific position recently, we talked to more than 50 people to find the right candidate. This is so important that we must spend a lot of energy on it.” The long selection period has a reward, though. After signing the contract, Bossche Bollen are offered to the new employees and the existing ones. “And they must be eaten without a knife or fork – you can imagine the result, haha.”

Although Neople is operating from Den Bosch – hence, the Bossche Bollen – and Eindhoven, it’s still the Brainport ecosystem that’s helping them a lot. “We’re all still attached to the TU Eindhoven community; we now employ two graduating students from there, for example. PSV is one of our clients, and the AI Innovation Center at the High Tech Campus is an important part of our network. So the Brainport community still works for us, although more can be done to connect founders to each other.”

Looking ahead

Neople is clearly in the spot where many rapid developments are taking place. Would it be possible even to look a bit further ahead? De Penning: “That’s not easy, of course, but if there’s one thing I am quite sure of, it’s that digital employees are going to take over a large part of your work. The less fun parts, especially. So we can concentrate on the more important, creative, or fun parts. Or create new layers of tasks on top of what we already do.  Now, almost 60% of our code is written by AI and no longer by our employees, and therefore our programmers can do 2.5 times as much as they could a year ago. That’s amazing! And the same goes for our customers: they also experience that Neople is providing their employees with more time to do the interesting stuff.”

As a winner in the ninth round of the Gerard & Anton Awards, Neople is part of an already strong tradition. Which of the eighty former winners stands out for Hans de Penning? Laughing: “May I mention the one I was already involved in? In that case, it’s Amber, of course. What a journey we had with that start-up; the build-up, the pivots, the growth to what it is now – I’m still extremely proud of that experience!”

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