Amazon’s Alexa Fund invests in three voice startups

Founded in 2015, Amazon’s Alexa Fund is devoted to helping kickstart early-stage voice startups. This week, it’s bringing a trio of new companies into its Seattle-based accelerator. There’s Bamboo Learning, which was an early partner for Amazon’s Alexa Presentation Language (APL). The startup develops music educational skills, teaching users about notes, instruments, chords and tempo, […]

Founded in 2015, Amazon’s Alexa Fund is devoted to helping kickstart early-stage voice startups. This week, it’s bringing a trio of new companies into its Seattle-based accelerator.

There’s Bamboo Learning, which was an early partner for Amazon’s Alexa Presentation Language (APL). The startup develops music educational skills, teaching users about notes, instruments, chords and tempo, along with other bits of music vocabulary.

Endel, meanwhile, is designed to use soundscapes to help users relax. According to the company, “Our core algorithm is based on circadian rhythms, pentatonic scale and sound masking. The sounds adapt to different inputs – like time of day, weather, heart rate, and location.”

There’s also healthcare startup Aiva, which uses voice assistants to help route users to healthcare professions. Both Aiva and Endel are Techstars alumni. The three companies will get funding from Amazon, help and resources via the Alexa accelerator and will take part in Amazon’s Demo Night.

Amazon expands its Alexa Fund Fellowship to a total of 18 universities, up from 4 last year

Amazon announced this morning a further investment in voice technology with an expansion of its Alexa Fund Fellowship to 14 new universities, up from only 4 in 2017, the Fellowship’s first year. The program, which is designed to support conversational A.I. and speech science research, is now coming to 18 total universities, including new additions, […]

Amazon announced this morning a further investment in voice technology with an expansion of its Alexa Fund Fellowship to 14 new universities, up from only 4 in 2017, the Fellowship’s first year. The program, which is designed to support conversational A.I. and speech science research, is now coming to 18 total universities, including new additions, MIT, Dartmouth and Cambridge.

Under the banner of the Alexa Fund Fellowship are two programs: The Alexa Graduate Fellowship, focused on fostering education by PhD and post-doctoral students on topics like machine learning, speech science, and conversational A.I.; as well as the Alexa Innovation Fellowship, which is aimed at helping entrepreneurship center faculty serve as voice experts on campus, Amazon says.

Only 10 of the universities are receiving the 2018-19 Graduate Fellowship – a decision that’s made based on their research interests, planned coursework, and conversational A.I. curriculum, says Amazon.

This list now includes: Carnegie Mellon; the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyperabad, India; John Hopkins; MIT; Cambridge; University of Sheffield (UK); University of Southern California (LA); University of Texas at Austin; University of Washington (Seattle); and University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada).

Meanwhile, the Innovation Fellowship will help to support on-campus entrepreneurship programs, by offering funding, Alexa devices, hardware kits, and regular training. The goal is to encourage student entrepreneurs to integrate voice technology into their startups, using Alexa’s developer services like ASK and AVS.

There are also 10 universities receiving this funding, as there’s some overlap with the prior list. These include: Arizona State University (Tucson); California State University (Northridge); Carnegie Mellon; Dartmouth; Emerson College; Texas A&M University; University of California (Berkeley); University of Illinois; University of Michigan (Ann Arbor); and University of Southern California.

As a part of this year’s Fellowship, there are already a number of projects underway.

For example, Alexa Graduate Fellow Jessica van Brummelen is exploring ways to make conversational A.I. interfaces easier to create and learn at MIT;  Alexa Innovation Fellow Andrew Singer, the Associate Dean of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is teaching a course on audio and signal processing that uses the Alexa Voice Services development kits; and Alexa Graduate Fellow James Thorne is studying new methods to use A.I. to verify information accuracy by way of follow-up questions at Cambridge.

With this expanded Fellowship, Amazon is seeding the system with entrepreneurs, researchers and academics who are working with voice technology, and specifically, Amazon’s Alexa voice platform. This could also help to serve as a hiring pipeline for Amazon in the future, while bringing Alexa developer tools directly to schools and classrooms.

Amazon, however is not the only company working to promote its technology at the university level. Google created its own PhD Fellowship program in 2009 which supports future faculty, industry researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs across disciplines, including voice.

The Alexa Fund Fellowship is one of several ways Amazon has been investing in Alexa technology and research. It also launched developer tools like the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) and Alexa Voice Services (AVS) and allocated $200 million to voice-related startups via the Alexa Fund.

Amazon’s newest Alexa Fund recipients are less consumer-focused

Amazon is today announcing the new batch of startups joining its Alexa Accelerator program, powered by Techstars. Members of last year’s Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator program, which backs companies developing new experiences using voice-based technologies, went on to raise over $10 million in venture capital following their participation in the program, says Amazon. The new group […]

Amazon is today announcing the new batch of startups joining its Alexa Accelerator program, powered by Techstars. Members of last year’s Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator program, which backs companies developing new experiences using voice-based technologies, went on to raise over $10 million in venture capital following their participation in the program, says Amazon. The new group includes startups focused on business use cases, STEM education for kids, accessible technology, and more.

The idea behind the accelerator is to help fuel early-stage companies developing for voice, giving Amazon an equity stake in the businesses.

The teams will participate in a three-month long accelerator program that culminates on October 9th with Demo Night, where they’ll present their business to venture capitalists and angel investors, and present their new Alexa experiences.

Amazon says it received hundreds of applications from 44 countries around the world for the 2018 program, and narrowed it down to nine it believes have the most potential.

During the accelerator program, the companies will improve their products, refine their business model, and develop for Alexa, while receiving mentorship from both Techstars and Amazon, as well as the broader Seattle community.

This year’s batch includes participation from the following:

Blutag

Blutag seems especially relevant to Amazon’s interests, as its company is helping stores create voice-based shopping experiences for their customers. It aims to enable retailers to build a voice-based store without coding, allowing customers to shop by asking Alexa for a particular product, then receive personalized product suggestions over text or email.

Conservation Labs

This startup is operating in the smart home space, offering a produce that connects to the home’s main water line to monitor household water use, in order to help homeowners gain money-saving insights and detect leaks.

HelixAI

HelixAI is taking Alexa to scientific laboratories. Not to be confused with genetic services marketplace Helix, this startup’s HelixAI digital assistant can respond to natural language queries to provide scientists and other others in lab settings with real-time information about their operating procedures, lab safety information, workflow and processes, and reference information. For example, you can ask HelixAI things like “what’s the boiling point of benzene?” or “What about the cut site for the restriction enzyme EcoRI?”

Imageous

Imageous is expanding Alexa’s smart home capabilities to the “smart building.” Its smart facilities AI assistant for occupants of commercial buildings brings the benefits of AI technology to building operators. The AI can take advantage of system data (environmental), social data from the occupant population (if they’re reporting they’re hot, cold or comfortable), and external data sources (e.g weather or traffic data), to optimize the building for energy use and comfort with a focus on efficiency and cost savings.

Jargon

Jargon is offering an on-demand translation service that removes language barriers by combining technology with human assistance.

Novalia

Novalia offers a Bluetooth platform connected to paper-thin self-adhesive touch sensors that capture data through touch, in order to create immersive, touch-based experiences, Its audio platform then responds to touch, and turns it into audio through a surface sound actuator or line out. The company has worked with a number of brands on digital signage, touch-based posters, and other projects.

Presence AI

This company is developing AI-powered conversations for small businesses to replace phone calls for things like bookings. Currently it operates over text message, but an Alexa integration could translate this to voice. (A less troublesome version of Google’s Duplex, perhaps, as it doesn’t try to impersonate a human.)

Unruly Studios

Boston-based Unruly is combining STEM education with physical activity by building programmable, electronic floor tiles that kids can code, then jump on, and run around on to play interactive games. The startup includes former engineers from Hasbro, iRobot, Mattel and Rethink Robotics.

Voiceitt

This company is working to make voice technology accessible, with the development of Automatic Speech Recognition technology (ASR) that allows people with severe speech impairments to communicate and be understood by voice. Customers train the software to understand their unique pronunciations, which it then translates into normalized speech output in the form of audio or text. The system can also be used to help people have face-to-face conversations.

(TechCrunch coverage: Voiceitt lets people with speech impairments use voice-controlled technology)

A number of these companies in this cohort are more focused on supporting businesses, rather than consumers, using voice technology. That’s not surprising given Amazon’s recent interest in putting Alexa in the office and in hotels, for example.

Amazon’s Alexa Fund backs the participating startups with an initial $20,000 funding in return for a six percent equity stake. The startups also have the possibility of receiving another $100,000 as a convertible note. 

However, there have been some concerns that along with the rewards, there are also risks for startups joining Amazon’s program. As The WSJ pointed out as did The Information, some entrepreneurs have taken a wary view of working with Amazon’s VC arm – especially after it led the Series A for home videoconferencing startup Nucleus, then proceeded to directly compete with it with the subsequent launch of the Echo Show.

But on the flip side, startups get an early peek at Amazon’s Alexa roadmap, and access to Amazon staff for help in developing Alexa skills.

Last November, Amazon announced an additional $100 million in venture capital for the fund targeted at international investment opportunities. Past Alexa Fund portfolio companies have included ecobee, TrackR, Rachio, Toymail, Ring (which Amazon acquired), Sphero, Vesper, Owlet, and many more.