As veterans of Amazon and Microsoft, the co-founders of Seattle startup Roxy saw exactly what voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana can do, and what they still can’t.
About two years after a chance meeting at the University of Washington, the co-founders of the company are looking to fill that skills gap, starting with their first product: a voice-activated touch screen device aimed at businesses rather than consumers. The company is starting with hotels, and the device lets hotel guests ask for a service, for example “order room service.” It then relays the message to the front desk without anyone having to make a phone call.
Roxy recently landed a $1.1 million seed funding round led by Betaworks, a New York City startup studio, and Chinese investment firm Genesis Capital. The company started off as Cue and later re-branded as Roxy.
Roxy stands out, said Cam Urban, one of the co-founders, because of the customer control and customization over everything from the wake word that starts up the speaker to the artificial intelligence that powers it. This makes it possible for hotels to add commands that are easier for guests and plan for more comprehensive capabilities than other speech-enabled assistants.
“The guest has instant access to the property services, amenities and information,” Urban told GeekWire. “Human error drops because everything is logged and gets to the right person at the right time, and then the hotel reduces operational cost and they free up staff time.”
And how about the name? Urban says Roxy makes sense because it is easy to pronounce, memorable, has multiple syllables, an ‘x’ in it and is not a common name.
Roxy joins a very crowded marketplace of voice-activated devices powered by AI, and it will be competing with tech giants employing nearly unlimited resources. But the co-founders say their competitors aren’t serving the business market like Roxy will, and they bring the know-how and experience to fill this gap.
Urban has started several companies, including Jellyfish Art, before becoming a program manager with Microsoft Azure. Co-founder Peng “Michael” Shao was a leader on the cloud speech team at Amazon focused on the voice-activated technology that powers Alexa. Le “Grace” Huang, another co-founder, has an undergraduate degree in automation and spent four years as a web developer at Amazon, working on projects like Amazon Coins and the Kindle Device Store.
Roxy devices will soon show up in several Seattle-area hotels, such as Hotel 1000 in downtown Seattle and Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Urban told GeekWire. Roxy previously rolled out older versions of the device in San Francisco in Portland.
Starting with hotels puts Roxy in competition with Amazon, as the online retail giant last year inked a deal with the Wynn Las Vegas to install Echo speakers in more than 4,700 rooms. Urban says Roxy’s advantages come in the ability to add more intricate commands, such as ordering more towels or learning how to get on the WiFi. And guests don’t need to know the specific verbiage to activate the third party app for Alexa to open the curtains, for example, in a hotel room.
“We’re obviously placing a bet here, but we don’t believe that today’s consumer-facing speech enabled devices, namely Alexa … will ever be the best tool for the job for businesses,” Urban said.
Because of the customization options, a hotel teaming up with Roxy will see a different pricing model than if they planned to just buy a bunch of Echoes and put them in rooms. Urban said Roxy offers a monthly subscription service along with an initial startup cost, with the average property paying about $20,000 annually.
In addition to the focus on hotels, Roxy can do other things people normally use their smart speakers for, including music, alarms and timers, weather.
When the team was trying to decide where to start, they talked to everyone from grocery stores to airports. They tested out the device within Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. Ultimately they chose to start with hotels in part because hotel general managers were willing to pay before a product was fully developed. Hotel guests tend to have similar questions, but every hotel handles those requests differently, Urban says, creating ideal conditions for building the base AI for guest questions and testing customization options with hotels.
Eventually, the team plans to expand Roxy to other types of businesses. The company doesn’t plan to sell to consumers, but Urban said Roxy devices could show up in Airbnb properties at some point.
Roxy is based in Seattle, but the team moved down to the San Francisco area briefly to work with PCH Manufacturing, where they developed their first prototype. Roxy worked out of office space at Madrona Venture Group for awhile before finding a landing spot at a co-working space called Works Progress in the Greenwood neighborhood of north Seattle.
The three founders crossed paths by chance about two years ago, when they were each looking for new career directions. Shao and Huang had left Amazon, and they were working on an app to communicate with cars via voice commands at the UW CoMotion innovation hub. Urban, who had recently left Microsoft and was working on a new project of his own, toured the facility and was introduced to his future co-founders.
After a short conversation, they realized their projects had a lot in common and wanted to help each other out. That led to a lunch, friendship, and then more frequent gatherings. Eventually they decided to go into business together.
“Fast forward a year or however long after we became really good friends and decided to can our projects at the time and work on something more meaningful where we could combine our skill sets,” Urban said.