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The Blue Canoe Learning app uses the “Color Vowel System” to help non-native speakers learn English. (Photo via Blue Canoe Learning)

The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) has accepted the first startup as part of its new incubator program.

Blue Canoe Learning CEO Sarah Daniels. Photo via Blue Canoe Learning.

Seattle-based AI2 announced today that Blue Canoe Learning, a Seattle startup building AI technology to help non-native English speakers improve their pronunciation, is the first to join its incubator for AI companies.

AI2, created and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, expanded the incubator in August to let in outside startups for the first time following a pair of successful spinouts this year.

Founded in 2016, Blue Canoe Learning has developed an app that uses speech recognition and machine learning to help users learn how to speak English.

Blue Canoe Learning CEO Sarah Daniels, a former marketing executive at companies like DreamBox Learning, Market Leader, and Story2, told GeekWire that her customers are companies that want to help their non-native English speaking employees.

“Employees range from entry-level call center workers who need to communicate with clarity and empathy over the phone, to highly-paid engineers who need to discuss their projects with colleagues,” she explained. “These companies are already spending large amounts of money on English language training, but with poor results for the last mile of speaking.”

To help with the “last mile” of pronunciation learning, the 3-person startup incorporates the Color Vowel System, a method used by top institutions like Harvard and the Peace Corps that focuses on visual, kinesthetic, musical, and rhythmic parts of the brain to train language skills.

“Other online companies either focus on the vocabulary and grammar, and just add a ‘listen and repeat’ component to learning to speak, or offer expensive 1:1 tutoring with a teacher, who probably also isn’t specifically trained to teach pronunciation,” noted Daniels, who co-founded the startup with Tony Andrews and Amit Mital.

Blue Canoe Learning also today announced a $1.4 million seed investment. Seattle-based startup studio Kernel Labs invested in the round, which includes participation from AI2.

“AI2 is excited to be a part of the Blue Canoe journey,” AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni said in a statement. “The team has done a great job in creating an app that uses machine learning to solve a large and meaningful problem, delivering immediate personalized feedback to help non-native English speakers identify and fix errors in their pronunciation. This will provide great value to businesses and their customers.”

Companies accepted into AI2’s program will get up to $250,000 in seed money, six months of free office space, help with sales and marketing and access to 70 AI researchers and PhD holders on staff.

“The real superpower, the real amazing thing we bring to the table is this incredible group of people,” Jacob Colker, entrepreneur in residence at AI2, told GeekWire in August. “Some of the leading AI minds available on the planet are in this facility and the companies will be collaborating with those folks to push the bar in technology.”

The idea to beef up the incubator program came after a good run of success for AI2’s first two spinouts. Kitt.ai, the Seattle artificial intelligence startup that’s developing a conversational language engine and a “hotword” detection platform, was acquired by Chinese search giant Baidu in July. Xnor.ai, which focuses on making AI technology work on smartphones and IoT devices, raised a $2.6 million seed round in February.

Founded in 2014 by Allen and Etzioni, a longtime computer science researcher and entrepreneur, AI2 is now the largest nonprofit AI research center in North America and has gained credibility around the globe for its spinout companies, performance in AI contests, research papers, and ability to attract top AI talent.

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