“Alexa, please ask the audience to take their seats.”
Between bad Alexa jokes and innovative ideas pitched on stage, the rapid growth of voice-enabled technologies and companies was on full display Tuesday evening at the Alexa Accelerator Demo Night.
Nine startups from across the world spent the past three months as part of the second cohort of the Alexa Accelerator, a Seattle-based program co-led by Techstars and Amazon.
Entrepreneurs built out B2C and B2B technologies that incorporate Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered voice platform. On Tuesday, the program culminated with a Demo Night at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, with investors, entrepreneurs, and other community members in the audience.
The pitches offered a glimpse into the future of a fast-growing voice recognition industry, with ideas ranging from a virtual assistant inside science laboratories to technology that helps people with speech disabilities.
“What’s been different this time is seeing how much more mature the Alexa service is, and how much more mature the companies are around this,” Aviel Ginzburg, managing director of the Alexa Accelerator, told GeekWire. “All of these companies are building meaningful businesses.”
Amazon partners with Techstars to run the 3-month program, which provides an initial $20,000 in each company for 6 percent common stock, with potential for an additional $100,000 convertible note. The accelerator is part of Amazon’s $200 million Alexa Fund, which launched in 2015 and is used by Amazon to invest in companies that will push the boundaries of voice-based interaction.
Five of the nine startups in the first cohort raised investment after the accelerator; the initial fundraising efforts for the inaugural class was one of the most successful in Techstars history.
“The startup community is very important,” said Tom Taylor, senior vice president of Amazon Alexa, on stage before the pitches began. “For us at Amazon, as much as we can do, we only have so many people, so much time, and so many ideas. It’s so exciting to see the ideas coming out of the startup community in this city and around the world.”
Here’s a rundown of the nine companies that pitched on Tuesday, leading with Jargon, which won our first-ever GeekWire-Ubiquity award, and following with startups listed in pitch order.
The pitch: “We are a technology company that has engineered a developer-friendly solution that enables voice localization at scale.” — Jargon CEO and co-founder Milkana Brace.
Technology: Software that helps engineers localize voice apps or “skills” that have been built in English so that they’ll work for users in other countries.
Target market: Voice app developers that want to bring their services to more countries.
Traction: Handful of early customers, helping them reach audiences in five markets. Working to support additional platforms beyond Alexa.
Team: Leadership experience at Expedia, Zillow, and Microsoft. Based in Seattle, Wash.
The pitch: “Helix turns scientists into the best version of themselves.” — James Rhodes, Helix co-founder and CEO.
Technology: Voice-powered assistants for scientific laboratories that allow users to access information hands-free and create digital records of lab activities.
Target market: Biopharmaceutical industry.
Traction: Engaged in five pilot programs and generated $140,000 in revenue this year. Early customers include Johnson & Johnson.
Team: Husband-wife founding team with software and microbiology experience. Based in Atlanta, Georgia.
The pitch: “These are kids who are voluntarily choosing Splats over Fortnite.” — Unruly CEO and founder Bryanne Leeming.
Technology: Electronic programmable floor buttons called Splats that light up, make sounds, and can be stepped on, all part of active games that teach kids how to code.
Target market: Kids ages 6-to-12.
Traction: Tested product with 3,000 kids and raised $600,000 in investment. Booked 20 paid B2B education pilots across eight states.
Team: Experience at Hasbro, Mattel, iRobot, Nickelodeon. Based in Boston, Mass.
Presence AI (San Francisco)
The pitch: “Presence AI enables appointment-making business to offer an ideal customer experience through AI-powered conversations on messaging, Alexa, or Google Assistant.” — Presence AI CEO Michel Meyer.
Technology: Gives businesses such as salons, gyms, and others a way to automatically communicate with clients.
Target market: 1.5 million U.S. businesses.
Traction: Last month, 40,000 end users interacted with the service. Paying customers in 21 states.
Team: Meyer previously started and sold two companies. His co-founder sold a startup to Microsoft and another worked at Simple. Based in San Francisco, Calif.
Roby (San Jose/Seattle)
The pitch: “In a future smart office, employee requests can be resolved immediately, 24/7, without a human involved.” — Roby co-founder and CEO Jay Hsueh.
Technology: AI-powered software that automatically acts on employee requests related to office supplies, temperature, IT issues, and more.
Target market: 500,000 U.S. businesses with 50 employees or more.
Traction: Working with companies including Amazon, Dropbox, Honeywell, and WeWork.
Team: Hsueh previously built and sold his first startup. Other execs have experience at Coursera, IBM, HP Cloud, and Maxim Integrated. Based in San Jose, Calif., and Seattle.
Voiceitt (Tel Aviv, Israel)
The pitch: “Our mission with Voiceitt is to give people with speech disabilities their voice back by making speech recognition truly accessible to everyone.” — Sara Smolley, Voiceitt co-founder and vice president of strategy.
Technology: Voice recognition mobile app that can understand non-standard and dysarthric speech.
Target market: Millions of people around the world with speech disabilities, including children with cerebral palsy or autism, and adults with ALS, or Parkinson’s disease.
Traction: Tested technology with 200 users in six countries. Raised $10 million in funding from grants, corporate prizes, and traditional investment. Won a $1 million prize from Microsoft, via its AI for Good program.
Team: Machine learning experts and clinical specialists with experience at startups and big companies. Based in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Novalia (Cambridge, UK)
The pitch: “We want to make the world more magical than technical.” — Novalia CEO and founder Dr. Kate Stone.
Technology: Built a tactile printed touch sensor called PrintedTouch that enables touch activation on printed surfaces, with wireless connectivity and data capture.
Target market: Large brands. Its newest product is targeted to musicians.
Traction: Clients include Disney, Audi, Chrysler, Pizza Hut, Bud Light, IKEA, and more.
Team: Stone previously earned a degree in electronics and a Ph.D in physics from Cambridge University. Based in Cambridge, U.K.
Conservation Labs (Pittsburgh)
The pitch: “Whether it is a home, a mid-rise apartment, or a restaurant, people are concerned about these leaks, the increasing cost of water, and the impact on the environment.” — Conservation Labs CEO and co-founder Mark Kovscek.
Technology: Easy-to-install sensor that uses machine learning to manage water flow, detect leaks, and protect a property.
Target market: Commercial sector, property managers.
Traction: Conducted pilots with mid-rise apartments.
Team: Experience working at Google and for the U.S. government. Kovscek is a data science expert and mathematician. Based in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Blutag (New York)
The pitch: “Blutag is doing for voice what Shopify did for web.” —Blutag CEO Shilp Agarwal.
Technology: Gives retailers a way to provide voice-enabled shopping experiences with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.
Target market: Retailers.
Traction: Blutag has developed 50 voice apps and is working with more retailers through a new partnership with Amazon Pay.
Team: Agarwal is a serial entrepreneur with e-commerce and retail tech expertise. His co-founders have decades of experience in fashion merchandising and software engineering. Based in New York City.