Amazon’s voice technology has made some big leaps over the past two years — and so have the startups participating in the company’s Alexa Accelerator.
The advancement and proliferation of voice-enabled services was apparent at the third annual Demo Night for the Alexa Accelerator, a Seattle-based program co-led by Techstars and Amazon.
Entrepreneurs spent the past three months building 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 Amazon HQ in Seattle, with investors, entrepreneurs, and other community members on hand to watch each CEO pitch their idea.
The latest cohort demonstrates how the industry and accelerator have evolved and matured. Participating companies ranged from Midgame, a voice-enabled AI companion for gamers; to Ejenta, which is trying to provide remote patient healthcare; to Anycart, a dinner-planning service.
— Taylor Soper (@Taylor_Soper) October 16, 2019
The event kicked off with a short presentation from Dave Isbitski, chief evangelist for Alexa and Echo, and a 6-year veteran of Amazon who recalled sitting around a table with Jeff Bezos and other execs when the Echo originally launched in 2014 with just ten “skills,” or different Alexa voice apps and capabilities.
Since then, voice technology and the overall market have evolved in a big way, with Amazon playing a leading role. Two years ago, there were 15,000 Alexa skills — now there are more than 100,000. There are also 85,000 Alexa-compatible devices as Amazon aims to get Alexa everywhere — in your home; your car; your glasses; your headphones; your hotel room; and much more.
Isbitski likened voice tech to HTML.
“Just as the way HTML and the web became the way we access information from any brand and any company at our fingertips — voice enables that,” he said.
Looking ahead, Amazon wants Alexa to be more conversational and understanding of a user. Isbitski citied a new frustration detection feature and multilingual capabilities as an example. Essentially, Amazon is trying to make Alexa smarter as it interacts with customers throughout the day for various use cases. Isbitski cited companies that use voice tech to increase customer engagement.
“Meet them in moment,” Isbitski said. “The conversation never has to end.”
The accelerator gives Amazon a unique way to scale its early-stage investing, at least more so than a traditional venture fund. It also lets Amazon employees and others from the Seattle tech ecosystem get involved as mentors.
Amazon and Techstars, which also runs a separate Seattle accelerator program, invest an initial $20,000 in each company for 6 percent common stock, with potential for an additional $100,000 convertible note.
The first Alexa Accelerator class ended up being one of the most successful in Techstars history, based on initial fundraising results.
The program is part of the Alexa Fund, Amazon’s $200 million venture capital arm for voice tech startups. Amazon has invested in more than 70 companies over the past four years as part of the fund.
Here’s a rundown of each company that pitched on Wednesday, listed in order of when they appeared on stage.
Midgame (New York City)
The one-liner: A voice-enabled AI companion for gamers.
The pitch: “Gamers are stuck in an era where they have to pull over to the side of the road and crack open a map when they get lost. We’re giving them hands-free, turn-by-turn navigation.” — Midgame CEO Jason Shen
The traction: In a closed beta, users asked 1.1 questions per minute using Midgame. About 40 percent are using Midgame every time they play, and 82 percent want to use it for another game.
The business model: Free plan with caps on usage; players can go unlimited for a subscription fee. There’s also a content marketplace for paid add-ons.
Founder pedigree: Shen and his co-founder Wayne Gerard previously started a tech hiring platform called Headlight, which was acquired by Woven. They also worked together at Etsy.
Stamp of approval: “The founders of this company have the brains and willpower to build a great company.” — Todd Hooper, Midgame mentor, former CEO of VREAL and ex-Unity vice president
Yourika (Waterloo, Ontario)
The one-liner: The future of learning is now.
The pitch: “Engineered by one of the world’s greatest AI teams, our IP and technology turns our customer’s content and teaching data into real-time, adaptive, personalized step-by-step responses, enabling AI-powered tutors, smarter applications, intelligent chatbots, and real-time analytics.”— Yourika CEO Rob Henderson
The traction: Its system can teach 1,200 questions across multiple subjects. Just signed a two-year multi-million dollar deal that will power 70,000 students and push MRR past $138,000.
The business model: Subscription-based pricing that averages $6 per monthly active user at a variable cost of less than $1.
Founder pedigree: Henderson is a serial entrepreneur. His co-founder Dr. Shady Shehata has spent the past decade engineering and commercializing AI learning systems; another co-founder, Dr. Fakhri Karray, is the co-director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Waterloo.
Stamp of approval: “There are really three keys to building a business and Yourika has nailed all three of them from a foundational standpoint: people, products, and partnerships. This tech will change the way a generation learns.” — Drew Green, a Yourika investor and Indochino CEO
Ejenta (San Francisco)
The one-liner: Remote patient care at scale.
The pitch: “We’re applying NASA AI technology to allow health providers to remotely monitor patients from home.” — Ejenta CEO Rachna Dhamija
The traction: During trials with the Arkansas Health Hospital, Ejenta helped drive an 85 percent reduction in cardiac readmissions to the hospital over 30 days. The company just inked a deal with Cleveland Clinic and has $50,000 in MRR under contract.
The business model: Ejenta charges a per patient subscription fee to health providers. It’s 100 percent reimbursable by Medicare.
Founder pedigree: Dhamija earned a Ph.D from University of California-Berkeley and sold two computer security startups; co-founder Maarten Sierhuis developed the software used currently at NASA and started the Nissan Research Center for autonomous cars.
Stamp of approval: “They have the emotional imagination, the true empathy to really create something with true human benefit.” — Amanda Goltz, principal, business development, Alexa Health & Wellness at Amazon
The one-liner: An analytics platform to help businesses optimize and adapt their voice experience.
The pitch: “As Alexa skills developers ourselves, we saw a gap in the analytical tooling space when it came to improving our voice skills. Current solutions don’t work. That’s because voice is different and requires a new set of tools — ones that can measure engagement, user behavior, and conversations.” — VoiceHero CEO Joseph Truong
The traction: Its first pilot was with a popular game on Alexa. VoiceHero helped reveal that players who played longer saw success earlier, and as a result, the developer reconfigured the experience to increase session lengths by 72 percent.
The business model: Tiered subscription plan based on monthly users and data histories.
Founder pedigree: Truong previously co-founded a digital content provider and won the Nobel Prize for Students in 2017; his co-founder Jacob Chan is a former data scientist for Capital One and a former designer for Shopify. They just relocated from Toronto to Seattle.
Stamp of approval: “These guys are smart, they really get it and I’ve been super impressed with how scrappy they are, and how determined they are to answer these questions for developers.” — Scott Dart, solutions architect lead on the Alexa skills team
The one-liner: AI that uses customer feedback to directly improve your product.
The pitch: “We think of feedback as this treasure trove which each company has, but they never look into. We open up your chest, take a look at your feedback, and we discover major customer pain points they experience with your product.” — Togethar CEO Elena Zhizhimontova
The traction: Early customers include Remitly, Bulletproof Coffee, Dolly, and others. They secure four pilots for every five meetings they attend.
The business model: Three subscription plans: Observer (free), Bug Hunter (targeted at SMBs), and Issue Vulture (enterprise).
Founder pedigree: Zhizhimontova and her co-founder Andrew DiLosa worked together as software engineers at Amazon.
Stamp of approval: “I was blown away by the progress this team made over the course of Techstars and when I met with them for their update, I committed to investing on the spot.” — Kirby Winfield, founding general partner at Ascend Venture Capital
Ex-IQ (Fayetteville, NC)
The one-liner: Powering enterprise productivity in the information age.
The pitch: “At Ex-IQ we’ve created an enterprise platform that delivers incredible producitvity gains through the power of voice, machine learning, and natural language processing. Our proprietary technology converts any digital document into an interactive, high quality audiobook.” — Ex-IQ Chris Donohue
The traction: Scheduling pilots with customers in medical, financial services, and legal industries, as well as the U.S. Senate, DoD, and think tanks. Earlier this year, launched a live pilot with universities for executive masters degree programs.
The business model: Setup fee and a per seat, per month subscription.
Founder pedigree: Donohue recently retired from an elite special operations unit, where he spent time building and leading some of the highest-performing teams in the U.S. military. His co-founder Darren Ward has two decades of tech industry experience.
Stamp of approval: “Chris is just one of those guys who knows how to get the mission done.” — Ex-IQ investor Trevor Martin
nFlux (Los Angeles)
The one-liner: The world’s most intelligent video analytics platform.
The pitch: “In less than three years, there will be 45 billion cameras around the world. That means enterprises need a much more intelligent video analytics platform to sift through and make sense of their content. Otherwise, the content that their customers care about will go unrecognized and unutilized. That’s where nFlux comes in.” — nFlux CEO Seyed Sajjadi
The traction: The platform has learned from 60 million videos thus far and generated more than $400,000 in revenue over the past four months. It plans to have 25 paying customers over the next 18 months.
The business model: Saas licensing model.
Founder pedigree: Sajjadi helped build drones and rovers for the U.S. Air Force, and most recently spent time at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Stamp of approval: “What nFlux is doing is going to fundamentally change the way its customers gain value from their video content. They are doing it at scale, they are doing it profitably, they are doing it right now.” — Robert Blair, nFlux supporter
Anycart (San Francisco)
The one-liner: Shop meals in 1 click. Get groceries in 1 hour.
The pitch: “Anycart is creating a new category that enables you to shop for home cooked meals the exact same way you already shop for restaurant meals — in one click, for delivery or pick up, in as little as one hour.” — Anycart CEO Payman Nejati
The traction: Anycart launched an app 18 months ago that let users post and discover cooking videos. There are 10,000 user-generated posts, driving one million monthly active users. Three months ago, it took a subset of videos and made them shoppable. Anycart averages a $45 grocery shopping cart of ingredients and is profitable on every order.
The business model: Charges a small fee to users; an affiliate fee from retailers; and sponsorship fee from brands.
Stamp of approval: “I just started using Anycart last week. Since then, I’ve cooked four different meals and baked cookies for the first time in my life. I am the star of my family and my daughter loves me.” — Amit Fisher, director, Alexa Shopping, and a Anycart mentor