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Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator is up and running for the third consecutive year as another batch of early stage startups test the boundaries of voice technology.

Nine startups from across the country will spend the next three months at the Techstars Seattle office, building their companies and finding unique ways to incorporate Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence and machine learning-powered voice platform.

Amazon didn’t really know what type of founders it would attract when the company launched its Alexa Accelerator in 2017 with Techstars, said Paul Bernard, Amazon director of worldwide corporate development. The first class ended up being one of the most successful in Techstars history, based on initial fundraising results.

Since then, voice technology and the overall market have evolved in a big way. Two years ago, there were 15,000 Alexa “skills,” or different Alexa voice apps and capabilities. Today there are more than 90,000.

Amazon meanwhile has added more capabilities for Alexa, the brain of its popular Echo devices, as it battles Google and others in a voice market expected to reach $31 billion by 2025. Alexa has been built into 150 different gadgets made by other companies, and the total number of Alexa-powered devices sold is more than 100 million. The voice technology has also made headlines recently related to privacy questions about how the company handles user voice recordings via Alexa.

The latest cohort demonstrates how the industry and accelerator have evolved and matured. It includes companies such as Anycart, which helps people create and discover cooking videos — an intriguing use case for Amazon’s Echo Show — and Ejenta, a Bay Area startup developing intelligent agents for remote healthcare.

“The companies are getting much more thoughtful about taking advantage of the breadth of things Alexa is offering,” said Bernard, who also leads the Alexa Fund, Amazon’s $200 million venture capital arm for voice tech startups.

Paul Bernard, Director of the Amazon Alexa Fund. (JORDAN STEAD / Amazon)

While it’s still early days, voice startups are beginning to iron out sustainable business models.

“You’re seeing an increased depth of thinking around how these companies are going to be able to have business models that translate into getting paid,” Bernard said.

Bernard said there’s also a flywheel effect underway with the accelerator, the Alexa Fund, and the Alexa Fellowship, which supports university researchers and students. Case in point: YourIKA, a Canadian startup building “intelligent learning as a service” tech, initially got off the ground with the help of an Alexa Fellowship offered to one of its co-founders at the University of Waterloo. And now YourIKA is participating in the accelerator.

“The various programs all tie back together to help tell stories about Alexa and help send the message that we are completely committed to backing the most interesting companies with our own balance sheet,” Bernard said.

Global corporate venture capital activity surged in 2018, both in terms of deals and total funding, according to CB Insights. Tech giants including Microsoft, Google, Intel, Qualcomm, and others have their own VC arms.

Bernard said the accelerator gives Amazon a unique way to scale its early-stage investing, at least more so than a traditional venture fund. It also gives Amazon employees a way to 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.

Demo Day will be held Oct. 15 in Seattle. Here’s the full list of companies, with their location and tagline:

  • San Francisco, Calif. — “AI for leadership assessment & development”
  • Anycart: San Francisco, Calif. — “Turn groceries into experiences”
  • Ejenta: San Francisco, Calif. — “Remote patient care at scale”
  • Ex-IQ: North Carolina and Washington state — “Audio empowered learning and productivity ecosystem”
  • Midgame: New York City — “A trusted sidekick for gamers”
  • nFlux: Los Angeles, Calif. — “Stop Searching, Start Asking!”
  • TogethAR: Seattle, Wash. — “Talk to friends in AR rooms with a context-aware AI that helps the conversation flow”
  • VoiceHero: Toronto, Ontario — “A suite of simple, useful tools to launch and market voice applications”
  • YourIKA: Waterloo, Ontario — “Intelligent learning at scale”
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