Techstars Teams with Amazon for Alexa Startup Accelerator in Seattle

Alexa, what’s the epicenter of innovation in speech as the new user interface?

A good case can be made for Seattle, following an announcement today from Techstars and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN).

Techstars, a top-tier startup accelerator with locations around the world and a major presence in Seattle since 2010, will begin a second program here next year in partnership with Amazon’s Alexa Fund. The aim is to attract and support “early-stage companies advancing the state-of-the-art in voice-powered technologies, interfaces and applications, with a focus on Alexa domains such as connected home, wearables and hearables, enterprise, communication devices, connected car and health and wellness,” writes Techstars’ executive director Cody Simms in a blog post.

Amazon launched the $100 million Alexa Fund in mid-2015 to back companies pushing the frontiers of voice technology and to support an ecosystem around Alexa, the intelligence that powers voice-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo. The fund has backed 22 companies so far, according to a blog post by Douglas Booms, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide corporate development.

Techstars and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a longstanding partnership, with the latter providing startups admitted to the accelerator with free cloud computing resources and other benefits.

The “Alexa Accelerator Powered by Techstars” will follow a model similar to the many other corporate startup accelerators Techstars runs focused on specific technologies or industry verticals with companies such as Barclays and Cedars-Sinai. Investments in the participating startups come from both Techstars and the partner companies. The 10 to 12 companies accepted to the programs typically receive a $20,000 investment and an optional $100,000 convertible debt note, as well as resources, mentorship, and the opportunity to pitch their polished businesses to investors at the culmination of the 13-week program.

Applications will be accepted starting Jan. 9, and the program is slated to begin in July, following Techstars’ usual Seattle accelerator. Both programs will be housed in Startup Hall, the former University of Washington law school building that Techstars and CoMotion, UW’s innovation transfer group, operate jointly.

The news comes on the heels of a suite of new speech-related artificial intelligence services Amazon Web Services rolled out this week in connection with re:Invent, its annual conference going on in Las Vegas, NV. The aim of the new services is to make it easy for AWS developers to incorporate natural language understanding, speech recognition, and text-to-speech capabilities in their apps, explains Amazon CTO Werner Vogels in a blog post. Technologies underlying Alexa—the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Voice Service (AVS)—have found wide adoption among developers already.

It’s much more than Amazon making the case for Seattle as a hub for innovation in voice and speech—which offer modern, natural ways for humans to interact with computers. Microsoft has decades of speech-related research under its belt (we just profiled a major machine transcription milestone notched by a Microsoft Research team). Other major players in the region include the UW and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2). And there are a growing crop of startups such as Textio and KITT.ai, which spun out of the AI2 and was funded by the Alexa Fund and Founder’s Co-op, whose managing director, Chris DeVore, also heads Techstars in Seattle.

“We’ll be recruiting companies globally for this program, and participating companies will have access not only to Amazon’s Alexa product teams and business leaders, but also the broader Techstars Seattle mentor pool, including leaders from the University of Washington, AI2, and the region’s institutional investment community,” DeVore says via e-mail. “So this is great for Amazon and Techstars, but it also intended to have lasting benefits for the broader regional innovation ecosystem.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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