Amazon Alexa Fund powers startup innovation

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Last year was tough. The COVID-19 pandemic brought tremendous change to our world—with many of our lives turned upside down. But just as there have been hardships, we’ve seen a new pace of innovation emerge to meet today’s realities and tomorrow’s possibilities.

Over the last year, we’ve been proud to support a broad array of startups driving this innovation. As voice interaction became more important for people around the world during the pandemic, the Amazon Alexa Fund focused on investing in startups that doubled down on areas ripe for voice, AI, and frontier tech innovation, such as health and wellness, future home evolution, social audio, and AI and ML tools. These are emerging technologies that could shape our future.

This year, we made our 90th investment since launching the Alexa Fund in 2015, and we rolled out new programs to support even more companies in collaboration with our Alexa Startups team. Our eight-week startup accelerator program, Alexa Next Stage, powered by Techstars, helped startup founders learn best practices, collaborate with mentors, and get access to funding and networking to fuel voice technology innovations. The seven participating startups were from five different countries and included innovators such as Symbl, a company that uses AI to create a new kind of conversational voice tech infrastructure, and Blue Fever, creator of text and mobile apps that serve as virtual “big sisters” to Gen-Z women.

To address challenges in diversity, equity, and inclusion in startups and venture capital, we launched programs to help improve equity for underrepresented founders.

We partnered with All Raise, a nonprofit organization empowering women entrepreneurs and VC investors, to launch Women Founders Represent, a virtual pitch event offering venture capital investment, cash prizes, and AWS credits for women entrepreneurs. After pitching in front of a panel of prominent VC investors in November, startups Preemadonna, Aquagenuity, and Foodology were named winners.

We also collaborated with Blavity to support Black founders, co-hosting the Startup Showcase and three workshops at AfroTech World, a conference experience focused on building the Black tech community.

Our portfolio companies continue to dream up new types of innovation that we never thought possible. It’s been exciting to see a number of our Alexa Fund startups deliver on the promise of creative innovation that they’ve been working toward the last few years. Here are a few of the Alexa Fund startups that took off in 2020.

A woman exercises in her living room.

With health and wellness more important than ever, we’ve invested in companies using voice innovation to help us take care of ourselves and others. For example, Aivas virtual health assistant was used in hospital patient rooms and senior living communities, offering new opportunities for COVID-safe care. Tonal and Zwift helped customers stay healthy with at-home connected fitness offerings. Molekule created an air purification device to help keep homes clean and safe.

Our homes also changed in 2020. No longer just a place where we eat, sleep, and spend time with family, the home became our school, workplace, gym, source of entertainment, and so much more. We invested in a variety of startups using voice to reimagine what we can do in our homes. Amira Learning uses speech recognition and virtual assistants to help young readers. And Rise Gardens makes connected indoor gardening systems.

We’ve also continued to explore new concepts in social audio. During this period of limited in-person interactions and social distancing, users increased their use of interactive audio as another mode for real-time human interaction. We invested in Betty Labs, creator of the Locker Room mobile app, an audio-based social network where sports fans can interact with a community of fellow fans, athletes, and sports pundits. Locker Room humanizes the digital social experience, engendering a sense of real-time togetherness among fans and fostering spontaneity found in real-life interaction.

A woman crouches beside her Rise garden and tends to her plants.

And while we’re supporting startups that are rethinking how to address today’s challenges, we’re also helping them use emerging technology and AI to reimagine how we’ll interact with our world in the future. This year, Voiceitt, a leader in commercial speech recognition for atypical speech, announced how it’s helping people with speech disabilities be more independent with Alexa. Embodied launched Moxie, a robotic companion for kids that promotes social, emotional, and cognitive learning. Moxie was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Innovations of 2020, alongside another one of our portfolio companies, Hatch, which creates products to help everyone—from newborns to adults—sleep better. New portfolio company Fiddler builds software to make AI more explainable and help companies strive for AI model fairness, addressing the needs of an increasingly AI-powered world. Alexa Startups collaborated with Alea Labs to support its Alexa Smart Energy skill launch in a new product category with Alea’s smart air vents that conserve energy by providing room-level control over HVAC systems.

Our Berlin-based portfolio company, Endel, won the 2020 Apple Watch App of the Year award by producing AI-powered personalized soundscapes to help users focus, relax, and sleep. In November 2020, the company released an update to its Alexa skill, introducing an AI Lullaby mode, a limited-edition sleep soundscape with original vocals and stems (groups of elements that make up the final mix) created exclusively by artist Grimes.

In 2019, we announced the Voice Interoperability Initiative (VII)—a program to ensure voice-enabled products provide customers with choice and flexibility to interact simultaneously with multiple agents on a single device. In 2020, voice interaction was more important than ever and saw three Alexa Fund portfolio companies (Aspinity, Syntiant, and Vesper) join VII. As we move forward in 2021, we’ll continue to see the acceleration of voice technology’s benefits in our daily lives. We’re so proud of the achievements of our portfolio companies over the last year, and we stand ready to help even more startups and founders imagine the art of the possible with Alexa.

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