The Alexa Fund, Amazon’s $200 million venture fund for voice-focused startups, and Techstars today revealed the inaugural cohort of companies participating in Alexa Next Stage. Alexa Next Stage, which was unveiled in March, is a pilot accelerator tailored to later-stage companies with a mature product offering and growing customer adoption. It’s designed as a virtual program, allowing companies to participate from anywhere and conferring access to a global network of experts, mentors, business leaders, and investors, as well as support for Alexa integrations and opportunities.

The pandemic appears to have supercharged voice app usage, which was already on an upswing. According to a study by NPR and Edison Research, the percentage of voice-enabled device owners who use commands at least once a day rose between the beginning of 2020 and the start of April. Just over a third of smart speaker owners say they listen to more music, entertainment, and news from their devices than they did before, and owners report requesting an average of 10.8 tasks per week from their assistant this year compared with 9.4 different tasks in 2019.

“When it came time to select this year’s class, we paid close attention to how these kinds of experiences are helping customers thrive in new and emerging environments today, including ways that Alexa could be at the center of more touchless interactions,” Alexa Fund director Paul Bernard told VentureBeat via email. “As a result, in this year’s class, we started to see dynamics emerge related to the increased amount of time people are spending at home. There is more use of conference calls … [and customers] are also turning to social audio concepts … [that introduce] richness into social experiences.”

Here’s the list of companies participating in Alexa Next Stage 2020:

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Alba Robot (Turin, Italy): Alba Robot is building self-guiding wheelchairs with voice commands powered by on-board navigation systems for use in hospitals, airports, and shopping centers. “While some people are already thinking about going to Mars, we are laser-focused on making life easier for people with disabilities on Earth,” said CEO Andrea Segato Bertaia. “Technology can help; while users typically use their hands to move their wheelchairs, voice can become one of the best interfaces to those technologies.”

Symbl (Seattle, Washington): Symbl integrates with collaboration tools and meeting software to enable users to capture meeting highlights and improve post-meeting productivity. It provides real-time analysis of free-flowing discussions like sales calls, support conversations, emails, and messages to automatically surface relevant summary topics, contextual insights, suggested action items, and appropriate follow-ups, with a comprehensive suite of voice and text APIs that can be natively integrated into any product.

Blerp (Salt Lake City, Utah): Blerp is a search engine for short audio soundbites that can be shared on platforms like Twitch, Twitter, Facebook, Discord, Pinterest, Reddit, WhatsApp, and Tumblr. Its creation tools let users produce their own sound clips by drawing on millions of effects with custom soundboards. “Audio expression enables us to add unique tones and rhythm to any moment,” explained CEO and cofounder Aaron Kc Hsu, “giving us the ability to focus away from our screens and connect with the people around us.”

Sybel (Paris, France): Sybel is a content studio that creates original premium audio content based on licensed characters and stories. It offers access to thousands of hours of audio series, including fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, documentaries, and adventure series. “Sybel is dedicated to creating stories that users can listen to anywhere,” said president and cofounder Virginie Maire. “[W]e’re eager to explore possibilities to enable [Alexa] customers to experience entertainment whether they are at home or in their car through a … voice command.”

Blue Fever (Los Angeles, California): Blue Fever is a conversational app that aims to give women ages 13 to 20 a “judgment-free digital best friend.” It listens, immediately chats back, and provides access to a community dedicated to supporting users through their emotional journeys. “For Blue Fever’s demographic of Gen Z users, self-expression is one of their greatest daily needs,” said CEO and cofounder Greta McAnany. “Voice is a natural way to … [help] people find what they need based on how they feel.”

Lingvist (Tallinn, Estonia): Lingvist is building a faster way to learn and retain foreign language vocabulary. The app — which is available on the web, iOS, and Android — guides users through material on a sliding difficulty scale, letting them skip through items they don’t need to practice. It ostensibly keeps learning relevant by leveraging AI to tailor the pace to goals and encouraging bite-sized study sessions throughout the day.

Kardome (Tel Aviv, Israel): Kardome improves the performance of smart speakers in noisy environments. Its real-time software suite can be embedded in a range of devices (e.g., hands-free speakerphones, tablets, smartphones, and conference call devices) and employs algorithms to simultaneously enhance speech signals from several speakers in acoustically challenging situations.

Voice tech trends

According to Bernard, the cohort’s makeup reflects trends in voice tech over the last year. For instance, Alexa users are expressing increasing interest in hands-free experiences (particularly in the kitchen), he says, while renters are adding smart home conveniences through companies like SmartRent. Beyond this, Bernard says voice-led indie games are gaining ground in the marketplace, even those that tend to be longer-form, multiplayer, and multi-turn.

“We are seeing Alexa both deepen the kinds of experiences customers can have and [make] them available in more contexts,” Bernard added. “The tools and analytics for developers are getting better, [including] mechanisms that enable discovery [and] promotion, such as explicit signals like ratings and implicit ones [like whether] customers abandon early [and if the assistant] understood when they first asked an utterance.”

Over the next eight weeks, Alexa Next Stage participants will follow a curriculum built by Techstars and informed by Amazon principles and partake in mentoring sessions, office-hour check-ins, and workshops led by the Alexa team. Later this year, they’ll detail the progress they’ve made to investors, community leaders, and professionals during a virtual innovation showcase.

Looking to the future, Bernard says he’s tracking the blending of voice and augmented reality, voice technology in health and well-being, the role voice plays in education, and how voice could inform social experiences. As for Techstars managing director Trevor Boehm, he envisions two developments: (1) the evolution of how people connect, learn, and collaborate as technology becomes more relevant to and embedded within their daily lives, and (2) sound becoming an even more integrated part of all of our lives.

“I don’t see voice computing as mature, [but it] is becoming more ubiquitous. We listen to customers and add new features and functionality that make experiences with Alexa more delightful,” Bernard said. “There is still a lot of untapped potential with voice for startups, and we’re excited to see what this class and subsequent classes will create.”

Alexa Next Stage’s launch comes several years after Amazon and Techstars kicked off the Alexa Accelerator, which furnishes emerging voice tech companies with capital, in addition to expertise and development resources. The companies say that over the past three years it has supported 27 companies that have gone on to join the Alexa Fund’s portfolio of investments.

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