Alexa, tell me about the Accelerator Centre’s Alexa Voice Tech Accelerator ProgramJackie Gill - March 18, 2020
Ask Amazon’s Alexa what she wants to be when she grows up, and she’ll give you this response: “I want to be the computer from Star Trek.”
(Go ahead, try it. We’ll wait.)
Sure, the sometimes-sassy AI assistant comes with a built-in quick wit, often bordering on the groan-worthy. But with this response, she’s not that far off of the truth.
Since the world met Alexa, the built-in assistant on the Amazon Echo smart speaker introduced in 2014 – the first smart speaker to enter the market, for those of you counting – she’s helped people do everything from play their music, check the weather, look things up online, set alarms and reminders, read the news and make phone calls.
But today, with more than 100,000 Alexa skills and support on over 60,000 devices, the assistant is more than an easy way to order tonight’s pizza or flip your lights on and off.
“We have people working with voice recognition to solve issues with the geriatric population, identifying crisis, falls in the home, sounds like coughing, sneezing, choking … We have other people using it as a sort of dictation tool,” says Jordan Parker, a client experience coordinator with the AC who helped launch the new program. From health and education to food and more, the Canadian startups in the first cohort are looking to go where no voice tech company has gone before.
Boldly going where no Alexa accelerator has gone before
The Alexa Voice Tech Accelerator Program is a collaboration between Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre, a startup accelerator with a mentor-driven curriculum designed to take businesses from idea to global scale, and the Amazon Alexa Fund, which provides up to US$200 million in venture capital funding each year to innovators in voice technology. It’s the first Amazon Alexa accelerator in Canada.
The program started after AC grad YOURIKA participated in an Amazon Alexa accelerator offered through Techstars in the U.S. last year.
After running through the 13-week program in Seattle, the startup, which pairs sophisticated AI with voice technology to tutor students, had an idea, says Clinton Ball, director of AC’s Amazon Alexa innovation and entrepreneurship program.
“Amazon liked our mentoring approach and mentality, and it aligned to the kind of companies that they want to see.”
– Clinton Ball, director of AC’s Amazon Alexa innovation and entrepreneurship program
“YOURIKA had an amazing experience working with Amazon, and they thought about us as a potential partner and someone that can maybe offer this program in the Canadian market,” he says.
It turned out, Amazon wanted a better understanding of emerging technologies in the Canadian market – and in the Waterloo Region. “Amazon liked our mentoring approach and mentality, and it aligned to the kind of companies that they want to see after going through an accelerator,” he adds.
Announced on Oct. 30, 2019, the new Accelerator Centre program promised access to the AC’s resources through their established programming and mentorship, along with a few perks, says Ball.
“What that means is our clients are potentially getting introduced to Amazon’s network of experts,” Ball says. “All of our clients got an Amazon Echo device to build with. They get AWS cloud computing credits to build alongside Amazon’s cloud architecture. And for select companies that Amazon thinks are really interesting, they get to access a mentor network.”
After what Ball calls a “very highly competitive application process,” nine companies and 14 founders made the final cut for the program after applications closed on Nov. 24.
And all nine companies share something important in common, says Parker. “Everyone in the program is using the Alexa platform on some level, whether that’s to completely enable their platform to exist or operate, or whether that’s something that just occurs in the background of what they do,” he says.
Helping voice tech businesses live long and prosper
Right now, there could be more than 200 million smart speakers in the world. To give you a sense of what that opportunity looks like, it’s a fast-growing market valued at about $7 billion and expected to reach over $26 billion in the next five years.
Brands are on board. According to an Adobe study, 71 per cent say it improves the user experience, which might explain why 91 per cent of brands are making investments in the technology.
Users agree that voice tech is convenient, the same study found, with 94 per cent saying it does more than save time – it improves their quality of life, too.
It’s not just about making life easier at home. Voice tech is making its mark across industries, from healthcare, IT and automotive to legal, retail and hospitality. In other words, it’s ripe for rapid growth, across the board.
But building voice technology doesn’t come without its challenges, says Parker.
“Because it’s such a new and emerging industry, there’s a very small group of people that are specialized in it. Those people tend to be brilliant,” he says. “That number of people is growing and growing and growing, but it’s still very much in its infancy. So I think the biggest challenge is finding the people to commit to it and to do it.”
Then there are the technical limitations. “Why can’t I just talk to my phone the way I would talk to a regular human being and have it just get it? Well, the technology’s not there yet. That’s why we can’t do that,” he adds.
“It’s still very much in its infancy. So I think the biggest challenge is finding the people to commit to it.”
– Jordan Parker, client experience coordinator at the AC
That’s why access to a specialized program with experts at Amazon who have deep knowledge about the tech and the market is such a huge selling point for applicants of the Alexa Voice Tech Accelerator Program.
“The ability for a startup to get in contact with a major corporation is very difficult when they don’t know who you are or they’ve never heard of the company or anything like that, or you have no traction whatsoever,” Parker says. “I think the biggest benefit that our companies will find is that sort of first-person connection to an organization they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
Alexa, make it so!
So far, the first cohort to enter the program is doing well, even if the companies are just a couple of months in. Not only are they excited to have access to Amazon technology – and potentially Amazon’s mentors as well – but they’re making good use of the AC’s programming and resources.
“They’ve been very pleasantly surprised and almost unanimously have all said that the mentorship that’s being provided alongside the program itself is invaluable,” Parker says.
He hopes Amazon sees the value in Canada, too. “This is kind of a testing ground for Amazon. They’re seeing what companies can do with their technology, and then, if it’s interesting to them or if it’s impactful enough, they’ll take that company and bring them in, make them part of the bigger equation.”
It may not be the final frontier, but it’s the next big one. So if you were to ask Alexa what’s next for the Alexa Voice Technology Accelerator Program? “I think that, generally as a cohort, we’re really pushing the envelope in terms of what voice technology can do in the Kitchener-Waterloo ecosystem,” says Ball.
Got an idea? Starting a business? Voice tech or not, the AC is here to help. Apply today.