|Amazon commits another $100 million to Alexa Fund for international expansion|
Khari Johnson @kharijohnson
November 29, 2017 5:45 PM
Above: The new Amazon Echo
Image Credit: Amazon
Alexa Fund, Amazon’s venture capital fund for investment in companies that adopt the intelligent assistant into their products, is getting an additional $100 million to support international expansion. Amazon launched the Alexa Fund in June 2015 with an initial investment of up to $100 million.
Amazon will bring Alexa to Australia and New Zealand in early 2018, an Amazon spokesperson told VentureBeat. Amazon expanded Alexa services to India in October and Japan earlier this month. Echo devices will be available in Canada next month, after debuting in the United States in 2015 and expanding to the U.K. and Germany in late 2016.
The $100 million investment furthers Amazon’s efforts to expand Alexa beyond the United States, and beyond the home to places like hotels, stores, and the workplace.
Over the past two years, the Alexa Fund has invested in more than 30 companies, including seven companies from outside the United States. Alexa Fund participated in a $120 million round in Canadian wearables company Thalmic Labs, a $35 million funding round in smart home startup Ecobee in Canada, and an undisclosed amount of financial support for French smart speaker maker Invoxia.
Others supported by the Alexa Fund include smart home security company Ring, home intercom startup Nucleus, microphone maker Vesper, and TrackR, maker of an Alexa skill for locating lost items at home.
The conversational AI community and businesses interested in using Alexa Voice Services to incorporate Alexa into their products should expect criteria for Alexa Fund investments to remain the same for companies in and outside the U.S., fund director Paul Bernard told VentureBeat.
“Companies that use voice to improve daily life across a wide range of domains — smart home, taking Alexa on the go, peace of mind, productivity and connected play — are some examples,” Bernard said. “We also continue to have interest in companies working on enabling technology, from speech and NLU to developer tools. With the Alexa Fund, we are focusing on empowering companies of all sizes, from startups to established companies, that have ideas for how voice technology can improve everyday life.”
Portions of the Alexa Fund already support international activity.
In addition to funding startups and research activity like the Alexa Fund Fellowship, the Alexa Fund also paid for the Alexa Accelerator, a 13-week startup accelerator facilitated by TechStars and held in Seattle.
The inaugural Alexa Accelerator class received applications from international applicants from more than 50 countries, and the accelerator was promoted in places like Berlin, London, and Tel Aviv. The inaugural class included companies like Sensible Objects, a gaming startup based in London that will next year release half a dozen board games that incorporate Alexa as part of the experience.
A decision has not yet been made on whether the Alexa Fund will support a second year of the Alexa Accelerator, Bernard told VentureBeat.
Two companies that received Alexa Fund monies have been acquired. Manufacturing planning shop Dragon Innovation was acquired by Avnet. Kitt.ai, a natural language understanding company with offices in Beijing and Seattle, was acquired this summer by Baidu, a company whose DuerOS conversational AI wants to become China’s Alexa.
Not all Alexa Fund-backed startups stories ended with an acquisition.
In May, Amazon released the Echo Show, a device with a seven-inch screen and Alexa interaction that looks and acts rather similar to the Nucleus home intercom and video calling device.
“They must realize that by trying to trample over us — a premiere partner in the Alexa Fund ecosystem — that they are going to really cripple that ecosystem and put a warning out for others,” Nucleus CEO Johnathan Frankel told Recode following the release of the Echo Show in May.
In response, Amazon said in a statement it did not get the idea for a home intercom from Nucleus and had already began bringing Alexa to visual surfaces like Alexa Fire TV and Fire tablets.
This fall, CNBC spoke with half a dozen Alexa Fund-backed companies who said Amazon assured them of a firewall between Alexa Fund and product teams, though the teams said they were encouraged to work with teams at Amazon like Amazon Web Services and Lab126. Some referred to working with Alexa Fund as a double-edged sword, both an opportunity to work with the people making Alexa but also a fair deal of information sharing with those teams. Others said the benefits far outweigh the risks.