Inside Amazon’s $100M Push to Put Alexa Everywhere
Zain Gulamali works in Corporate Development and Ventures at Amazon and manages the $100 million Alexa Fund. He was on hand for a recent technology scouting workshop in Los Angeles, and we caught up with him afterwards via email to pose a few questions about the personal digital assistant and its future.
Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Firstly what brought you to Amazon?
I’ve always been passionate about the nexus of entrepreneurship, technology, and investing. Previously, I had been a later-stage venture and growth equity investor at Warburg Pincus, and after that, I was an early-stage technology operator at Pocket Gems (mobile gaming and entertainment). Coming out of a mid-career management degree at Stanford Graduate School of Business, I looked to combine those experiences and channel my passion for supporting entrepreneurs.
Amazon emerged as a place where I could continue my path. Amazon has always been an intellectual playground for anyone interested in tech, but had only just begun its foray into venture capital investing with the advent of the Alexa Fund in 2015. With great excitement, I joined the Alexa Fund as its first hire (we now have a three-person investment team). Needless to say, it’s been a great few years of growth, as we’ve increased our portfolio, backed some incredible founders, and contine to find high-growth areas in which to invest.
Full disclosure: your former employer, Pocket Gems, hired me, as a writer/director to create the 13-part episodic teen mobile drama Mayfair Brooks, so thanks for the checks! But in all seriousness, what did you bring from your experience there to your current role?
Glad to see the connection! One of the things I’m proud of is enabling support of the writer community at Pocket Gems. Helping to build Pocket Gems from an early-stage gaming company to a growth-stage entertainment platform was one of my more rewarding experiences and helped build my empathy for early-stage founders. I joined in 2011 and was there for nearly three years. During that time, we “changed the game” in gaming multiple times, including innovating in the arenas of narrative gaming and branded IP licensing. As you often do in startups, I wore multiple hats, ranging from marketing and user acquisition to business development and strategic finance to staffing to product strategy, and benefitted from great mentorship in the process. The company continues to be a unique innovator at the confluence of technology, creative content and entertainment, and gaming.
Back to your current role, what is the purpose of the Alexa venture capital fund?
Amazon’s vision is for Alexa to be everywhere. From the start, we knew we’d need creators and builders outside of Amazon to get excited about voice. That’s why we created things like the Alexa Skills Kit, which lets developers build skills for Alexa, and the Alexa Voice Service, to make it easier for developers to integrate Alexa directly into their devices.
We created the Alexa Fund with a similar purpose in mind: to support the companies building compelling applications, devices, and technologies that advance voice technology. Since its launch in 2015, the Alexa Fund has invested in nearly 40 different companies and introduced new programs such as the Alexa Accelerator and the Alexa Fund Fellowship. The companies in our portfolio are an important part of Amazon’s overall voice strategy, helping make Alexa smarter and more useful for customers, and encouraging continued growth of the voice community.
How does it work?
When the Alexa Fund invests in a company, one of our primary goals is to give promising entrepreneurs the tools, resources, and connections they need to build a successful company with strong voice applications. Often, that means we’re looking for companies that can have a meaningful impact on the Alexa experience. Leading smart home company ecobee is a great example. Since joining our portfolio, ecobee has launched two Alexa-enabled devices—the ecobee4 ($227.97 at Amazon) thermostat and ecobee Switch+ ($91.48 at Amazon)—and built an engaging Alexa Skill that includes new voice controls for connected thermostats.
Which companies have you supported successfully to date?
We define success slightly differently than traditional VC funds. While we absolutely look for venture growth and returns, we also try to look for companies that can accelerate the Alexa flywheel and bring new, innovative experiences to our customers. Here are a few examples: Tact, a conversational AI for enterprise sales that was featured at the launch of Alexa for Business; Vesper, whose microphones have been built into Alexa Voice Service development kits from Linkplay and Synaptic; Ring, which was acquired by Amazon earlier this year; and Sensible Object, an Alexa Accelerator company that just released the first Alexa-enabled board game, When in Rome. You can find a full listing of our portfolio at alexafund.com.
Embodied, the socio-emotive assistant robotics startup, co-founded by Dr. Maja Mataric, is in your portfolio. What was it about their proposal that set them apart?
We backed Embodied initially based on the founders’ [Dr. Paolo Pirjanian, former CTO, iRobot and Dr. Mataric, professor of computer science, neuroscience, and pediatrics at USC] deep experiences in robotics and the company’s vision to change lives through emotionally intelligent robotics. The company is building AI software as well as life-like, emotionally intelligent companion robots for care and wellness. We’re strong believers in their ability to see that vision through to reality, and excited about where voice technology may fit into things down the road.
How do you intersect with the Amazon Alexa Accelerator?
The Alexa Accelerator was created by the Alexa Fund, and we run the program in partnership with Techstars. The goal of the Alexa Accelerator is to support earlier stage startups experimenting with voice technology, providing them funding, mentorship, and resources to help advance their projects and strengthen their ties to Alexa. Several startups from our inaugural class have already raised subsequent funding rounds, and we’re excited to support the next batch of participants later this summer.
What are you looking for (that you haven’t seen to date)?
Generally speaking, our goal is to find compelling companies that demonstrate how voice technology can improve everyday life, and give them the best path to success and scale on Alexa. But we’re also interested in the underlying science and engineering that make these experiences possible. With that in mind, we’re keep a close eye out for companies working in areas like text to speech, natural language understanding, automatic speech recognition, artificial intelligence, and hardware component design.
Is it just US-based?
No, we’re also looking for more startups based outside the US, with Amazon having committed another $100 million to the Alexa Fund last fall to support international investment opportunities, and continuing to build successful programs to support early-stage startups. The second round of the Alexa Accelerator kicks off this summer, and we’re excited to continue supporting university programs through the Alexa Fund Fellowship.
We interviewed developer Nick Schwab, who has published 50+ Alexa Skills and was recognized as an “Alexa Champion” last year. How does your investment continue to grow this network of both established and up-and-coming talent, like Schwab?
Alexa represents an opportunity to reach millions of engaged customers, earn money, and build a voice-first business. For Skill developers, we’ve introduced new services such as Alexa Developer Rewards, In-Skill Purchases, and Amazon Pay for Alexa Skills. But there are also many products and services for which voice is just one of several interfaces—through a fast-emerging, frictionless, and highly engaging one—and others focused on the underlying science and technology that make voice experiences possible. For those startups, there’s the Alexa Fund. Both seasoned and new entrepreneurs are seeing voice as an interaction layer for the future, and we’re eager to back those who share that vision and can build successful companies based on it.
Finally, how do you use Alexa at your house?
Alexa is an integral part of my daily routine now. Between my wife and I, we use Alexa anywhere between 40 to 60 times daily. My top uses are 1) news and sports radio and podcasts via Flash Briefing and TuneIn integration, 2) music—I’m a big “hip-hop head”—via Amazon Music and Bluetooth connection, 3) productivity via the Todoist integration, and 4) smart home (lights and heater). I also tend to frequently use Alexa on-the-go, and in-car, via the Alexa mobile app for Android.