Voicebot reported in March that Techstars was accepting applications for an upcoming Amazon Alexa Accelerator for summer 2017. More recently, Y Combinator announced a “vertical group in YC dedicated to AI companies” also with a summer 2017 schedule. Beating them both to the punch was Betaworks which plans to begin its Voicecamp cohort of startups Monday. However, the key point is that bots, voice and AI are all getting serious attention from the startup accelerators.
Vertical accelerators are nothing new. Rock Health has focused exclusively on healthcare startups since 2010 and ran accelerator cohorts from 2011 – 2013. Mach37 has operated a cybersecurity accelerator since 2013 and just announced its eighth cohort.
However, the new programs around voice and AI seem to be loosely following in the footsteps of Betaworks’ 2016 Botcamp. Betaworks has worked with numerous startups in its Studio offering, but Botcamp was a focused accelerator a dedicated to the intersection of AI and conversational interfaces. Voicebot caught up recently with Betaworks’ Fahim Abouelfadl to learn more.
What does Betaworks do?
Fahim Abouelfadl: We have three parts. There is Studio where we build companies with ideas that are born within Betaworks. We’ve done 10-15 businesses since 2007. As the companies grow in size they get spun out. Some include Giphy, Bit.ly, Chartbeat, Social Flow and current companies Poncho and Dexter, a bot building platform.
Alongside the studio model we have a more traditional seed stage investment fund focused on media companies that facilitate the distribution and social aspects of content. We have 80-90 companies in this category today. Product Hunt, Medium, Tumblr, Tweetdeck are good examples.
The third part is Camp, a thematically based program. We are working with companies in-house as well as investing in the companies. Last summer we had our fist camp, Botcamp, with eight companies and we decided that we wanted to make it a recurring program.
The upcoming camp is Voicecamp. We are making final decisions by the end of March. The program will run from April 17 to the end of June. The first half will focus on product development. We will have the teams working alongside us. We will also have the the platforms come in such as the Google Home team the Amazon Alexa team, IBM Watson, Cortana. We are also bringing in thought leaders in the voice space. That includes voice design best practices.
The second half will focus on business development, marketing, fund raising. There will be interactions with VCs to help them craft and perfect their pitch. There will be help with legal and financial aspects of the business as well. We have legal, development and design teams that the companies can work with when then come in and further develop mentor relationships.
Tell me about Camp.
Abouelfadl: We never intended for Botcamp to be a recurring program. It was intended as a one-off thing. But, the KPIs were very good. How many of the participants get funding within 12 months of graduation is a key metric. We already had four out of eight get funding in just six months with two others likely to be funded soon.
We saw a lot of value bringing together companies in a certain space and helping them accelerate their development. It validated that this was a good approach to take and allows us to also move out of our traditional media, consumer facing area of expertise and be involved in a wider array of companies working in a cutting edge technology field. In Botcamp, four out of eight [companies] were consumer facing, but the others were enterprise.
How will Camp evolve and be different going forward?
Abouelfadl: These voice enabled devices are changing the way people interact and we decided to host two camps a year. They will be thematically based, but the themes will change each time. Going forward we don’t intend to do another Bot or Voice Camp but following along with the same general model and bringing cohorts of 6-12 companies.
Let me give you an idea of who is applying to Voicecamp. It isn’t just people working on a skill or Action, there are native apps that use audio extensively. We have seen new hardware that enables new voice services with AWS or other NLU. We also see companies that have been around for a few years. We are looking to help propel these companies forward which is definitely moving beyond our previous consumer focus.
Do you have any companies in the program that are competing directly?
Abouelfadl: We haven’t had too much overlap. It hasn’t been a front and center issue, but we do have a small number of companies accepted. We would like to have a diverse set of companies in the cohort instead of banking on a specific use case. [Direct competition] hasn’t been an issue or obstacle for us so far.