Google is launching a new program to pour money and other resources into early-stage start-ups that work with its digital assistant.
The program resembles Amazon's Alexa Fund and reflects the extent to which Google sees the success of its smart assistant as a driver of future growth, as both companies (and other tech giants) vie for dominance in the home.
For Google's smart speaker, Home, to compete successfully against Amazon's Echo line-up, it needs a varied and useful set of skills. For that to happen, developers need to see it as a worthwhile and practical platform to build for.
Besides contributing capital, the Google Assistant Investments program will connect start-ups with the company's engineers and product people, provide early access to upcoming Smart Assistant features and support them through free marketing and Google Cloud credits.
Unlike Alphabet's venture arms, Capital G and GV, the program will focus on making strategic investments, not maximizing returns. It isn't a traditional "fund" in that there's no cap on the amount the team can invest overall.
"It's about bringing the resources of Google to bear to build the digital assistant ecosystem," says Nick Fox, a vice president in Google's Search and Assistant business unit.
While Fox oversees the program, it's spearheaded by Ilya Gelfenbeyn, who joined Google after it bought his developer platform, API.AI, in 2016, as well as Brock Huber, previously on Google's corporate development team, and Sudipta Chatterjee, who has worked on technical aspects of Assistant.
To kick off the program, Google announced investments in four companies:
- GoMoment, a hotel concierge tool that lets guests ask about check-out times, bar happy hours or room service (currently used by several Las Vegas hotels)
- Edwin, an artificial-intelligence-powered English tutor to prepare people for foreign language tests.
- BotSociety, a platform to help developers design, prototype and test their own voice assistants.
- Pulse Labs, whose developers test voice apps with users.
Fox declined to say how much it put into these companies but described the amounts as "relatively meaningful" without being majority stakes.
Portfolio start-ups will work closely with Googlers across the organization, but the company says that it will be mindful of keeping proprietary information safe.
After Amazon launched the Alexa Fund, one of its portfolio companies called foul, saying that the company had cloned its product with the Echo show. Amazon denied any correlation between the products.
Fox says enthusiasm has trumped wariness so far in conversations with start-ups and that he's looking forward to seeing companies working across a wide spectrum.
"It's still a very nascent area," he says. "It's just getting built up, and the sky's really the limit for these developers to bring the Assistant to life in different use cases."