Dragon Innovation, the Cambridge-based company that has helped hardware startups like Pebble, Coin, and MakerBot move from prototype to product, is one of seven companies that have been awarded seed money from Amazon’s new $100 million Alexa Fund. The investment program was designed to help expand the reach of Alexa, the cloud-based voice recognition technology that powers the Amazon Echo device and was partly developed in the online retailer’s Kendall Square offices.
“It kind of seemed like a no-brainer,” Dragon chief executive Scott Miller said. For hardware manufacturers, “voice is kind of really the natural next step to create a really compelling and seamless customer experience.”
Miller has spent his career building robots — he worked on the RoboTuna motorized fish at MIT, built full-sized robotic dinosaurs for Disney, and spent a decade at iRobot, helping the company design and build the first of its top-selling Roomba vacuums. In the past six years, he’s helped over 200 manufacturing companies bring their products to market through Dragon’s consultancy, which offers design, manufacturing, and funding guidance for hardware startups.
Neither Amazon nor Dragon would disclose the size of the investment. But Miller said the deal will give Dragon a leg up with customers looking to incorporate voice recognition software into their products.
“Typically, hardware startups are really strapped for cash,” he said. “They often have great ideas. But being able to access the greater resources, whether it’s through the fund or through the Alexa software that Amazon built, is pretty cool. We’re psyched about what sort of new innovations that will unleash.”
Dragon has been through an evolution of its own lately. The company’s core service is helping hardware startups turn their ideas into working products, particularly when it comes to hiring manufacturers in China. Dragon experimented with its own crowdfunding website for hardware projects, but scrapped that idea last year. With the Amazon investment, Miller says, Dragon is planning to move away from being a pure consulting service, although he wouldn’t give specifics about what that new model will look like.
“We’re in the process of productizing all of the knowledge that we have in our heads into an interesting set of tools,” Miller said. The relationship with Amazon, he added, will provide “high-value connections” to the teams that Dragon is working with, and give Amazon the chance to become more “deeply ingrained in this exciting hardware ecosystem.”
As for Amazon’s own presence in Kendall Square, where the company has been ramping up its staffing of its voice recognition team, Miller said there aren’t any plans to bring in the Dragon-affiliated startups in for a show-and-tell. “Building closer ties with Amazon was always first and foremost about being able to help our customers be able to access the best and sharpest tools,” he said.
But he’s open to the possibility: “We’re powering the second wave of the hardware revolution.”