Atlanta startup HelixAI, a voice-powered digital assistant for scientific labs, has joined the prestigious Techstars Alexa Accelerator sponsored by Amazon. The three-month, Seattle-based program, now in its second year, allows startups access to Amazon employees and resources, along with traditional Techstars benefits such as seed funding and mentorship.
The Alexa Accelerator is paid for by the $200 million Alexa Fund and looks for startups with products or services complementary to the AI-driven voice assistant. Nine startups have joined this cohort, with HelixAI being the only company from the Southeast.
The Helix voice assistant is aimed to help lab scientists — 800,000 in the U.S. alone — streamline workflow, increase efficiency, improve safety, and save time and money. It keeps track of lab activities so researchers can cut back time spent on tedious paperwork and documentation, and even manage inventory so you know when you’re running low on a specific chemical.
Helix was founded by husband-and-wife team James Rhodes (CEO), a software developer, and DeLacy Rhodes (Chief Scientific Officer), a microbiologist and Berry College professor. The startup began when the family received an Echo device for Christmas 2016. James began to think about the potential of the device beyond entertainment and home help.
“James actually came to me and asked, what would you think about making a digital lab assistant, something that runs off these Alexa devices but helps out in the lab?” says DeLacy. She was open to the idea and they began to nail down how the tool would work.
The couple attended the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in spring of 2017 with a very early prototype to gather feedback on the idea. Once James took that feedback and tweaked the product, they went back to another national meeting and let scientists actually test it.
“Our goal was to get feedback from scientists and see if this was actually something they were interested in using in their laboratory spaces,” says James. Following a highly positive response, James left his engineering day job and now works full-time on Helix.
Unlike an Alexa Skill that anyone can download on the app store, the Helix team uses Alexa for Business to create private skills, matched with a web-based dashboard catered to an organization’s specific lab needs.
“We work very closely with organizations to talk about their needs and identify the kind of content they would like to get through a digital assistant. Then we build up private skills that only those in their organization can get access to,” says DeLacy.
Some of those use cases include holding a lab’s “knowledge base”, the reference data that is helpful to researchers as they perform experiments. Another is storing a lab’s entire operating procedure and experiment protocols, allowing a voice assistant to walk researchers through protocols step-by-step.
It also tracks inventory, allowing the lab to upload and access their inventory using voice. They can pinpoint specific items’ locations, check tools in and out, see who last used an item, and even build order forms when supplies run low and send them automatically to a purchaser.
Helix can be used for any kind of lab, according to the Rhodes. They have two active paid pilots currently using the tool in 15-20 lab spaces. They’re looking to implement another two later this summer and are seeking to launch even more.
“It’s our goal by the end of the accelerator to have five companies looking to work with us on pilots before the public launch,” says DeLacy. That launch is tentatively scheduled for early 2019.
During the program, the Rhodes are also hoping to nail down their revenue model, which James anticipates will be SaaS-based depending on the number of devices the lab is using. They bootstrapped their operations with revenue from pilots until enrolling in the Alexa Accelerator, as DeLacy says they’ve been trying to think strategically about who they take on as an investor partner.
“We have purposely not pursued funding since this is such a new technology and such a new space,” she says. The startup competed at a recent Atlanta Startup Battle investor competition, but did not take money during that time.
By aligning with Amazon, they gain not only an investor but a partner on the technical side.
“There are definitely some technical challenges and some friction points [on the Amazon side] of the system that we’re hoping to get some help with before we do any kind of a public launch,” says DeLacy.
And, when they are looking for more capital following the program, there’s always the chance for follow-on funding. The Alexa Fund has thus far invested additional capital in two startups that graduated from the first cohort of the program last year.
“Everything so far has been very positive, and they have given us so much food for thought that we have already made great strides for what were doing for this business,” says DeLacy. “I feel like there’s a lot of promise that they’re going to be able to help us with some of the technical challenges that we’re dealing with so, by the end of this, we have a much better product than we had going into it.”