Engineering | Entrepreneurship + Innovation

Above: Brent Sebold, executive director of training and development for Arizona State University’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation program, addresses the audience during the Demo Day event at Skysong in Scottsdale, Arizona, on April 27. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASUNow

“Alexa, who was awarded the 2018–2019 Alexa Innovation Fellowship at Arizona State University?”

Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based voice service known for its vast trove of information and punchy responses, could reply with the name of Brent Sebold, the director of Entrepreneurship + Innovation at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Sebold is one of 10 national entrepreneurship faculty members selected for the 2018–2019 Alexa Fellowship.

Voice technology has significant potential for future marketplace innovations. Amazon’s Alexa Fellowship seeks to inspire undergraduate and graduate students to unlock the future of voice technology via the development of new startup ventures.  

The Alexa Innovation Fellowship is a new program this year intended to inspire and enable student-led startups to enhance their products with voice. Each Alexa Innovation Fellow receives funding, training and Alexa devices to help support student entrepreneurs on their campus.

Sebold and his faculty colleagues will use Amazon Alexa-enabled devices to help student innovators build upon their new venture concepts within various sections of ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Value Creation course, a multidisciplinary, junior-level engineering technology elective and a required course for a bachelor’s degree in business entrepreneurship or technological entrepreneurship and management. These courses are administered jointly by the Fulton Schools and ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business.

“This fellowship will allow us to increase the clock speed of student-led startup teams experimenting within the emerging market of artificial intelligence and voice technology,” said Sebold. “Thanks to this fellowship award, our students will have the opportunity to make a dramatic leap forward in the early-stage prototyping and business model experimentation process that’s necessary to produce the next big thing.”

In the course, students learn how to identify the needs of a market and pressing problems, develop impactful technology solutions, interact with customers and end users, and pitch innovations to supporters and decision-makers.

“I aim to encourage the startup teams to focus on enterprise or workplace problems that Alexa technologies can help solve, in addition to consumer and lifestyle pain points,” said Sebold. “In other words, how might we harness Alexa to make the workplace more efficient?”

This isn’t the first time ASU engineering students have had the opportunity to become leaders in voice-technology development. Last year, ASU partnered with the Amazon Alexa team to enhance engineering students’ experience in Tooker House, a recently opened high-tech campus residential complex for engineering students. Using Amazon Echo Dots, Tooker House residents gained touch-free access to information and services and became part of the first voice-enabled residential community on a university campus.

The Tooker House partnership also included four undergraduate engineering courses on voice-user interface development. Engineering students are encouraged to build their own Alexa skills and start integrating the technology into other projects.

ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Value Creation accelerator-style, venture-based course offerings culminate with students being able to apply lean startup and disciplined entrepreneurship methodologies toward advancing their own ventures or in their roles as entrepreneurially minded industry professionals.

Students leveraging Alexa in their in-class ventures will be encouraged to apply for and participate in Venture Devils, a program collaboratively run by ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation and the Fulton Schools with participation from all the schools across ASU.

Venture Devils guides students, faculty and community-based entrepreneurs through the process of creating a successful venture with ongoing support and mentoring. Founders in the program have access to training at all developmental levels, a dedicated venture mentor who challenges the iterative advancement of ventures and a formal process to attain funding or additional resources.

“We’re thrilled to feature Amazon’s Alexa technology within ASU’s venture development funding network, which is fueled by a wide array of forward-thinking donors and sponsors,” said Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Entrepreneurship + Innovation at ASU. “We are committed to supporting student changemakers, disruptors and innovators across the entire university. Thanks to our collaborations with Amazon, we’re now better positioned to help them experiment on the cutting edge of voice technology.”

Within just the past academic year, the program has supported nearly 400 engineering student co-founders and 132 student ventures, and approximately $355,250 in grant funding was awarded to engineering-related ventures.

Venture Devils startups incorporating Amazon’s Alexa technology will be encouraged to compete for funding and support in the bi-annual Pitch Playoff and Demo Day events, in which students present evidence-based pitches for their new venture concepts. Promising startups with Alexa integrations are eligible to receive up to $5,000 in seed grant funding.

The next Venture Devils Demo Day that may feature student ventures competing for funding through the Alexa Fellowship will take place on the last day of fall 2018 classes on Friday, November 30 at 1951 @ SkySong.

“Voice is clearly becoming the next technology disruptor, much like the internet and mobile devices were,” said John Rome, ASU’s deputy chief information officer. “I’m happy to see the students in Venture Devils get access to this technology, and determine how and if voice fits into their innovation or startup. The continued partnership between ASU and Amazon enables us to inspire our students to build the technology of tomorrow.”

Through opportunities like the Alexa Innovation Fellowship and Tooker House partnership, ASU is continuing to work with Amazon on the cutting edge of creating educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for students using voice technology.

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