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A former ‘Shark Tank’ contestant wants to use Amazon’s Alexa to make interactive children’s books

Novel Effect won funding from the TV show but raised $3 million from Amazon and other investors instead.

Child in a sleeping bag reading a book Paula Bronstein / Getty
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Alexa-powered speakers are a huge hit for Amazon, but we have yet to see many companies launch products that take advantage of Alexa’s voice platform.

Here’s one that wants to try: Novel Effect, which is creating media designed to be used with Alexa and other voice-activated systems.

Right now, Novel Effect’s main offering is built around children’s books: It has created sound effects and other audio integrations for dozens of kids books, which get triggered when you or your kids read the books aloud. Here’s a video that gives you the basic idea:

This seems like a pretty simple application, but CEO Matt Hammersley, a former patent lawyer, says there’s more going on than you think. For starters, all of the language processing is happening via Novel Effect’s own software, which means it should work with just about any hardware/software combination.

Right now, the company has an iOS app, but it’s working on an Android version, as well as an Alexa skill. On the road map is a version of the children’s book idea that will sync up with animations and sounds effects on smart TVs; the company says it has lots of other people, like toy manufacturers, who want to explore different applications.

If any of this seems familiar, there’s a good reason. Novel Effect got national TV exposure last fall when it appeared on an episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

Hammersley left that episode with an offer from investor Lori Greiner to invest $500,000 in the company. But he says that when he ended up negotiating the terms with Greiner after shooting the episode, he realized he could get a better deal from other investors. (I’ve asked Greiner’s team for comment).

Now he’s raised $3 million from a group that includes Amazon, via its Alexa Fund, as well as investors including Alpha Edison, TenOneTen Ventures and Waverley Capital.

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