Amazon sued by early voice tech developers who allege that company infringed on patents

Voicebox CEO Mike Kennewick. (VoiceBox Photo)

Former investors and employees from VoiceBox Technologies are suing Amazon, alleging that the Seattle tech giant infringed on six of its speech recognition and natural language patents.

The lawsuit, filed today in Delaware federal court, pits Amazon against VB Assets LLC, a new company created to manage patents still owned by VoiceBox, a longtime Seattle-area startup that was acquired last year by Nuance Communications.

Founded in 2001, VoiceBox had amassed a large patent portfolio during its 17-year history. Now its inventors and backers are going after Amazon, which has spent the past several years building out products and services powered by its Alexa voice technology.

The suit claims that VoiceBox began exploring a potential business relationship with Amazon in 2011. The two companies, both based in the Seattle region, held several meetings that included discussions about VoiceBox-patented technology. This slide, included in the lawsuit, was used by VoiceBox during those conversations.

VoiceBox used this slide during a 2011 presentation with Amazon. (Screenshot via lawsuit)

No deals were made, according to the suit. “Instead, on information and belief, Amazon decided to build its Alexa Products—without telling VoiceBox Technologies or asking permission to use VoiceBox Technologies’ patented technology,” the suit reads. In 2014, Amazon launched Alexa and its first generation Echo speaker, which “were strikingly similar to the patented technology that VoiceBox Technologies showed Amazon in 2011,” the suit notes.

VoiceBox accused Amazon of poaching “dozens” of its engineers and scientists, including Philippe Di Cristo, the company’s chief scientist who left in 2016 and describes himself as a “speech and voice technology leader” at Amazon on LinkedIn.

In 2017, VoiceBox CEO and co-founder Mike Kennewick sent an email to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos “to propose a business solution.” The companies held another series of meetings that year but the lawsuit does not detail what came out of those.

Bloomberg first reported the lawsuit.

A VB Assets spokesperson said the company is not commenting on pending litigation, but pointed GeekWire to this 2006 news report showing how VoiceBox was attempting to build the equivalent of Alexa long before Amazon was.

VoiceBox focused on conversational voice technology for cars, homes, mobile devices, and more. Its customers included Samsung, Toyota, ATT, TomTom, and Fiat Chrysler. The company, co-founded by Kennewick and his brother Rich Kennewick, was ranked No. 65 on the GeekWire 200, our index of the Pacific Northwest’s top privately held technology companies. With the acquisition, the company is no longer on the index.

VoiceBox had more than 180 employees, according to LinkedIn, with additional offices in Europe and Asia. It had raised more than $25 million, according to Crunchbase.

Nuance, a speech and imaging technology giant headquartered in Burlington, Mass., has a large presence in the Seattle region as a result of several acquisitions in addition to the VoiceBox deal. It bought text-input pioneer Swype for $102.5 million back in October 2011; it bought in-car speech software startup Tweddle in 2013; and acquired automated message developer Varolii later that year. In 2009, it acquired Jott, another Seattle startup.

Amazon, meanwhile, has invested heavily in Alexa as it battles Google and others in a voice market expected to reach $31 billion by 2025. Alexa has been built into 150 different gadgets made by other companies, and the total number of Alexa-powered devices sold is more than 100 million. There are now 90,000 Alexa “skills,” or different Alexa voice apps and capabilities — up from 15,000 two years ago.

Amazon has not responded to a GeekWire inquiry. We’ll update the post when we hear back.

See the full suit below.

VB Assets vs. Amazon by GeekWire on Scribd

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