Y Combinator Wants You (To Solve Big Problems)

In its last Demo Day, Y Combinator showcased startups that are seeking to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. As in, nuclear energy, health, and quantum computing–all things that are (arguably) more important than how to get food delivered to your piehole using the most direct route possible. And Y Combinator isn’t done looking for companies that can have a wide social and economic impact. The incubator program just posted a request for startups (RFS) today that breaks down what it’s looking for in future cohorts of startups.

“There are a lot of startup ideas we’ve been waiting for people to apply with, sometimes for years,” Y Combinator said. “Our hope is that someone already working on a company in one of these areas will consider applying to YC.”

Y Combinator has already shown it’s keen to invest in companies that are working on “breakthrough technologies.” Its last bunch of startups included: two companies (UPower Technologies and Helion Energy) that are figuring out safe and cost-efficient ways to use nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels; Immunity Project, which wants to develop a free vaccine that could potentially eliminate HIV and AIDS; two of its first biotech companies, Glowing Plant and Gingko Bioworks, which are creating genetically modified plants that can provide lighting or produce things like fuel, milk, and bacteria that can treat illnesses; Bikanta, which is making nanodiamonds that make it easier to spot cancer; One Codex, a company creating a search engine for genomic data that can help researchers combat infectious diseases; and Rigetti Computing, which is building a quantum computer for commercial applications.

Are you looking to build a better battery, develop vaccines, make a better Skype that doesn’t “get worse with each passing year,” get more people in emerging markets online, or create one million jobs? There are 22 areas within which Y Combinator says it is especially keen to find startups. The ones Y Combinator went into the most specific detail about what they are looking for include:

  • Energy: “We believe economics will dominate – new sources must be cheaper than old ones, without subsidies, and be able to scale to global demand. Nuclear energy can hit the bid, and possibly so can renewables. But pricing is the first order question,” says the RFS. “In addition to generation, we’re also interested in energy storage and transmission. 10x better batteries would enable great new things, as would the ability to move energy around.”
  • Biotech: “We are especially interested in applications of biotech to prevent its own misuses. For example, if the bad guys can create new infectious diseases quickly, it’d be nice of the good guys could create new cures and vaccines quickly as well.”
  • Healthcare: “We’re especially interested in preventative healthcare, as this is probably the highest-leverage way to improve health. Sensors and data are interesting in lots of different areas, but especially for healthcare. Medical devices also seem like fertile ground for startups.”
  • Education: “Solutions that combine the mass scale of technology with one-on-one in-person interaction are particularly interesting to us. This may not require a ‘breakthrough’ technology in the classical sense, but at a minimum it will require very new ways of doing things.”
  • Science: “Science seems broken. The current funding models are broken and favor political skill over scientific genius. We need new business models for basic research. There are a lot of areas where scientific developments can have huge commercial applications–materials, neuroscience, climate engineering, and cheaper/better ways to get to space, just to name a few–and we’d love to figure out a way for it to happen. Bell Labs worked a long time ago but would probably not work in today’s world.”
  • One Million Jobs: “We want to fund companies that have the potential to create a million jobs. There are a lot of areas where it makes sense to divide labor between humans and computers-—we are very good at some things computers are terrible at and vice versa—-and some of these require huge amounts of human resources.”
  • Programming Tools: “We believe it’s especially important to build products that make software development accessible to the widest part of our society. In fact, we’re especially interested in new ways to program. There are probably much better ways for people to program, and figuring one out would have a huge impact. The frameworks are better, the languages a bit more clever, but mostly we’re doing the same things. One way to think about this is: what comes after programming languages?”
  • Developing Countries: “Hundreds of millions of people around the world are getting their first computing experience (a smart phone) and entering the middle class. Increasing numbers of tomorrow’s multi-billion dollar technology companies will focus on serving these new consumers, particularly in China, India and South East Asia. Entrepreneurs focused on these markets will almost certainly be riding a big wave, as GDP growth in these countries continues to outpace growth in the United States. Building companies in many of these markets is difficult as shipping and payments infrastructure often doesn’t exist yet. On the positive side, that means vertically integrated businesses are a big opportunity.”
  • Financial Services: “We’d like to see new services that make it possible to invest in super low-cost index funds (in a normal account or a retirement account), do some customization around individual stocks, and otherwise set it and forget it. This would likely generate far better performance than most people see from their investments, and potentially would liberate a huge amount of human capital to work on more interesting things.”
  • Telecommunications: “Skype changed the world, yet it’s only gotten worse with every passing year. Despite broadband penetration, we still have lackluster tools for even the most basic of telecommunication. We deserve a simpler, more elegant solution for a more civilized age.”

Afraid that the problem you want to solve isn’t lofty enough for Y Combinator? Don’t lose faith just yet. Y Combinator’s RFS added that it’ll still be looking for the kind of Internet and mobile startups that have been the program’s mainstays: “The great majority of the startups we fund will continue to be the sort of Internet and mobile companies we’ve funded in the past, so if that’s what you wanted to do before this post, keep doing it. Traditional-looking startups like Google and Facebook are obviously as important as any company one could imagine, and clearly are breakthrough technologies themselves.”

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