Today was a “dry run” for Y Combinator's Summer 14 batch, when the participating startups presented their visions to a room full of previous YC founders. Tomorrow comes the real thing, Demo Day, when they present to a room full of investors.
This year there are 75 companies taking part, including a number of life science-related projects. Although, historically, YC has been reluctant to invest in biotech companies, it has now backed many (impressive) life science-enabling startups.
For the most part though they’ve been software-focused, rather than "wet lab" companies. However, with the growing consensus that even this type of company can be capital efficient, a whole range of bio-related startups are becoming attractive to early-stage investors.
Y Combinator revealed its growing biotech interest back in April of this year, when president Sam Altman and part-time partner (and Science Exchange founder) Elizabeth Iorns announced their intention to widen the field.
True to their word, the S14 batch features five biotech startups, as well as several other life science-enabling companies.
- Bikanta - Uses “nanodiamonds” - tiny, fluorescent diamonds - for optical imaging to detect abnormalities such as cancer. Founder and researcher Ambika Bumb grew tired with the current models for identification, such as dyes and quantum dots, which come with problems. The color in dyes fade very rapidly while quantum dots are toxic. Bikanta’s method is to encase the diamonds with silica which enables them to adhere to specific cells in the body. The initial vision is to detect flawed cells using this approach but the company is also looking down the line to a day when the nanodiamonds might be able to carry treatment to the problem area.
Ginkgo Bioworks - Engineers designer microbes for industry customers out of an 11,000 sq. ft. “foundry” in Boston, MA. Founder Jason Kelly believes that such microorganisms could replace drugs in the future, although the company’s interests are broader and less health-focused at the moment. Examples of current projects include:
A line of probiotic bacteria to target harmful bacteria like antibiotic resistance and
Greenhouse gas-battling microbes that convert CO2, methane and other single-carbon compounds into fuel.
Glowing Plant - Uses synthetic biology to create glow-in-the-dark plants. The startup has added firefly genes to the plants to create a new source of sustainable, nighttime lighting. In 2013, Glowing Plant raised $484,000 on Kickstarter to fund the development of the glow-in-the-dark plant. The company plans to expand its range to include other types of functional plants in the future.
One Codex - Strictly speaking more of a data company that a biotech one, One Codex is a search engine for genomic data that is up to 1000 to 1500 times faster than existing technology BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool). Potential users could be clinical labs diagnosing infectious diseases, food safety agencies or biosecurity experts. In each case, the user would sequence a sample and then run that data against everything in the database to identify patterns. The service is currently in open beta.
uBiome - Collates and analyzes microbiome data, collected from the public using a similar model to 23andMe (although unlike 23andMe, it’s not “diagnostic” and therefore escapes the ire of the FDA). The service has two main benefits:
It enables users to see what microbes are living in their bodies and
It collates data which is then available to researchers.
One further biotech company presented, but took part in the previous batch, W14.
- Immunity Project - A non-profit initiative working on a vaccine for HIV. The startup uses statistical analysis in an attempt to identify what makes "HIV controllers" resistant to the virus' replication. The hope is that if these elements are identified, they can be incorporated into a vaccine that would then cause the T cells of recipients to operate in the same way as that of the controllers. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the ambitious nature of the initiative, Immunity Project has been the subject of critical media coverage but the startup received a warm reception from the YC crowd.
Other life sciences-related companies:
Aptible - Enables innovators in the healthcare sector to ensure HIPAA (Health Insurance and Accountability) compliance via the cloud, instead of using a compliance agency. The solution is tailored to other startups, familiar with SaaS-style models and claims to be more convenient as well as cheaper as a consequence.
Listrunner - A mobile app designed to get rid of pen-and-paper notes accumulated by doctors in hospitals. Typical note-taking tools on phones and iPads do not comply with health regulations (HIPAA again!). Listrunner stores the data in the cloud in encrypted form, making note-taking compliant and convenient for medical practioners.
Nightingale - A mobile app to help behavioral therapists collect patient information, map out patterns and report data.
- PicnicHealth - Gathers and manages users' medical records and supplies them to physicians. The service costs $295 as a one-off fee or $39 per month.
Zenamins - A vitamin delivery service that allows customers to tailor a monthly order. If a customer isn’t sure what (s)he wants to take, the service offers advice on the types of pills that might be suitable.