Biotech, nuclear fusion, and bitcoin: Highlights of Y Combinator’s summer 2014 class

Photo by Paul Miller/Flickr

If startups are the future of technology and Y Combinator is the future of the startup industry, then YC Demo Day is like a little glimpse into the future of the future. Or at least, the trends that are next to hit technology companies. You don’t have to wait for CES to look into the crystal ball.

This year’s themes come down to bitcoin, science, and the “Ubers of.”

Science

Helion is building what it calls the world’s first commercial nuclear fusion reactor (General Fusion and Tri Alpha Energy might disagree) and UPower is building a small-scale nuclear fission reactor. No big deal. As Helion’s founder put it eloquently, “Fusion is really, really hard.”

Fusion wasn’t alone in the hard science category. There was also a startup called Bikanta tackling cancer detection using “nanodiamonds” – an imaging material that makes it easier to see unhealthy nodes in a body. A company called uBiome wants to study gut bacteria by getting customers to send in spit swabs, akin to 23andMe. In exchange people will get to see how their microbial health compares to other people in different age, health, and lifestyle brackets. The Immunity Project said it’s developing a vaccine to end HIV and AIDS.

If these sound like wildly ambitious companies to be going through a startup accelerator best known for incubating a cloud file sharing company and an apartment sharing platform, that’s because they are. You can’t help but be a little suspicious when faced with a whirlwind three-minute pitch that claims to be the end of AIDS or the beginning of the commercial nuclear fusion market. At least, I couldn’t help but be a little suspicious. The audience members, on the whole, seemed impressed.

Bitcoin

Bitcoin was another prominent theme, with no less than five bitcoin companies presented, from a bitcoin ATM (they set it up in the lobby for anyone hoping to cash out) to a secure bitcoin identity company. One — a bitcoin ATM card that lets you purchase items anywhere — even managed to silence the perennially sassy The Next Web reporter Roberto Baldwin, who otherwise was simply livetweeting his own drinking game based on the demo day clichés.

“Ubers of insertrandomnounhere.”

As to be expected, startups offering on-demand services continued to be huge this year, with no less than five companies that were the “Ubers of something.” There was an on-demand for bouncers, on demand for massages (side note, guys that already exists twicefold), even on demand valet parking (that company’s obviously hoping to dissuade the stereotype of the Silicon Valley snobby tech elite).

Sadly, no on demand for clowns though, which I was counting on. You’d think someone would have invented that by now.

As always, the flood of pitches, albeit polished and professional, were so short and cookie-cutter that it was difficult to distinguish among the companies. The day wore on in a blur of hockey stick graphs, billion dollar market opportunity proclamations, and TED-talk style intonation.

For all the clichés, it was good to see so many of the companies tackling problems bigger than scheduling or photo sharing. I’d like to leave you with an eloquent tweet from a mysterious account that captures the magic and energy of the summer 2014 YC class.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Miller.

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