The Most Interesting Y Combinator Winter 2012 Startups

The signs that Y Combinator‘s winter 2012 demo day yesterday was going to be packed began with the traffic jam on the Highway 101 offramp in Mountain View. Simply turning left to cross the Shoreline Avenue overpass to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View took me about 25 minutes. By the time I arrived (late) at the museum, the parking lots were full, and the nearest on-street spot I could find was a couple of blocks down the street. Inside the museum, staff had to cart out extra chairs to accommodate the standing-room-only crowd of angel investors and venture partners. It was a good thing I had brought my own power strip, because there were enough MacBook Airs in the room to heat a small city.

By now it’s a cliché for Silicon Valley tech reporters to write that “this Y Combinator Demo Day was the biggest and craziest ever,” but it was true once again yesterday. The famed startup accelerator program has more than doubled in size over the last couple of years, both in terms of the number of entrepreneurs admitted and the number of investors who want to jostle with each other for the right to back the companies it hatches. YC bowed to reality this time by holding its semiannual beauty pageant outside of its cramped Mountain View facility, but founder Paul Graham and his crew might want to seek an even larger venue next time around. (I’m thinking Hangar One at nearby NASA Ames Research Center.)

In past reports on YC Demo Day I’ve given a rundown of all presenting companies—but there were just too many this time, and you can check out blogs such as TechCrunch if you want summaries of all the public presentations. (The pitches came from 39 on-the-record companies and another 26 companies with plans to de-stealth at a future date.) Instead, I want to talk about the companies that seemed most interesting and impressive, whether in terms of the cleverness and originality of their business concepts, the scale of the market opportunity open to them, or the importance of the problems they’re taking on.

Graham wrote recently that he’d like to see more startups pursuing frighteningly ambitious ideas—challenges such as building a better search engine, replacing e-mail, or fixing universities. It seemed to me yesterday that Y Combinator has begun to put more of its money where Graham’s mouth is, by selecting teams working on some pretty big problems. Previous batches have seemed too full of hackers building tools that only help other hackers—and there were still a few companies like that in this batch. But the group also included many companies whose technologies promise to make a lot of average peoples’ lives easier or more fun. Below are my picks for the YC W12 “most interesting” list. (Note: I would have included several of the off-the-record companies if they’d been willing to talk publicly.)

Patrick Riley, Yiming Liu, founders

Google and Facebook are at war. That’s too bad for consumers, because it means Facebook will never open up its profiles to Google searches, and Google will never show Facebook profiles in its results. Ark says it’s building a search engine “completely reimagined for people.” The company indexes profiles across social networks like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Foursquare, MySpace, Orkut, Meetup, and even China’s RenRen and Russia’s Kontakte, and lets users search the index using filters such as name, location, gender, language, hometown, employer, college, relationship status, and interests. In the company’s example at Demo Day, a woman from Kathmandu, Nepal, used Ark to find the profiles of people in her adopted city of Boston who speak Nepali.

Navneet Dalal, Mehul Nariayawala, founders

Flutter is building gesture-recognition software that turns every webcam into the equivalent of a Kinect motion sensor. Microsoft has sold 18 million of these devices to go with its Xbox 360 game consoles—but according to Flutter, there are 5 billion devices with embedded video cameras, every one of which could be equipped for gesture control instead of old-fashioned mousing and clicking. In its alpha version, Flutter is Mac-only, and can only be used to control iTunes and Spotify. But software like this could obviously help boost all computer users into the long-promised era of gesture control, without forcing anyone to buy special 3D scanners like the Kinect.

Jason Freedman, James R. Bracy, Jonathan Bracy, David Woodworth, Ben Ehmke, founders

42Floors isn’t going to change the world, but it may help a lot of companies. The founders say they want to do for commercial real estate what Trulia did for homes and rental properties—that is, make it easier to find listings online. “It’s as if an entire industry was never introduced to the Internet—all the websites look like they came from 1995, which they did,” the founders say of the commercial real estate business. Their own site gathers office-space listings from brokerages, landlords, Craigslist, and other sources, and displays them using maps and high-quality photos. The company, which keeps a 20 percent commission on deals completed through the site, is also creating a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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