The Big Themes at Y Combinator’s Summer 2012 Demo Day

If your startup accelerator rises to a certain level of prominence, you get the opportunity to push a generation of young entrepreneurs in the directions you want simply by virtue of choosing certain startups over others. And because lots of other accelerators, entrepreneurs, and investors take their cues from you, you end up influencing the direction of technology development across Silicon Valley.

That’s the level Paul Graham and his co-founders at Y Combinator have reached. But which problems are most worth solving? If you pay careful attention to the essays Graham publishes online, you can discern some of the themes that Y Combinator is subtly or not-so-subtly pushing startups to explore these days. In a March 2012 essay entitled Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas, for example, Graham pointed to search, e-mail, education, entertainment, consumer hardware, software tools, and medical diagnostics tools as key innovation areas where courageous entrepreneurs might have a shot at making billions.

In this summer’s batch of 74 startups, you can see Graham’s ideas being turned into actions. YC and its allied investors are placing bets in almost all of the big areas Graham identified, and several more besides. At yesterday’s public YC Demo Day for investors and press, you could almost see Graham flinging wave after wave of young entrepreneurs at the big problems in areas like transportation and logistics, social networking and entertainment, e-commerce, finance, telecommunications, travel, advertising, publishing, healthcare, education, and developer tools.

Collectively, these startups have a pretty good shot at changing the world, if only because of their sheer numbers. Below is my summary of the public presentations yesterday, organized by theme. My writeups are, by necessity, limited to about one sentence each, but you can read more about each company at their websites. Some of the coolest YC S12 companies are still in stealth mode, meaning their presentations were off the record, but most of them fit into one of these categories. (Strangely, search and e-mail still seem to frighten most entrepreneurs away—not a single company in the summer batch is taking on those scary problems.)

Media Sharing, Social Networking, Entertainment, and Games

Quite a few companies in this YC batch are focused on new ways to create, share, or organize user-generated content. Kippt calls itself a “Pinterest for work” where people can collect and share links they find useful. Imgfave and 9gag are both booming media-sharing sites where millions of people are already sharing compelling images and viral memes, respectively. Hubchilla is like Chatroulette for SMS, pairing anonymous users for text chats based on interests, gender, and location. is an automatic journaling app for smartphones—think Path but even more private.

In the online video world, TapIn is giving people new apps for capturing and sharing live video instantly on their smartphones, and ReelSurfer wants to make it even easier for videos to go viral by allowing users to make and share short clips from existing videos on sties like YouTube and Vimeo.

In gaming, SpinPunch is working on tools that let developers build console-like games that run inside Web browsers. The Coco Controller from Milkshake Labs is an iPhone sleeve with game-controller buttons that makes your Apple device look like a Gameboy. And Kamcord has created software that lets mobile game developers build a recording option into their games, so that players can capture and share their exploits with their friends.

Transportation, Logistics, and Manufacturing

Several of this year’s YC companies are trying to solve problems involving the manufacturing or movement of actual stuff, rather than just bits. For instance, more than half of all delivery attempts by companies like FedEx and UPS fail because no one is home, so BufferBox is building a network of lockers at retail stores and other locations where shippers can leave packages; recipients can retrieve them using a code received by e-mail. Keychain Logistics is working to cut out the middleman in the shipping brokerage market by building an online service to connect shippers directly with truckers. HD Trade Services is building software to make inventory tracking more efficient in warehouses.

Viacycle, meanwhile, hopes to disrupt companies like Bixi and Alta Bicycle Share by building tracking devices that make it cheaper to operate fleets of shared bicycles. And in the manufacturing realm, Dreamforge is creating software that average consumers can use to design their own objects for 3D printing.


Some of the YC S12 companies are trying to fix e-commerce from the inside out.  Airbrite, for example, is creating a software platform that will help medium-sized companies handle e-commerce transactions on mobile devices. Referly helps bloggers and other Web publishers create online mini-stores that will help them collect affiliate commissions on sales of the items they review. RegistryLove wants to make life easier for engaged couples by aggregating many wedding registries under a single online roof.

Others, meanwhile, are extending existing e-commerce models into new niches. Vastrm is building a “Warby Parker for shirts” complete with a home try-on program, while Instacart offers an “Uber for groceries” service linking delivery people with busy consumers who need to restock their kitchens. Tastemaker is an online marketplace matching interior designers with people who have interiors that need designing.

A few outliers (to be honest, I wasn’t sure where else to categorize them): Coinbase offers a hosted wallet for people who like to pay for things using Bitcoin, the all-digital currency. is helping landlords be smarter about setting rents by supplying them with information on comparable apartments gleaned from the Web. And Canopy Labs helps e-retailers and other companies automate the way they analyze customer data, helping to figure out which customers are most valuable and which ones should be targeted with promotions.


Two of the startups are helping with the fundraising process, but in very different realms: Amicus is an online tool that non-profits can use to turn supporters into evangelists, while Funders Club is creating a marketplace where, thanks to legal reforms in the JOBS Act, accredited investors will be able to make equity investments of as little as $1,000 in private companies.

Two more companies are building software to help traders: BigCalc’s software lets them build simulations to test their algorithmic investing strategies before unleashing them on the market, while Data Nitro gives quants a new Python-based tools for building fancier financial models based on their Excel spreadsheets. SmartAsset, meanwhile, offers a site that helps home buyers evaluate their financing options.

Workplace Tools and Business Communication

Two YC companies are helping to solve paperwork-related problems in the office. MicroEval helps companies automate performance reviews, while Submittable helps workers manage over-the-transom materials such as resumes, blog posts, and contest submissions.

Quite a few of this summer’s startups are out to invent better ways for enterprise employees to communicate. Voicegem has technology that lets workers send voice messages via e-mail or Facebook. Plivo offers telephony-as-a-service that’s allegedly cheaper and more scalable than similar services from Twilio, while Profig offers business phone systems that can be customized from a Web dashboard, and QuicklyChat offers push-to-talk video chat that can sense when colleagues should and shouldn’t be interrupted. Double Robotics is selling a $1,199 telepresence robot that’s basically an “iPad on a Segway.” (A neat but not completely original idea: Anybots, iRobot, and Suitable Technologies are all working on similar robots.)


Four of the companies are working to apply trendy concepts from the Web-services world to the travel business. Flightfox has build a system that travelers can use to crowdsource their flight searches to a group of 900 experts for a flat fee of $30 per search. GetGoing helps airlines fill up their planes by offering discounted fares to targeted leisure travelers. TomoGuides is publishing free travel-guide apps designed to generate sales leads for local businesses in the targeted cities. And Vayable is an “Airbnb for travel experiences” that connects travelers with local guides and other experts who can provide personal tours and other experiences.


Three of the startups in this batch are in the matchmaking business: Tracksby helps brands seeking celebrity endorsements find recording artists and other celebrities who are willing to endorse them, while Virool helps companies with promotional videos distribute them to appropriate apps, social networks, and blogs. Sponsorfied matches sponsorable events such as conferences with big brands looking for sponsorship opportunities.

Meanwhile, two more ad-related startups are helping to upgrade more familiar forms of digital advertising. LeanMarket describes itself as “E-Trade for banner ads”—it brings real-time bidding to online banner ads, something that’s mainly been used to date for text-based ads. And Mth Sense brings behavioral targeting to the mobile-ads world by analyzing the apps installed on a smartphone to come up with a demographic profile of the phone’s owner. “If you have Dora the Explorer, Pinterest, and Vogue installed, most likely you are a soccer mom,” say the founders.

Developer Tools

Y Combinator admitted a large group of startups working on software, analytics, and quality assurance tools to this batch, continuing in its tradition of supporting companies like Heroku that work to make life easier for software developers, Web designers, system administrators, and analysts.

In this group, Zapier acts as a hub allowing businesses to easily connect with dozens of cloud-based services. Light Table is a Kickstarter-funded project to build a new type of software development environment that lets programmers access documentation more easily and modify code while it’s running.

On the Web design front: Scoutzie is a marketplace where companies can find pre-qualified mobile and Web designers. Easel offers a Web design tool that helps companies prototype a website just once, rather than mocking it up in a tool like Balsamiq and then re-coding it in HTML and CSS, while MarkupWand has a remarkably similar tool that helps designers turn Photoshop mockups into HTML.

Parallel Universe has built a specialized database called SpaceBase that lets companies perform heavy-duty analytics on complex data very quickly—the Israeli air force is already using it to track the positions of planes. Statwing, meanwhile has built software that lets non-experts visualize statistical data.

Consumer Data Management

This is a category I’ve made up for three companies with interesting ideas about how to organize the data scattered across our hard drives and cloud-based accounts. First there’s Collections, which has built a “universal Finder” that shows Mac users not only the files on their hard drives, but also the data in their Google Docs, Instagram, Facebook, and other cloud-based accounts. Closely related is, a set of software interfaces that developers can use to integrate their own apps with cloud services like Google Drive and Facebook, so that users can send data between accounts without having to download them to their PCs in between.

Finally, there’s Grid, which is working on a remarkable iPad app for organizing lists, schedules, contacts, photos, and other information in a kind of huge multimedia spreadsheet. This startup gets my vote for Most Intriguing of the batch. I can’t really explain the app well here—go watch their video. If it actually works, it will be pretty amazing.


Three startups in this YC batch have built tools to help publishers reach readers and make money—causes dear to our hearts here at Xconomy. Survata makes  a plugin that lets publishers offer readers free access to premium content in exchange for filling out brief market research surveys. Hiptype is a publishing analytics company that helps book publishers get a better idea of who’s buying and reading their e-books. But Circular is a bit different—it’s working on mobile apps that help news aficionados share their favorite stories. From another perspective, it’s “an infinite scroll of news personalized for you, filtering out the stories you don’t care about,” says founder Samuel Clay.


Healthcare isn’t yet a big focus area for Y Combinator—it’s territory that Rock Health and other healthtech-focused accelerators are covering pretty thoroughly. But there were two public healthcare-related startups in this batch. Eligible is a platform that developers can use to build privacy-compliant insurance eligibility queries into their healthcare IT software. And Healthy Labs is developing a series of Web-based communities for chronic disease sufferers, starting with Crohnology, a community for people with Crohn’s disease. (Under the Crohnology name, this startup was part in Rock Health’s inaugural class in 2011.)


As one of the co-founders of Clever observed, education is a tempting market for technology developers, but anybody who takes it on is repelled by the fact that selling to schools is painfully slow. That’s why Clever is selling to developers instead. It has built a data integration tool that extracts student data from existing school databases and makes it usable to builders of other education tools.

The other two education-related companies in this YC batch are also skirting schools and aiming straight at students. Study Edge is a subscription site where college students can get access to peer tutoring via Facebook. And Knowmia is building a marketplace where high-school students in need of extra help can find custom courses assembled by educators and consisting of videos culled from the Web; co-founder Ariel Braunstein, who also helped to found Flip Video creator Pure Digital, calls it “the platform for the next 1,000 Khan Academies.”

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

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