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

8/22/12Follow @wroush

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. Everyday.me 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.

E-commerce

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 … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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