Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 Class: Be Impressed, Don’t Say “Invest”

3/26/14Follow @wroush
Pants for PG

Pants for PG

To mark the passing of the leadership torch at Y Combinator from co-founder Paul Graham to new president Sam Altman, partners presented Graham with an autographed pair of khaki shorts.

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Weave

Weave

Weave offers a software-based phone system for dentists' offices. When a patient calls, their profile pops up on screen, showing details of their medical record and identifying "revenue generating opportunities" (perhaps you'd like to upgrade those crowns to gold?). There are 190,000 dentists' offices in the U.S. and Canada, but Weave also has its eyes set on optometrists, chiropractors, and ultimately physicians.

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TrueVault

TrueVault

Rules changes in 2013 greatly expanded the number of companies subject to healthcare privacy regulations. That means companies using protected patient information must use HIPAA-compliant information systems. TrueVault is a database-as-a-service designed to serve companies currently using non-compliant cloud services from companies like Parse, Heroku, or MongoDB.

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Framed Data

Framed Data

"Churn" or customer turnover costs companies billions every year in lost revenue. Framed Data gather data about customer behavior that helps companies predict when their customers are about to leave, so they can take preemptive action.

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CareMessage

CareMessage

A non-profit mobile health startup, CareMessage sends automated text-message reminders to people in low-income, underserved populations, reminding them to exercise, check their glucose levels, and take other actions to prevent disease. The system, which the startup sells to hospitals and clinics that can afford it and gives away to those that can't, helps doctors be more efficient and has already reached 100,000 patients.

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TradeBlock

TradeBlock

TradeBlock calls itself "the Bloomberg of Bitcoin." It's a subscription-based information service and analytical tool for people trading Bitcoin and other digital currencies. The company says trades executed between TradeBlock clients amounted to $250,000 in the last week alone.

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Cambly

Cambly

On Cambly, people who want to learn conversational English can pay $20 per hour to be connected to a tutor via two-way video call on a smartphone or tablet. Cambly pockets half of that. It thinks the market is big and growing: "Bilions of people are learning English, and billions of people have connected devices with front-facing cameras that are perfect for video chat," the company says.

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Piinpoint

Piinpoint

To find new physical locations for stores, retail chains traditionally dispatch paid consultants who "fly around the world taking pictures of empty parking lots," according to PiinPoint. The startup offers a subscription-based service ($5,000 per month per seat) that shows chains traffic data, real estate prices, and other data for locations around the country.

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Boostable

Boostable

Boostable can turn the data in an Airbnb listing into an advertisement suitable for Facebook. But it's not just for Airbnb renters---it's designed to help sellers in any online marketplace build and place online ads.

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SendWithUs

SendWithUs

Sendwith us argues that "transactional" e-mails such as premium upgrade offers can be optimized to improve open rates and response rates. It's trying to steal business from ExactTarget, the leading platform e-mail marketing.

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Zinc

Zinc

Zinc makes a Chrome browser extension that watches users as they shop at e-commerce sites. When they reach the checkout page, it intervenes with an alternative order button that offers a gauranteed lower price on the same items. (Behind the scenes, Zinc's servers are crawling the Web for product info, and also uses a crowdsourced team of humans to curate deals.) Zinc is designed to save customers the "time and hassle of finding the best deal," says co-founder Doug Fegelson.

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Taplytics

Taplytics

Taplytics has built a system that makes A/B testing---the science of testing variations on a website on a group of live customers---easier for mobile app developers. Traditionally, it's been difficult to test changes to mobile apps without going through the app-store submission process.Taplytics says it can eliminate those delays, and that over 1,000 developers have already signed up to try it.

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AirPair

AirPair

Software development goes faster now that programmers can recombine so many pre-made parts. The downside is that they don’t always know how the parts work. AirPair connects developers having trouble with pre-composed code with outside experts---sometimes the very people who created the code---for consulting help and troubleshooting. One customer told the startup, “It’s like having a question about religion and getting put on a chat screen with Jesus.”

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BatteryOS

BatteryOS

The more times you recharge a lithium ion battery for a car, laptop, or phone to 100 percent, the faster it will lose capacity and wear out. BatteryOS claims to have developed a new type of lithium battery pack that manages energy during charging, idling, or discharging to prevent degradation and maintain capacity. A Chevy Volt with BatteryOS’s would have twice the range and last 8 years longer, according to BatteryOS c-ofounder Tim Sherstyuk.

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SuperHost

SuperHost

You can rent your extra rooms on Airbnb (Y Combinator class of Winter 2009) as if you were a hotelier; why not also hire someone to manage the rental process, all the way from screening potential guests to responding to guest inquiries and scheduling cleanin? That’s what SuperHost does, for a 3 percent fee. “Managing a rental is a lot of work,” says co-founder Amiad Soto. “We make Airbnb super easy.”

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StackLead

StackLead

StackLead helps sales professionals reduce the amount of time they spend qualifying and prioritizing sales leads. Using just an e-mail address as the starting point, the company pulls together a research report “with all the information a sales rep needs to qualify a lead.” The up side is that sales reps can spend more time on calls. The down side (depending on your point of view) is that 2.5 million sales assistants who spend spend most of their time qualifying leads could be out of job.

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MemeBox

MemeBox

Pronounced me-me-box, MemeBox is a new cosmetics brand selling its own line of skin care, makeup, and body products on the Web. Because of its “full stack” model, Memebox’s costs are 50 percent lower than those of compararable cosmetics manufacturers, and it can get new products to market in a tenth the time. The company says it’s targeting the market segment above CVS ($5 for a tin of skin cream) but below Chanel ($100).

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Zesty

Zesty

Zesty presents itself as the Google cafeteria for the rest of us. Like ZeroCater or Cater2.me, it delivers food to businesses so employees don’t have to search for lunch off campus. It’s different from the competition, according to founder and CEO David Langer, in that its dishes are healthy, selected by dietitians from the best local restaurants. “The difference between us and existing services is as large as the difference between Yellow Cab and Uber,” Langer says.

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42

42

No, this company isn’t offering the answer to life, the universe, and everything. It’s just helping offline, bricks-and-mortar retailers analyze data from their point-of-sale systems (the things we used to call cash registers) to get a better handle on sales trends.

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One Degree

One Degree

One Degree is a non-profit that aims to help people from poor and underserved communities cut through a mess of paper-based information to find the social services they need most. One Degree’s Web and mobile sites can offer curated recommendations for opportunities like after-school programs and scholarships based on users’ profiles.

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Vidpresso

Vidpresso

Most TV stations, broadcast newsrooms, and networks still use racks of expensive, dedicated hardware to get live programming on the air and dress it up with graphics. Vidpresso wants to replace all that with software running on commodity computers. The company powered the social media ticker for CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage on Dec. 31, 2013, and is expanding to other big customers in the U.S. and around the world.

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Style Lend

Style Lend

Unlike Rent the Runway, which owns its own inventory, Style Lend is a “peer to peer dress rental marketplace” where the supply comes from women’s own closets. “These items are a secret gold mine---there’s $50 billion sitting in women’s closets,” says founder Lona Alia Duncan. Since every borrower also becomes a lender, the company is scaling up fast, she says.

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Povio

Povio

Povio is a photo sharing app with a couple of twists. First, the team behind it is from Slovenia, where they’ve already surpassed Snapchat in popularity. Second, it’s pull-based rather than push-based. You ping a friend’s smartphone to ask what’s up; they send you a snapshot in return. It’s an easy way to flirt or start a conversation, says founder and CEO Matevz Petek, a former snowboarding champion.

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Dating Ring

Dating Ring

Dating should be more like ordering an Uber towncar, say the founders of Dating Ring: You should get what you asked for at the click of a button. Dating Ring screens members in person to make sure their profiles are accurate, which leads to higher satisfaction; the founders say 70 percent of users go out on a second date.

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Unbabel

Unbabel

It’s still so expensive to translate business documents that most companies don’t do it unless they have to. Unbabel offers translation as a Web service, using a combination of machine translation and crowdsourced human editing. The company says its fees of 2 cents per word are one-fifth what other translation services charge. “At our price point it’s possible to translate huge amounts of content, like customer service e-mails, newsletters, and forums,” the founders say.

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Rickshaw

Rickshaw

Rickshaw operates a same-day delivery service, with pickups and delivery activated through a simple API call that Web-based companies can build into their websites. Right now it operates only in San Francisco. “We save customers money and allow them to focus on their core business,” says co-founder Divya Bhat.

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PushBullet

PushBullet

Have you ever wished that notifications coming into your smartphone, such as Facebook or Twitter updates, would also pop up on your laptop or desktop display so that you don’t have to switch devices to find out what’s going on? PushBullet’s these kinds of cross-platform notification, at least for people using Android devices.

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AirHelp

AirHelp

AirHelp says it’s “proud to be hated by the leading airlines in the world.” The company says that airline passengers leave $16 billion in unclaimed compensation on the table every year. This is money airlines owe them by law---up to $800 per flight---every time a flight is delayed by more than three hours. Because filling out the required paperwork is a hassle, only a tiny fraction of flyers ever claim the money. But AirHelp automates the whole process. Starting with just a name, a date, and a flight number, it says it can recover a payment in eight weeks (claiming a 25 percent commission in the process).

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Zidisha

Zidisha

Kiva is probably the best-known micro lending platform for people in emerging economies, but Zidisha founder Julia Kurnia says Kiva’s interest charges are “exorbitant,” thanks to the intermediary banks it uses. Kurnia says Zidisha uses a peer-to-peer lending model to cut these banks out of the equation, and is consequently able to charge borrowers interest rates below 10 percent, compared to Kiva’s 30 to 80 percent.

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CodeCombat

CodeCombat

Most products and classes that teach kids how to program are boring, say the founders of CodeCombat. They’ve develoepd games that require kids to learn JavaScript skills to advance through 10 levels and beat their friends. Coming to the platform soon: four additional programming languages and 50 additional levels. The company’s business model will likely hinge on company recruiting: “We know something all your portfolio companies want to know, which is who the good programmers are,” the company says.

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MadeSolid

MadeSolid

MadeSolid has developed advanced filaments and resins for 3D printers that allows users to make higher-quality products, including shippable products rather than just prototypes. “The materials being used [in 3D printers] right now are designed to be garbage---it’s the same stuff in Starbucks lids and sporks,” says founder Lance Pickens. “We let users make things they couldn’t make before.”

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Rocketrip

Rocketrip

Google built internal software for managing employee travel that estimates how much each trip should cost, sets a budget, and lets employees keep a share of the savings if they come in under that budget. Rocketrip has built a similar system that other companies can use; it lets employees earn Rocketrip credits that they can redeem for hotel stays or merchandise. One user, an employee at San Francisco startup Optimizely, used his own frequent-flyer miles to book a business flight and took home $840 in rewards.

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Wit.ai

Wit.ai

By inserting a few lines of code from Wit.ai into their mobile applications, developers can give their users the ability to manipulate software through Siri-style voice commands. Wit.ai’s servers do the heavy lifting of rendering voice files into text; it’s speech-to-text as a service. “Voice commands are the future,” says founder Alexandre Lebrun, who sold his last company, virtual assistant maker VirtuOz, to speech systems giant Nuance.

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Bellabeat

Bellabeat

Bellabeat sells a $129, smartphone-connected device that lets pregnant mothers hear their baby’s heartbeat and share the recorded sound with friends and family. “We are bringing the quantified self to pregancy,” says co-founder Urska Srsen. “It’s not just a product moms want, but a platform through which women can connect and exchange experiences.” After a successful launch in Europe, the startup has already sold thousands of the devices in the United States and has signed distribution deals with 12 retailers.

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Ambition

Ambition

“It’s human nature to form tribes, compete, and win,” say the founders of Ambition, which offers a Web-based platform that amounts to “fantasy football for sales teams.” Teams compete from week to week to close the most deals and win rewards and bragging rights. In pilot programs, sales are up 44 percent. The company plans to expand into call centers, customer support and “every single metric-based department or company.”

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Algolia

Algolia

Searches against product databases on e-commerce sites are often slow and inaccurate, because most e-commerce vendors use search engines designed to search documents, not databases. Algolia’s search engine works up to 200 times faster for these types of searches. The company has 80 paying customers, including companies like Zendesk and Rap Genius. “In the future, any query someone types into a website is going to go through Algolia,” the company says.

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Orankl

Orankl

Prounced like “Oracle” with an n stuck in the middle, Orankl offers personalization tools to e-commerce companies that can’t afford to build their own Amazon-style recommendation systems. The company says it tracks users as they traverse an e-commerce site and buy products, and sends them personalized marketing e-mails, leading to a 20 percent increase in sales, on avarege.

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AptDeco

AptDeco

AptDeco is a New York City-based online marketplace for used furniture. The company’s clear photos and descriptions, its friendly user interface, and its $65 pickup and delivery service make it a better alternative to Craigslist, the default marketplace for old furniture. The company takes a 19 percent cut of each sale and is getting ready to expand to other markets.

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Threadable

Threadable

Threadable has set out to reverse the flood of e-mail generated by inappropriately long cc: lists or lax use of the reply-all button. It lets business users create and manage e-mail lists that other users are free to join or leave as they please. “Everyone else is trying to take the important conversations and move them out in to some other tool like Asana or Trello or Jira,” says co-founder Nicole Aptekar. “But at best you wind up with two inboxes. E-mail isn’t going anywhere, so we had to fix it.”

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SketchDeck

SketchDeck

Big banks and consulting firms like McKinsey have entire departments dedicated to designing presentations. SketchDeck aims to bring this service to the rest of the business world. “Just draft your content in PowerPoint, on paper, or in Word, upload it to our site, and we will automatically route it to professional designers and have [the presentation] back to you in 24 hours,” says co-founder Chris Finneral.

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Beacon

Beacon

Beacon aims to shore up journalism’s failing business models though crowdfunding. At Beacon’s site, “readers vote with their dollars to tell us what they would like to read and pay for,” says co-founder Adrian Sanders. Writers sign up to propose projects and publish their content non-exclusively on Beacon’s site. For $5 per month, readers can back a specific writer they like, while also gaining access to all the other content on the platform.

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Two Tap

Two Tap

Two Tap has built a “universal shopping cart for mobile” that lets mobile app developers build a “Buy” button into their app, so users can purchase items they come across without leaving the app.

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Next Caller

Next Caller

Traditional caller ID services show only a caller’s name. Next Caller, with a database of 220 million profiles, can also show subscribers a caller’s physical address and e-mail address, saving lots of time that’s traditionally spent taking down such information over the phone by call center workers or other business employees.

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Eventjoy

Eventjoy

In the world of online event registration, “incumbents like Eventbrite were built for the Web and don’t understand mobile,” says Eventjoy co-founder Karl White. The company’s app (used by Y Combinator at Demo Day) offers both event ticketing and on-site information such as schedules and speaker profiles.

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Kimono Labs

Kimono Labs

The human-readable Web is impenetrable to programmers, who often have to write special scrapers to ingest text from public sites if they want to re-use it. Kimono offers “web scraping as a service,” and boasts that it write a custom API for scraping a complex site such as Bloomberg.com page in less than a minute. So far 20,000 developers are using Kimono’s APIs. In the process, as users call the APIs, “they are telling us which specific pieces of data on those sites matter and how they relate to each other. Our users are structuring the Web for us. At scale we will have a better copy of the Web than Google.”

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Noora Health

Noora Health

When someone is discharged from the hospital after surgery, families are often ill-prepared to take care of them at home. Training courses offered by non-profit Noora Health prepare family members to handle routine home care, and to know what to do if things go wrong. Among the 7,000 families trained so far, complications have been reduced by 36 percent and hospital readmissions have been reduced by 26 percent, according to the co-founders. The organization sells its training services to U.S. hospitals and uses the revenue to give the courses for free to families in India.

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Camperoo

Camperoo

Believe it or not, the average U.S. family spends between $1,000 and $5,000 every summer to send their kids to camp. Camperoo calls itself “Expedia for kids camps;” it’s both a listing site and a booking service where parents can choose from 3,500 camps nationwide. When families book through the site, Camperoo takes a 12 percent commission. Given that sumer camp is a $15 billion industry, the company could have a big market in front of it.

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Abacus

Abacus

Abacus wants to “make expense reports obsolete” by alllowing business employees to snap pictures of their receipts and get reimbursed the next day. The company’s mobile-first workflow syncs with accounting software and gives employers a better view of employee spending; that’s why they’re willing to pony up Abacus’s fee of $60 per employee per year.

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CodeNow

CodeNow

CodeNow’s free, in-person training programs teach underserved youth in the Bay Area, New York City, and the Washington D.C. area how to code; alumni have gone on to win video game development competitions and one was even honored at the White House. Now the non-profit is developing a program called “CodeNow in a Box” that allows the organization to partner with technology companies, which provide space and volunteers for weekend sessions organized around CodeNow’s curriculum and tools.

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Shoobs

Shoobs

Shoobs is a U.K.-based event ticketing and discovery marketplace for nightclubs. Founder Louse Broni-Mensah says the music scene is shifting away from concerts and toward DJ-driven clubs, but traditional ticketing platforms like Ticketmaster weren’t built to serve nightclubs. Over 1,000 clubs have used Shoobs’ service to sell tickets and promote upcoming events to 33,000 club-goers---and all just in London. Broni-Mensah says the company has “global ambitions.”

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Minuum

Minuum

Minuum has come up with a design for a tiny virtual keyboard that relies on predictive algorithms to allow users to type accurately even on the screen of a smart watch or other small device. “Every device needs a keyboard, and as devices get smaller, that keyboard has to be Minuum,” the founders say.

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Gobble

Gobble

Aimed at busy, high-income families, Gobble lets users select healthy dishes for delivery from local chefs, without being tied to the offerings of any one restaurant; users can mix and match multiple dishes in multiple cuisines to satisfy family members’ varying tastes. “For extra-hungry teenagers, picky pre-schoolers, and health-conscious parents, Gobble is the only solution,” says founder Ooshma Garg.

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HoverChat

HoverChat

HoverChat has invented a “messaging layer” for Android devices that lets users see and respond to SMS messages without leaving the current app. Yes, it’s all about multitasking, which, for better or worse, is “how teenage kids live,” the founders say. HoverChat makes messaging so frictionless that SMS volmes increase by 30 percent within a few months of adding the the application.

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Terravion

Terravion

Terravion gathers aerial images that farmers can use to decide what parts of their fields need water, fertilizer, or pesticides. Users pay $30 per acre for the weekly surveys, and can expect productivity gains of 10 percent or more as a result, says co-founder Robert Morris. The company plans to expand this year from its base in Livermore, CA, to cover most fields in California.

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Move Loot

Move Loot

Move Loot runs an online marketplace for used furniture. It works on a consignment basis: Move Loot picks up the furniture and takes it to its warehouse, and handles all the photography and other marketing tasks needed to sell the items. It keeps half of the proceeds. “People want to get rid of their furniture so badly that they give it to us for free, and let us keep half of whatever we make,” the co-founders say. Currently focused on the San Francisco Bay Area, the company plans to expand over the next year to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

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At yesterday’s Y Combinator Demo Day, startups gave their final pitches to an audience of several hundred flamingos.

There were lots of venture flamingos, as always, and quite a few angel flamingos. In fact, the whole day was designed to give the entrepreneurs finishing their 12-week term at Y Combinator a chance to meet flamingos who might offer the … shrimp they need to keep their young companies growing.

No, I’m not really talking about pink birds and crustaceans. But at the moment, there’s rampant confusion and fear in the startup world, as it waits to see how the Securities and Exchange Commission implements certain changes mandated in the 2012 JOBS Act. One big question is how the commission intends to interpret the rules around general solicitation.

Since September, private companies have been allowed to say in public that they’re fundraising—but only if they’re sure that everyone listening is an accredited investor (i.e. filthy rich). It’s hard for entities like Y Combinator to verify that absolutely everyone attending a demo day event is accredited; and it’s still unclear what the SEC might do if it found out that some of them weren’t.

So accelerators running demo days are trying to finesse the situation by avoiding the suggestion that anyone is actually soliciting funds. Everything devolves into winks and nudges. When I stopped at YC’s press registration desk yesterday, I was politely asked to omit from my report any suggestion that, you know, the startups are hoping the flamingos will throw them a few shrimp.

But then Y Combinator’s new president, Sam Altman, mucked things up by saying on stage that “no company in this batch has finished raising money. You can invest in any of them.” I guess somebody forgot to tell him about the shrimp.

With luck, the SEC will issue some kind of clarification soon, and by the time the next Y Combinator Demo Day rolls around, this whole ridiculous charade will have become unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the show went on. Founders from 67 YC companies talked yesterday about their provocative business ideas, in areas ranging from natural language processing to expense reporting to the used-furniture market. There was even one company, Beacon, offering a business model that might save journalism. (I really wanted to toss them some shrimp.)

I’ve summarized the 54 on-the-record presentations in the slide show above. I was particularly impressed by the five non-profit startups in the latest YC batch. They included CareMessage (improving engagement with low-income patients through text messages), One Degree (connecting disadvantaged populations with existing social services), Zidisha (low-interest-rate, peer-to-peer microlending), Noora Health (training families to handle post-operative care for patients leaving the hospital), and CodeNow (coding lessons for kids in poor neighborhoods).

Y Combinator has been admitting more and more non-profits lately, and it’s refreshing to see the organization putting its resources into startups that want to make a difference for poor and disadvantaged people, both in the developing world and in our own country. Amidst all the companies trying to solve first-world problems like how to manage your Bitcoin investments, how to advertise your Airbnb rental, how to keep the batteries in your Tesla fresh, or how to feed your employees Google-worthy catered lunches, it’s easy to forget that 1.3 billion people still live on less than $1.25 per day: enough for about 15 minutes on a San Francisco parking meter.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.