From Glowing Plants To Nanodiamonds: Y Combinator's Biotechs Debut

8/18/14Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

Silicon Valley’s hottest tech accelerator, Y Combinator, is about to show off its first class of biotech startups.

The five companies, some of which have already raised significant funding, or controversy—or both—will come under the scrutiny of hundreds of venture capital investors on Tuesday, Aug 19, as the Mountain View, CA-based accelerator holds its Demo Day at the Computer History Museum, also in Mountain View.

As Xconomy reported in May, Y Combinator decided that biotech companies could benefit from the same intensive mentoring sessions that have helped boost the trajectories of Y Combinator alumni such as Airbnb and Dropbox. The invitation to biotech entrepreneurs came shortly before the March application deadline for the YC summer session. Some applied quickly, but some were recruited after the deadline on the strength of their innovative science.

On Tuesday, the five startups will take their two and a half minutes onstage amid more traditional Y Combinator participants: 80 young companies creating mobile apps, commerce sites, cloud services, and other tech enterprises. Hundreds of venture firms and other investors swarm to Demo Day, the finale of every YC session.

“We have some really great companies,” says Y Combinator partner Elizabeth Iorns (pictured above) about the biotech startups she helped select. “I think many of them will raise money quite successfully.” Iorns is a former YC participant who founded Palo Alto, CA-based Science Exchange, an online marketplace where scientists can outsource work to well-equipped research centers.

People often equate the term “biotechnology” with breakthrough medical treatments and the long, costly FDA approval process. So, how can a tech incubator program help biotech startups accelerate? One answer: None of Y Combinator’s first “biotech class” is starting out in drug development, though their tools and technologies might eventually be useful to the pharmaceutical industry. A second answer: Each of the five has its eye on near-term product opportunities more in line with the product development timelines for software companies. A quick introduction to their names and earliest offerings:

Glowing Plant: Plants that shine in the dark like those star stickers on a kid’s ceiling.

Bikanta: Nanodiamonds that light up biomolecules like DNA under the microscope.

Ginkgo Bioworks: Microbes built to industry spec in an automated foundry.

uBiome: A census of the bacteria that live inside you.

One Codex: A search engine for DNA code in cyberspace.

A new generation of biotech innovators has been pushing the boundaries of traditional life sciences careers to launch independent enterprises in rented lab space, outside of university or government research centers. Like Web companies, biotech companies can now operate on a leaner, virtual model because many of their tasks can be outsourced, and the cost of technologies such as gene sequencing have dropped dramatically. Biotech startups can now pitch their first products to consumers, says Antony Evans, co-founder and CEO of current YC startup Glowing Plant. The San Francisco, CA-based company is offering customers the novelty … Next Page »

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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