Twice a year, Y Combinator
invests in a cohort of startups from across the country and invites them to move to Silicon Valley to work on their businesses, master an investor pitch, and prepare for Demo Day and beyond.
The selection process is rigorous, and the acceptance rate is small: fewer than 10% of companies that apply are selected for the program.
But this summer, YC is running its fourth experiment meant to serve more companies without requiring they travel to Silicon Valley to begin or grow their startups. It’s called the YC Fellowship
, and three local startups are among the 60 chosen to take part.
Y Combinator came to the Triangle earlier in the year
with a joint mission to forge relationships in the region and to promote the program on university campuses. They visited Duke, NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill and met with dozens of founders and startups.
Two of the three Triangle companies in the program this summer were part of that meet and greet: FarmShots
, a drone startup founded by a recent Duke grad, and Trakex
, a logistics technology startup born at NC State. The third, AutoMicroFarm
, is a DIY aquaponics garden founded by a full-time developer and aquaponics hobbyist in Fuquay-Varina.
It’s only a coincidence that two of them deal with food production. Like its Silicon Valley accelerator, YC doesn’t choose startups based on industry but on the quality of the team. The mission for the fellowship is to help very early stage companies (those that have not raised money from investors) get started—YC envisions making 1,000 bets like these each year, in hopes of having at least a few wins.
The summer 2016 Fellowship, which comes with a $20,000 convertible note, kicked off with an event at YC headquarters June 6 and runs through August. A month in, Trakex co-founder Tayyab Hussain says the network has been especially helpful, and the program "tough work."
"They really make sure you stay focused, and motivated. It is the right amount of tough love, as ultimately that is what it will take to be successful as a company," he says.
All fellows are encouraged to apply for the accelerator program when they finish the fellowship, though they have no leg up on the other competition.
Here are some more details on the companies and their goals for the fellowship.
AutoMicroFarm helps homeowners install and run aquaponics gardens in their backyards. Web developer Andrew Shindyapin started work on the project six years ago, but only very recently incorporated and applied to the YC program through Hacker News.
Shindyapin had applied to YC before, and been rejected. This time he went to the Hacker News community, which YC let vote on companies to join the summer fellowship cohort. AutoMicroFarm was one of them.
“I was shocked when I got in,” says Shindyapin. During the program, he plans to release his first product, a 32-square-foot outdoor aquaponics system with three pools: two for vegetable beds and a tank for fish. It costs $449.
The prototype uses only components that are available off-the-shelf at retail stores, says Shindyapin, who projects that the garden “pays for itself within six months.”
Throughout the program, he’ll rely on mentorship and advice, focusing on how to successfully scale the business to a point where he’s able to go from selling dozens of aquaponic systems to hundreds.
FarmShots helps optimize farming by detecting potential problems before they get out of hand through the use of satellite and drone imagery.
Traditional farming processes use human labor, or “scouts,” says Joy Patel, data scientist, “however, this can be inefficient, especially in large farms.”
The company provides two critical services: a web application interface that enables growers and agronomists to access satellite and drone imagery and also automatically alerts them when the technology spots potential or actual problems; and, an API that enables other software solutions to incorporate FarmShots' imagery, analytics, and processing to supplement existing farm management tools.
The company launched these services in early 2015, and launched a second version of the technology in June. The company began in Durham, says Patel, and benefited greatly from mentorship in the Duke University entrepreneurship programs.
The YC Fellowship comes at the right time for the company, as its founders try to reach their target customers and improve the product offering to meet customer demand.
“We think YC mentors can help us do this through their connections,” says Patel.
FarmShots launched in 2014, and has raised $50,000 in capital from a Triangle-based company, she says. The company is already cash flow positive and is actively seeking investment from Triangle-based angel investors as it completes the YC Fellowship.
Trakex helps third party logistics companies and distribution centers run more efficiently, with less waste and more accuracy, so shipments are delivered on time or early.
Trakex began as a project at the North Carolina State University Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, and entered the YC program ready to engage companies that deal with small packaged shipping in conversations about its technology. It was a big winner at this spring's Lulu eGames.
It’s not well known, but there’s been a recent shift in the industry toward dimensional-based pricing, a formula that creates a billable weight based on package volume, or the amount of space a package occupies in relation to its actual weight, says Hussain.
Current methods are inefficient, costly and lack precision. But in order for companies to leverage dimension-based pricing, they need a method to identify, measure and document volumetric information within shipping pallets, and to charge customers in a fair, accurate way.
Trakex is developing that technology, says Hussain. Several companies have already expressed interest.
“I am excited about everything,” says Hussain, “mainly to just be able to show people that great things come out of the Triangle.”