Crystal Ball

The tech industry is sometimes lambasted for making frivolous apps — do we really need a dating app for bacon lovers? But that's not all the next crop of entrepreneurs is working on.

In fact, during a marathon two-day session of startup pitches in Silicon Valley, I got a first-hand look at how ambitious, potentially impactful and "serious" the next batch of tech startups are.

"Food, housing, healthcare, transportation. Life essentials made better and more affordable," said Y Combinator partner Paul Buchheit to kick off the second day of presentations at the firm's semi-annual event showcasing its latest batch of startups.

From new ways to detect cancer to a new method of communication that could change everything, here are some of the big ideas the next generation of startups wants to tackle:

  • Disease detection and cures will be easier: Medicine is a big frontier for companies, and we're not just talking about slapping on a Fitbit and calling it a day. Startups are coming up with new ways to make the lab process faster, the detection in the field easier, and identifying things like cancer even earlier. One startup, X-Zell, eliminates the healthy blood cells in a sample to try to find the tumor cells. "This is the ultimate needle-in-the-haystack problem. Others have tried to find the needle, we remove the haystack," its founder exclaimed. More startups tried reducing friction in the lab. One has a machine that will handle routine tasks, like using a pipette to transfer liquids. Another, described as "Histology-as-a-Service," cuts and logs tissue samples and sends them digitally to doctors.


  • Managing diseases and medical conditions will also be easier: I had never seen a "connected catheter" before, but products like these, created by seemingly small companies, could lead to a big change in quality of life for some individuals. DoseDr makes an app for diabetics to track their blood-sugar levels and know how much insulin to take. There was even a home breast-cancer screener. The phone and other connected devices will help us do more than just track our steps and can truly change the quality of life for someone suffering from an ongoing medical condition.
  • Businesses will be made more efficient and automated: From AI that can write a sales email for you to a system of freelancers at your fingertips to create PowerPoints in a jiffy, there's still a lot of room for companies to make running a business better. Upstarts want to challenge LinkedIn in the way people connect and find jobs. There's plenty of opportunity in sales for more streamlined processes, judging by the number of startups that want to tackle just that.
  • That includes robots to do everything from inspecting buildings to growing your food: The robot revolution is arriving and taking many forms. One company, Iron Ox, wants to have robots grow food in a warehouse and then package and ship it. In the future, this could mean food is grown closer to cities, is cheaper, and tastes better as a result. Gecko Robotics wants to eliminate humans from dangerous jobs like boiler inspections by letting a robot crawl up a wall instead of an employee.

  • India and Africa are still waiting to be disrupted: With more people coming online in third-world countries, startups are finding technical solutions for anything, from an online crop market to getting farmers a better price to payments processing for Nigerians. While many seem iterative — "Stripe for Africa" or "Uber for trucking in India" were tag lines used by companies — those markets can combine local knowledge and a first-on-the-ground advantage to beat the companies they are modeling themselves after. With more people getting online every day, companies addressing foreign markets not already saturated by smartphones are poised to explode in the next few years.
  • The chat bot revolution is here, or at the least, hyped: Everyone is talking about chat bots. Evernote's cofounder, Phil Libin, called them the best thing he's seen since the iPhone, and startups are also noticing the potential. Several presented over the past two days to make it easy for companies to create their own chat figures and reach customers where they are. One day everyone, brands included, will probably have their own bot, and these companies are just at the beginning.

But that doesn't mean all startups have stopped creating fun, consumer products. One of the most-loved demonstrations during Demo Day came from Tovala, which promises to replace all your kitchen appliances with a small convection oven and steamer that delivers delicious food.

And while others have declared the death of the on-demand economy, there's still companies giving a go at making babysitters and stylists available at the push of the button.

Still, for those who think Silicon Valley makes only chewable caffeine and silly social apps, there's proof that companies are still working on solving some of life's fundamental problems.

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