Startup ideas should surface from a problem. As such, the best startup ideas solve real problems that affect many people.
Here is a list of what Y Combinator believes to be the problem areas where the most breakthrough technologies will emerge. I suspect excellent startup ideas will solve some of these.
There is a remarkable correlation between the cost of energy and quality of life. Throughout history, when the cost of energy has come down a lot (for example, with the steam engine) the quality of life goes up a lot.
Cheap energy would do a huge amount to reduce poverty. New energy sources could also help the environment, the economy, reduce war, ensure a stable future, make food and water more abundant, and much more.
We believe economics will dominate – new sources must be cheaper than old ones, without subsidies, and be able to scale to global demand. Nuclear energy can hit the bid, and possibly so can renewables. But pricing is the first order question.
In addition to generation, we're also interested in energy storage and transmission. 10x better batteries would enable great new things, as would the ability to easily move energy around.
Relative to the potential impact, it doesn't seem like enough smart people are working on this.
A lot of smart people talk about AI with a combination of awe and fear, both for good reasons. But it feels like it could be one of the dividing lines in the history of technology, where before and after look totally different.
Robots will be a major way we get things done in the physical world.
Our definition is pretty broad – for example, we count a self-driving car as a robot. Robots are how we'll likely explore space and maybe even the human body.
It's still early, but it seems like we're finally making real progress hacking biology.
There are so many directions this can go – fighting disease, slowing aging, merging humans and computers, downloading memories, genetic programming, etc. We are certain that this is going to be a surprising, powerful and controversial field over the next several decades – it feels a little bit like microcomputers in the 1970s.
Healthcare in the United States is badly broken. We are getting close to spending 20% of our GDP on healthcare; this is unsustainable.
We're interested in ways to make healthcare better for less money, not in companies that are able to exploit the system by overcharging. We're especially interested in preventative healthcare, as this is probably the highest-leverage way to improve health. Sensors and data are interesting in lots of different areas, but especially for healthcare.
Food & Water
At some point, we are going to have problems with food and water availability.
Technology can almost certainly improve this. Great innovations are possible – we will need another advancement on the scale of what Norman Borlaug did.
If we can fix education, we can eventually do everything else on this list.
The first attempts to use technology to fix education have focused on using the Internet to distribute traditional content to a wider audience. This is good, but the Internet is a fundamentally different medium and capable of much more.
Solutions that combine the mass scale of technology with one-on-one in-person interaction are particularly interesting to us.
This may not require a "breakthrough" technology in the classical sense, but at a minimum it will require very new ways of doing things.
We can't imagine life without the Internet. We need to be sure it keeps working – this includes everything from security to free and open communication to infrastructure.
The Internet is a transformative power, and we're particularly interested in applications that transform the big underpinnings of society (bitcoin is a great example!). The Internet lets people around the world coordinate action – there are almost certainly important businesses to be built around this concept.
Of particular interest to us are ways to use the Internet to fix government – for example, crowdfunding social services.
An important trend is the API-ification of everything. As more and more businesses are accessible with a web API, the Internet becomes more and more powerful.
We're interested in technology that multiplies the efforts and productivity of individuals.
Robots are a great example, but this also includes areas like new programming languages, powered exoskeletons, augmented reality, etc.
Science seems broken. The current funding models are broken and favor political skill over scientific genius.
We need new business models for basic research. There are a lot of areas where scientific developments can have huge commercial applications – materials, neuroscience, climate engineering, and cheaper/better ways to get to space, just to name a few – and we'd love to figure out a way for it to happen. Bell Labs worked a long time ago but would probably not work in today's world.
Transportation & Housing
About half of all energy is used on transportation, and people spend a huge amount of time unhappily commuting.
Face-to-face interaction is still really important; people still need to move around. And housing continues to get more expensive, partially due to difficulties in transportation. We're interested in better ways for people to live somewhere nice, work together, and have easier commutes.
One Million Jobs
We want to fund companies that have the potential to create a million jobs.
There are a lot of areas where it makes sense to divide labor between humans and computers—we are very good at some things computers are terrible at and vice versa—and some of these require huge amounts of human resources.
This is both good for the world and likely a good business strategy—as existing jobs go away, a company that creates a lot of new jobs should be able to get a lot of talented people.
Source: Y Combinator