There are a lot of startup ideas we've been waiting for people to apply with, sometimes for years. In an effort to be more direct, we're introducing the RFS (Requests for Startups).
You shouldn't start a company just because it's on this list. 1. It’s mostly here to help stimulate you to think about ideas.
We don’t expect responses to RFSes will ever be more than a fraction of the applications we accept. We wouldn’t want them to be. Most good ideas should be ones that surprise us, not ones we’re waiting for.
Many of these areas fall into the “breakthrough technology” category, but the great majority of the startups we fund will continue to be the sort of Internet and mobile companies we’ve funded in the past, so if that’s what you wanted to do before this post, keep doing it. Traditional-looking startups like Google and Facebook are obviously as important as any company one could imagine, and clearly are breakthrough technologies themselves.
Here is a list (we’ll add to it over time) of some areas we’re particularly interested in. More generally, we’ll pay attention to any area where technology can make the world much better.
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 has drastically improved.
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. We're especially interested in people applying new research to "narrow" domains like self-driving cars, drug discovery, programming assistant, fraud detection, etc.
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.
Reading DNA has become incredibly fast and cheap. There are many interesting applications here. There are perhaps even more interesting applications as we get better at writing DNA.
We are especially interested in applications of biotech to prevent its own misuses. For example, if the bad guys can create new infectious diseases quickly, it'd be nice if the good guys could create new cures and vaccines quickly as well.
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.
Medical devices also seem like fertile ground for startups.
Drug development has gotten slower and more expensive.
We'd like to fund companies doing this in new ways. We take a broad view of this--we're interested in things that may not become prescription drugs but still really help people. Areas like nootropics seem underexplored.
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 like companies that try to augment humans.
This is a very general category because there are a lot of different ways to do this. Biotech can help us live longer and be smarter. Robots can help us do physical things we otherwise couldn’t. Software can help us focus on simple actions that make us happier and help large groups of us organize ourselves better. And on and on and on.
VR and AR
Virtual reality and augmented reality have been a long-unfulfilled promise.
But we feel the wave is coming, and this is the right time to start working on it.
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.
Specifically, lightweight, short-distance personal transportation is something we're interested in.
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.
Software developers are shaping more and more of our daily lives. The products they use to make software are a powerful lever: they have a dramatic impact on the quality and kind of software being built.
We're interested in helping developers create better software, faster. This includes new ways to write, understand, and collaborate on code, and the next generation of tools and infrastructure for delivering software continuously and reliably.
We believe it's especially important to build products that make software development accessible to the widest part of our society. In fact, we’re especially interested in new ways to program. There are probably much better ways for people to program, and figuring one out would have a huge impact.
The frameworks are better, the languages a bit more clever, but mostly we’re doing the same things.
One way to think about this is: what comes after programming languages?
New celebrities don’t get discovered by talent agents, they get discovered directly by their fans on YouTube.
In 2014, movies had their worst summer since 1997. Just like future celebrities are unlikely to get their start with talent agencies, future content consumers will watch content online instead of at the theater, and probably in very different ways.
Celebrities now have direct relationships with their fans. They can also distribute content in new ways.
There are almost certainly huge new businesses that will get built as part of this shift.
A diverse workforce is good for business and good for the world.
Without different perspectives, the products and services we create will miss big opportunities for large segments of people. We want to fund non-profits and startups that are working on making technology a place that is more inclusive and attractive to people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and cultures.
Software used by large companies is still awful and still very lucrative.
Category-defining enterprise software companies will emerge to solve problems for every vertical, every business size, and every job function. Here are 3 specific areas we think are particularly interesting:
Making The Expensive Cheap: Because of the cost of traditional enterprise software, many categories of solutions were previously cost prohibitive for small or even medium sized businesses to benefit from.
The Next Billion Workers: Traditionally office-based knowledge workers have been the users of enterprise software. Mobile phones and tablets turn every type of employee -- from the retail store associate to the field services team -- into a knowledge worker.
Digitizing Every Industry: Every industry is going through some form of information-based disruption; this is causing businesses to modernize their practices, leveraging new data, accelerating key processes, and delivering digitally-enabled experiences in the process.
The world's financial systems are increasingly unable to meet the demands of consumers and businesses.
That makes some sense because regulations designed to protect customers can't change fast enough to keep up with the pace at which technology is changing the needs of those customers. This mismatch creates inefficiencies at almost every level of the financial system. It impacts how people invest their savings, how businesses gain access to capital to grow, how risk is priced and insured, and how financial firms do business with each other.
We think that software will accelerate the pace at which financial services change and will eventually shift the nature of regulations. We want to fund companies with novel ideas of how to make that happen.
Securing computers is difficult because the work required is so asymmetric -- the attacker
only has to find one flaw, while a defender has to protect against every possible weakness.
Unfortunately, securing computers isn't just hard - it's critically and increasingly important. As the software revolution continues and more critical information and systems are connected to the Internet, we become more vulnerable to cyberattacks and the disruption is more severe.
Global Health Non-profits
There are lots of cheap, proven ways to save and improve people's lives. They should be reaching everyone.
Why do so many people in the developing world still suffer for lack of simple things like bednets, vaccines, and iodized salt? Part of the problem is money, and we're interested in new ways to get people to give. Part of it is execution, and we'd love to see nonprofits that are truly data-literate and metrics-driven closing these gaps.
Organizations like GiveWell have large amounts of funding at the ready for provably effective global health interventions.
Underserved Communities and Social Services
Tens of millions of working poor in America don't see a path to the middle class.
This population has to navigate a world with substandard services, low quality housing, overcrowded schools, and crime in their neighborhoods. They are often unbanked and living paycheck to paycheck.
The US government alone spends hundreds of billions of dollars per year on social services and safety net programs for these underserved communities.
We believe great non-profits and for-profits can bring technology and strong metrics-driven approaches to this largely ignored, massive market.
Food and Farming:
An estimated 40% of the world's workforce works in agriculture.
Better food and farming could increase the world's health, unlock the potential of numerous workers, and improve living conditions for billions of animals.
We believe economics will dominate - reducing cost while preserving or improving flavor will win the day.
What can we do to bring up the baseline and make the vast majority of our mass media better?
Media outlets that rely on polarization, misinformation, passivity, and fear, are not improving society. We’re looking for ways to bring the average back up and improve mass media.
There are thousands of ways technology can be applied to improve democracy.
For democracy to function effectively, more of us need to be engaged and empowered. We’d like to see startups and non-profits who are using technology to make it easier and more appealing to get involved in the political process. We want technology that makes it easy to understand how new laws and programs impact you, programs that teach people how to run for office, and communication tools that make it easier for citizens to be heard by their representatives. We’d like to see tools that address problems in the voting process, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering.
Future of Work:
Jobs will look very different 25 years from now.
We’ve already seen a massive shift toward automation, and the pace of technology’s impact on work isn’t slowing down. A study by the World Economic Forum estimates that in the next five years, 5 million jobs in 15 economies will be lost. We’re interested in what comes next. People seek full-time jobs for many reasons, including money, healthcare, and a sense of purpose. We’d love to see solutions that address each of these factors (or any others) in anticipation of a changing job market.
We need accurate, unbiased press to make our democracy work.
We’re facing two major issues with news. The first is fake news. The business model for online media rewards the people who get the greatest number of page views, clicks and likes. That results in a system that prizes virality over truth. Building tools for fact-checking will become increasingly important.
Second is the issue of protecting the freedom of the press. We’re looking to fund tools that can help protect and defend journalists and their sources.
Global water demand will increase 50% by 2050.
We’re close to a tipping point where technology will let us make clean water extremely abundant and cheap. We will create more than enough clean water for everyone in the world, for any use necessary.
We’d love to help founders working on this problem get there faster. Ideas could range from lower-cost desalination plants, novel purification technologies, smart irrigation systems, mechanisms to reduce water usage, or something completely different.