Inspired by the pandemic and recent portfolio successes including several public companies and newly minted unicorns, Y Combinator is doubling down on dynamic startups with its first-ever partner that focuses entirely on the sector.
The storied accelerator has hired nVision Medical founder and former CEO Surbhi Sarna to act as a CV-focused group partner. Sarna spent the past year as a visiting partner at Y Combinator.
Sarna takes the helm from Jared Friedman, managing director of YC, a former co-founder of Scribd who has overseen YC’s growing dynamic portfolio in recent years, among other commitments. Her Y Combinator appointment awards 11 group partners to the upcoming winter installment. (Algolia founder and former CEO, Nicholas Dessin, was also promoted to group partner.) Among YC’s four winter visiting partners is newcomer Divya Bhatt, who until recently was Virta Health’s Product Manager.
Sarna’s mission is straightforward: to help deepen and unify the YC’s guide when it comes to biosciences and life sciences participants, all while supporting other entrepreneurs who may not fit the mold of the traditional biotech funding pipeline.
Y Combinator first got involved in healthcare and bioworks in 2014, when Ginkgo Bioworks joined its summer cohort after a push from Sam Altman and Paul Buchheit to include these companies, even without any industry experience between the YC partnership. The accelerator program targeted entrepreneurs whose partners were deemed underserved by traditional biotech investors, who often incubate and bring together veteran institutional teams.
“The idea that a PhD is modern. Or were postdocs actually able to start their own successful treatment company which was a totally radical idea at the time; It’s still not widely accepted, Friedman says.
Initially, YC’s name and network were most valuable in helping to convince nascent entrepreneurs that it was okay to leave their jobs or academic careers, Friedman adds. Over time, investors flocking to demo day began looking to write checks in the lively space, and newcomers were able to turn to previous groups for experience. YC accepted its first treatment company in 2017.
In its most recent batch in the summer of 2021, YC welcomed about 50 healthcare companies, 20 of them into “solid” therapies and 10 or so for developing medical devices and diagnostics. Notable companies to date include ginkgo, which went public and now has a market capitalization north of $25 billion; Solugen, which produces industrial chemicals from plants; Asher Bio, in Cancer Immunotherapy; and Pardes, which recently filed for public offering on the back of its antiviral drugs, including one for Covid-19. The organization says the YC bio companies have collectively raised $7 billion so far.
To get that number up to 75 or 100 companies in future payments, YC turned to Sarna, which the partnership identified as similar to its preferred bio. Sarna herself was under suspicion for being too young and inexperienced to build nVision, a startup she founded at age 24 after a teenage fear of ovarian cancer, which was looking to manufacture devices that could detect the deadly disease in a woman’s fallopian tubes. “It took me a year and over 50 meetings to raise my first $250,000 to build a prototype,” she says. She sold Sarna nVision to Boston Scientific in 2018 for $275 million, including dividends.
To institutionalize the vital YC program, Sarna will have to differentiate its process from the accelerator approach of software companies, many of which receive a decision to accept or decline the same day. Instead, she says she will talk to doctors and other experts, dig into documents and check whether the science is real, or at least has the potential to investigate further. “I don’t believe in cutting corners when it comes to healthcare at all,” Sarna says. “You have to be really strong about what your repayment plan is, what the regulatory plan is, and how to scientifically prove and disseminate that the science you’re working on is correct.”
Y Combinator is also taking measures to structure its expertise for companies with a specific focus. The accelerator will bring together members of a treatment group, for example, or synthetic biology groups, providing playbooks that focus on key performance indicators, or KPIs, of vital and health companies, against which they can measure themselves. Sarna is also forming a scientific advisory network to work with portfolio companies.
Skeptics may point to Ginkgo as YC’s biggest success far and wide in the CV field to date, and note that for its larger recent crop of companies running through its clusters, it’s still too early to tell how these companies stack up against other vital portfolios, or even groups The other focus is within YC. Sarna and Friedman argue that the company has at least five unicorn stocks, and Pardes’ pending offer will lead to three IPOs.
The biggest concern, they say, is convincing high-caliber entrepreneurs that they can get enough value out of the time-constrained YC programme. Sarna plans to combat this by offering assistance once companies are accepted, not just on the official start date.
“What I hope is that by demo day we deliver a complete package that not only has ‘these are great scientists working in a great science field,’ but they have their business model, story, organizational strategy, and payback,” Sarna says.