Motion website blocker aims to improve your focus online as you WFH

Y Combinator’s latest class of startups arrived to a fairly lukewarm public reception last week as the world melted down in the midst of the accelerator’s virtual demo day. While the startups didn’t anticipate launching into mid-pandemic markets, some seem more poised to succeed in this new environment than others.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been playing around with one of those startup’s tools. Motion, a free Chrome productivity plugin tries to lead you away from visiting sites that you feel aren’t great for your productivity. It was a nice-to-have tool for the weeks preceding SF’s shelter in place government mandate, but since I’ve started working from home full-time all-the-time forever, the tool has become a welcome way to separate my for-work online browsing and the for-boredom online browsing after 6pm.

A plugin that blocks websites you don’t want to visit is hardly revolutionary. There are plenty of these plugins already, but as is the case with all software, sometimes a few UX advances make all the difference. With Motion, the differentiation is the underlying psychology of the product which eschews the central focus on black lists and white lists, instead promoting the idea of helpful pushes more in spirit with OS-level screen-time apps.

After installing Motion, you can set your productive hours and designate the sites you deem as beneficial and harmful to your productivity. For instance, I wanted to cut out Reddit, Facebook and YouTube from my work-hours browsing. Now, going forward, any time that you type in the URL of an offending website, the plugin will throw you a full-page alert that you can dismiss or temporarily hush.

Telling it that you need a minute will actually toss a countdown timer onto the screen, pushing you to get what you “need” out of Facebook or Reddit. Once that timer runs out, You can extend your abbreviated binge or take the preferred route — clicking a button that closes out the tab. The UX of the app makes room for exceptions but still pushes users to reduce time on those sites, a big differentiator from more absolutist options.

One of Motion’s best features offers a diagnosable snapshot of your web browsing habits when you first open your browser each day. The screen shares the time you spent on each site during the previous day, allowing you to track how the tool has reduced your browsing time on certain sites and identify other URLs that you may also want to block.

Motion as a product is still in its early stages of evolution and I’ve seen a number of improvements over my few weeks of usage, what I’ll be most curious to see is how the founding team shapes the product into a viable business moving forward. The free Chrome plug-in as a service model hasn’t proven itself yet, but the founding team has ambitions for creating paid tiers and enterprise products down the road once the core product has been built out a bit more.

Motion co-founders Omid Rooholfada, Ethan Yu and Harry Qi


YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as there is no cure for this disease, which tends to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

Y Combinator-backed Kosh is a neobank for blue-collar workers in India

Dozens of startups have stepped up in India in recent quarters to improve banking experience for millions of users and businesses in the country. As a result, tens of thousands of people who could not get a loan or a credit card from a bank can now secure both from fintech startups.

But this push to bring financial inclusion to everyone still has many areas to cover. Blue-collar workers, for instance, are still facing challenges in availing some basic banking services.

Kosh, a Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), is beginning to tackle this challenge. It groups three or as many as ten blue-collar workers and gives them a loan.

“When a user logs into our Android app, they are able to apply for a loan. But before they do that, they need to add some of their colleagues and friends who are also looking for a loan,” explained Aayush Goel, co-founder of Kosh, in an interview with TechCrunch.

This way of banding together people allows Kosh to charge a lower rate of interest on the loan, said Goel.

“We have borrowed this from the world of microfinance. Essentially, we have a joint liability model. Let us say there were three people who were looking for a loan. We band them together and instead of giving each of them a separate loan, we give the group one loan” he said.

Aayush Goel (pictured above), and Sahil Bansal co-founded Kosh in March last year

In each group, at least one member is credit-worthy in the traditional sense, he explained. The startup also uses alternative data such as information gleaned from text messages to determine a person’s eligibility.

Such an arrangement has traditionally seen fewer people default (or fall behind paying their debt) because of social pressure from their colleagues and friends, as all of them are liable.

Kosh started to disburse loans in December. It currently offers loans up to twice the salary of an individual and over a tenure of up to 10 months, said Goel. The startup has disbursed close to 150 loans worth $35,000. It works with a Noida-based non-banking financial company to fund these loans.

The startup said it plans to broaden its neobanking offering this year by creating bank accounts for its customers. “There is a general lack of discipline in how these people spend their money. Having access to a bank account that works for them could prove very useful,” said Goel.

In recent years, a handful of startups such as Bangalore-based Open and NiYO Solutions have developed neobanks or alternative banks to serve businesses and individuals. In January, two former Google Pay executives announced their own neobank startup that aims to serve millennials.

GIGI Benefits, another Y Combinator-backed startup (W20), offers insurance and savings — perks that only full-time employees typically have — to gig-economy workers and freelancers.

“We help each worker set aside part of a paycheque to cover their costs of insurance, short-term expenses, and plan for their retirement,” said Sowmya Rao, founder and chief executive of GIGI Benefits, in a post.

The 20 best startups from Y Combinator’s W20 Demo Day

With world events overtaking the tech world’s preferences to meet for coffees and convene at events, Y Combinator skipped its famous two-day live Demo event and went for a radical experiment: no demos at all, but instead a long list of the nearly 200 startups in its Winter 2020 batch, with links to their sites and one-page slides. We’ve done the legwork for you in giving you a full rundown of who does what, and we have also come together on a group video chat on Zoom to talk through our takeaways of the format this year (missed it? here’s the recording). Now, in no particular order, here is our shortlist of some of our overall favorites.

Join TC tomorrow at 9 am PT for a chat about the latest YC startup batch

Hello TechCrunch friends and family, tomorrow morning at 9 am Pacific Time we’re gathering on Zoom for an in-depth chat about our favorite startups from the latest Y Combinator Demo Day. This year’s installment of the twice-yearly startup event happened yesterday, a week early and online only.

Like many other things, Demo Day was adapted to a new format in the face of COVID-19 disruptions. Despite that, TechCrunch wrote a host of posts on the companies that presented (you can see our notes here), dug into a number of the startups individually (here and here, for example), and sat down with Y Combinator’s CEO for an interview.

We’re wrapping all of that with a group chat about the entire affair. We’d host this from the office in more regular years, but, it’s 2020, and so we’re all gathering on Zoom which means that everyone is invited to listen in.

Here are the details:

  • What? TechCrunch team chat about YC 2020 and all the coolest companies
  • When? 9 am Pacific Time
  • How long? About 30 minutes, give or take
  • Where? Here, on Zoom
  • Should I not mute myself and annoy everyone tuned in? No, please mute yourself

We’re recording the chat, and plan to make it available to Extra Crunch subscribers shortly after we’re done. But the main call is open to everyone, so add it to your calendar and we’ll see you there.

YC grad SINAI helps companies understand their emissions in a bid to fight climate change

The first step to combating climate change for businesses is for them to understand their contributions to it. That’s where the new Y Combinator graduate, SINAI Technologies, comes in.

Founded by Maria Fujihara, a 16-year veteran of the sustainability industry whose previous work had been around the technical adaptation of LEED certification tools, SINAI is the culmination of her years of working to adapt certification tools to international markets and five years spent researching carbon emissions profiles — most recently at Singularity University .

“When I started the company, I started to do carbon offsets,” Fujihara said. “For the past three years companies and governments have been calculating their carbon emissions and they know their carbon footprint and they know their carbon inventory and they’ve been using their carbon inventory to buy carbon credits.”

The market is mature enough for more companies to get involved, she said. “Emissions have only increased in the past six years and not decreased at all,” said Fujihara. “We’re not thinking of mitigation solutions.”

Companies have been focusing on understanding their measurements, but not identifying how to mitigate those emissions through different policies — or even what areas of the business to target, Fujihara said.

“Once we understand their business as user scenarios we can reduce emissions in their value chain,” she said.

The SINAI service automates different reporting and data around emissions for companies to monitor in an easy format. “It’s kind of like doing financial analysis, but doing the environmental analysis in addition,” said Fujihara. “We allow them to do this year-by-year, if not quarter-by-quarter.”

Right now the company is focused on five industries: manufacturing, transportation, apparel and retail, food and beverage and real estate. 

“The building blocks of a carbon journey are: create carbon emissions inventories (footprint), build a low-carbon scenario by selecting options that will reduce emissions, set up a carbon reduction target (science-based or not), calculate their carbon budget, analyze potential carbon taxes, define an optimal carbon price and finally, do external scenario analysis (based on national or international policies compliance),” the company said in a statement. 

Joining Fujihara is Alain Rodriguez, one of the first 20 engineers at Uber who is now focused on the climate issue.

“Basically, we combine climate finance methodologies, to manage emissions reductions and costs related to the implementation of low-carbon technologies (ultimately, this is what a carbon price means for a company). Our inter-dependent modules allow us to onboard companies at any moment of their carbon journey and provide value on every single step,” SINAI said in a statement. 

Mattermost CEO Ian Tien on building a successful remote team

Mattermost is pretty open about what it is: an open-source, self-hosted alternative to Slack . 

The team didn’t originally set out to build a messaging tool at all; they wanted to build video games. A few years and one huge pivot later, they’re powering messaging and collaboration for companies like Samsung, Daimler, SAP and Cigna — and they got there without ever actually having an office. All of Mattermost’s 100+ employees have been fully remote from the beginning.

I hopped on a chat with Mattermost CEO and co-founder Ian Tien to talk about how they decided to go full-remote before it was really a thing, what it takes to make a remote team successful and his hopes for the growing number of remote companies. Here’s our chat, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: Tell me a bit about Mattermost’s origin story. You didn’t originally set out to build a communication platform, right?

Ian Tien: Yeah! So, when we started incorporating the company, we were doing video games — we were doing an HTML5 game engine.

That’s what we were in Y Combinator as. We were SpinPunch, YC Summer ’12. Wade from Zapier was a batch mate, and it was like the batch that broke YC. It was like 84 companies. It was really big, but it had really great outcomes, that batch. Brian Armstrong from Coinbase, we had Instacart, we had Lever, and Clever, and Rainforest and Boosted Boards. It was a great batch. 

We ran with the HTML5 video game business for a few years. Things weren’t, you know, growing tremendously, and we ended up sort of changing to open-source enterprise software.

Y Combinator may go fully remote for its next cohort

Y Combinator said that it may make its Summer 2020 accelerator program entirely virtual, proving that even the world’s premiere accelerator isn’t immune to having its business reshaped by the novel coronavirus spreading across the world.

YC has already made its Demo Day for its Winter 2020 cohort an online only affair. The accelerator also accelerated the timeline for the Demo Day, which will be held tomorrow — a week early.

Beyond that, the accelerator said it wanted entrepreneurs to know that the summer batch will take place, and that its online application is open now. 

“Additionally, depending on the circumstances this summer, some or all of the batch may take place remotely over video,” Y Combinator said in a statement.

“This is a unique worldwide crisis, but it will not lessen the extraordinary opportunities for terrific founders to start and build epic companies,” the accelerator wrote. “We look forward to reading all your applications and wish good luck and good health to everyone.”

In the past, Y Combinator had required that all participating startups relocate to the Bay Area — something that many entrepreneurs considered to be a strain on their business. And while the accelerator hasn’t had problems finding strong companies willing to take the leap, the virtual option may enable even more entrepreneurs to reap the benefits of the accelerator’s network of experts and mentorship.


Pioneer founder Daniel Gross on bringing remote teams together

There are plenty of accelerators aiming to sway young startups to join their ranks rather than apply to Y Combinator, but Pioneer‘s sell is a bit different.

First off, they are fully remote; founders selected to participate in the program chat with advisors via video chat. Second, Pioneer is largely looking at companies that aren’t companies yet, framing themselves as more of a “startup generator” than an accelerator that aims to help entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley zero in on exactly what kind of startup they want to build.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the accelerator, which is helmed by former YC partner Daniel Gross .

My interview with Gross had some interesting longer bouts I didn’t have space to include, so I’m including the salient bits here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: Remote work seems to have its challenges; how have you overcome some of the humps of being a remote accelerator?

Daniel Gross: My overall view is that remote can replace the majority of real-world interaction. But there’s less inertia, if that makes sense, and so I think you can build real rapport and real relationships through a group video chat on the internet, but it will require much more thinking and effort around it than if you were just meeting up in the real world.

Grab your ticket: Only one week to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

It’s T-minus one week to the big day, March 3, when more than 1,000 startuppers will convene in Berkeley, Calif. for TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020. We’re talking a hefty cross-section representing big companies and exciting new startups. We’re talking some of the most innovative thinkers, makers, researchers, investors and influencers — all focused on creating the future of these two world-changing technologies.

Don’t miss out on this one-day conference of interviews, panel discussions, Q&As, workshops and demos dedicated to every aspect of robotics and AI. General admission tickets cost $345. Snag your ticket now and save, because prices go up at the door. Want to save even more? Save 15% when you buy four or more tickets. Are you a student? Grab a ticket for just $50.

What do we have planned for this TC Session? Here’s a small sample of the fab programming that awaits you, and be sure to check out the full TC Session agenda here.

  • Q&A with Founders: This is your chance to ask questions of Sébastien Boyer, co-founder and CEO of FarmWise and Noah Ready-Campbell, founder and CEO of Built Robotics — some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage.
  • Disney Robotics: Imagineers from Disney will present state-of-the-art robotics built to populate its theme parks.
  • Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs: Dror Berman, founding partner at Innovation Endeavors, Jocelyn Goldfein, managing director at Zetta Venture Partners and Eric Migicovsky, general partner at Y Combinator will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

And — new this year — don’t miss watching the finalists from our Pitch Night competition. Founders of these early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have just five minutes to present their wares.

With just one more week until TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 kicks off, you don’t have much time left to save on tickets. Why pay more at the door? Buy your ticket now and join the best and brightest for a full day dedicated to all things robotics.