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In a lengthy “Ask Me Anything” session on Hacker News, Y Combinator chief executive Sam Altman took on all comers to respond to questions about applying for a spot in the group’s winter 2016 batch of startups. However, the discussion also focused on startup life in general and also the organization’s newly founded Research lab (YCR), which Altman offered some interesting takes on.
Expanding beyond Silicon Valley?
Although focused on helping all startups, Y Combinator for years has been rooted in Silicon Valley (except for that one time in Boston). Under Altman’s leadership, the organization has started to branch out further by holding sessions of Startup School in other locations, including New York and London.
But would he consider opening up a branch of Y Combinator in another part of the United States — say, back in Boston where it was first founded? “Never say never, but no current plans (and honestly, it might make sense to do something outside the U.S. next),” Altman wrote. “The hardest part would be convincing some of our partners to move out there, or finding new ones we could train out here first.”
“We know moving is hard, but startups are hard,” he explained later on in the AMA. “So much of the value of our program comes from in-person interactions … that said, we are trying remote teams in the YC Fellowship, and we’ll evaluate how they worked at the end of this first batch.”
Committing more than $100 million to YCR projects
Although the initial announcement about YCR wasn’t too revealing, Altman did field numerous questions about it and while he didn’t tell what areas of focus the research would be on, he promised that “they are interesting ones” and that “it will be super super easy for our researchers to collaborate with outsider researchers because of [Y Combinator’s] IP stance.”
Responding to a question about YCR’s model, Altman explained that each research group will have a designated principal investigator (PI) who will give “large amounts of autonomy to their teams” and have the discretion to reconsider a particular direction if it’s “really unfruitful”. The research will probably focus on developing techniques that help complete tasks, but Altman didn’t rule out projects that answer questions that are intrinsically interesting.
Who exactly would these researchers be? The scientific approach Altman’s team is going with is to “ask very smart people ‘who are the top 3 smartest people you know in area X’ and then go after the people whose names kept coming up.” One of the first names to appear in public is Stripe’s former chief technology officer Greg Brockman. Eventually Y Combinator will create an application process to aid in the recruitment process.
Hint about what I'm working on next: http://t.co/CdNEen8JOG.
— Greg Brockman (@gdb) October 7, 2015
One participant asked about the effect participating in YCR would have on early-career researchers. With the “very real possibility” that some of the funded projects would fail, the person asked, the PI might need support if the results were potentially career-damaging and made it difficult to return to academia. Altman responded by saying, “Well, that’s f*cked up about academia. All the more reason to create alternatives. Do you really want to be part of a system that does not allow for failure?”
Although Altman personally donated $10 million towards starting YCR, he said that “very rich people and large organizations” have offered to help, so it’s quite possible that Altman’s generosity could help spur more funding: “One of the nicest surprises about the YCR announcement was how many very rich people and large organizations reached out saying they wanted to give money. It seems there is a lot of potential energy here that’s been looking for something to do.”
As research requires a lot of capital to help investigate, Altman said that he expects that YCR will commit more than $100 million to some projects over time.
Currently, the business unit will only be available in the U.S., but could expand to other countries in the future. However, Altman didn’t disclose specifics about that potential expansion.
On helping early employees:
While Y Combinator has produced startup documents aimed at protecting founders and investors, what about the early employees? Shouldn’t there be a way to standardize all the documents so that the early believers are able to feel their time is valued? Altman agreed and said there are plans to create these documents to help with stock compensation.
“We want to create a new employee option plan with all of our recommended fixes,” he said. “We’ve been busy, but we’ll hopefully get to it soon. We’ll open-source it, of course.”
On his favorite coffee:
You can read the entire AMA on Hacker News here.
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