At first glance, Jeff Huber looks like a typical Y Combinator entrepreneur. He’s a 25-year-old mechanical engineer who dropped out of North Carolina State University in 2011 to start Knowit, an online education company. Knowit failed to catch on, but Huber was hooked on startups anyway. “We overestimated the percentage of autodidacts in the United States,” he explains cheerfully. Huber exudes so much confidence that when I meet him for coffee in San Francisco, I don’t initially notice that he walks with a slight hitch in his step. Huber was born with fibular hemimelia, the condition best known as what caused sprinter Oscar Pistorius to lose his legs. As an infant, Huber’s non-functional left leg was amputated below the knee. Today, he wears a $23,000 prosthetic under his left pants leg.
Huber’s status as an amputee isn’t what makes him so unusual among Silicon Valley startup guys. What makes him distinctive–and why I sought him out–is what his startup, Standard Cyborg, sells: not software or web services but artificial limbs. The company, which entered Y Combinator in January, is taking orders for its first product, a waterproof leg designed to be worn in the shower or at the beach. Huber has been manufacturing (and testing) the prototype himself as Standard Cyborg’s inventor, founder, CEO, and sole employee. “I thought, I’ll just Elon Musk this,” says Huber, referring to the Tesla and SpaceX founder’s approach to developing expertise in fields like rocketry and cars. “I just tried to learn everything about prosthetics in as short a period of time as possible. I talked to experts, read books, read the Internet.”
He first had the idea for a low-cost prosthetics company in college, but returned to it last year when he realized that the plummeting cost of 3-D printers and 3-D scanners had made it possible to create a prototype on the cheap. Huber bought a $1,000 kit printer and set it up makeshift shop located in the back alley behind a San Francisco co-working space. (He has since acquired a roof in Emeryville, California.)
Today, custom-made shower legs cost $5,000 or more. Standard Cyborg is selling its product for just $499. Rather than develop legs from scratch, Huber creates a 3-D scan of a customer’s current prosthesis and then prints a low-cost copy, wrapping it in carbon fiber. The result isn’t flexible enough to comfortably wear while running the 200-meter dash—or even while walking around town–but it makes it possible for Huber to get into the shower without hopping on one foot. “It’s something I didn’t know I needed,” he says.
Standard Cyborg’s product offering may be novel, but Huber’s approach is straight out of the Y Combinator playbook, which urges founders to create incremental improvements and to aim them at small, underserved markets. In its early days, YC, which distinguished itself by seeding a large number of companies with small amounts of money ($20,000 initially, $120,000 today), was widely dismissed. “Early on a lot of people didn’t take us seriously,” says Paul Buchheit, the creator of Google’s Gmail service and a YC partner since 2010. “People said, ‘They’re only funding toys. How could anything serious be started with so little money?’”
Though YC startups have always aimed higher than they were given credit for, the push towards more ambitious “hard technology” startups, as new YC president Sam Altman now describes them, started in earnest last year, when Y Combinator accepted its first group of biotech companies, a fusion energy startup, and Cruise, a driverless car startup. Cruise’s co-founder Kyle Vogt–who’d gone through an early YC class as part of Justin.TV–says he decided to enter the program in part because he thought it would give him a shot at bringing a product to market faster than, say, Google, which appears to be years away from offering its self-driving Priuses to the public. Vogt didn’t try to compete with directly with the search giant’s famed innovation lab, Google X; instead he developed a $10,000 conversion kit that allows two Audi models to drive themselves on highways. It’s a hack, but a hack with potential. And as Vogt points out, he’s come a long way since early 2014. “We went from a pile of parts to a prototype in three months,” he says.
Venture capitalists have a phrase to describe startups like Cruise: “Software,” as Marc Andreessen has put it, “is eating the world. But nowhere is this trend more apparent than at Y Combinator, where this winter amid the inevitable smart phone apps and small business services companies, there are more than a dozen startups developing sophisticated hardware products, biotech technologies, and even medical devices. (I’ll have more on a few more of these in the coming weeks.) Like Cruise, these startups are at once wildly ambitious, but are also narrowly focused. Transcriptic, for instance, is a 2015 Y Combinator company that offers automated laboratories that can be rented out for life sciences experiments the same way that Amazon rents web servers. Chematria, another new YC entrant, attempts to do biomedical research digitally, using sophisticated algorithms to predict the effectiveness of a given drug.
In the same way, Standard Cyborg is both an ambitious medical device manufacturer and a quintessential YC startup, using low-cost software and lean startup methodology to aim at a tiny market. In the long run, Huber imagines designing prosthetic limbs from scratch, and expanding to include 3-D printed replacement knees, hips, or anything that else might go on someone’s body. He hopes to get there someday, but for now he’s thinking small. “If you want to have the best shot at changing things, that generally means not tackling the whole problem at once but finding a foothold,” Huber says. “That’s what’s useful about the way Silicon Valley thinks.”