Coding for Chemistry: Agilis at Y Combinator

Coding for Chemistry: Agilis at Y Combinator

Jay Bhatia

CEO - Agilis Chemicals Inc

President Woodrow Wilson once said, “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation… if for an hour, I am ready now.” Last week, David and I got to experience this first-hand when we got an opportunity to pitch our business at the most coveted place for aspiring startups – the famous Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator.

First off, I wasn’t convinced that applying to YC was a good move in the first place. Since, a) we do not fit the typical profile of YC companies, and b) we are not exactly an early stage startup with just an idea and a proto type. We have successfully launched our product and have a steady revenue stream. But then again… some startups seek an audience with YC even after they have secured Series A funding. The partners at YC are renowned for working with entrepreneurs on their ideas and coaching the founders on how to scale up business and deal with investors and acquirers. So, we decided to take a chance.

Dave and I recorded our one-minute video on the Riverwalk San Antonio at the AFPM conference and began scanning the list of 1588 companies that YC has funded since its inception in 2005. Not surprisingly, the list contained names such as Airbnb, Dropbox, Flexport, Stripe, and Reddit… but we also noticed that not a single startup on that list came from the chemical industry. So, imagine our delight (and disbelief!) when we got an invitation to come to California! Landing an interview at YC is considered a big win, as YC invites less than 500 startups from more than 7500 applicants.

On a very short notice, we flew across the country to meet with the very people who have been known to change business trajectories of the world’s most innovative companies.

If you are not familiar with YC interview format, you can read more about it here. Basically, it’s a lot like speed dating. You are given 10 minutes to highlight your value proposition, explain your business model, respond to questions, and generally convince YC that yours is just the right startup that they want to invest in. And no matter how well you think you are prepared, you are most likely going to be stunned by the rapid-fire barrage of questions, comments and mid-sentence interruptions. Ten minutes felt like two, as three partners grilled us on what we do and why. I guess we did well, because we immediately got a word that we were invited for the second interview, with the CEO of YC, Michael Seibel, on the panel.

After our second interview, we thought we had it in the bag and were waiting in a nearby restaurant expecting a call confirming that our future was about to be accelerated the Silicon Valley way. And then we received the news that we were not selected! We were so close and couldn’t help but think that if we had only said this instead of that, then we would be in. However, after contemplating for a day, I think the reality is probably that our industry is an unknown for YC, and the 10-minute format was simply not enough time to both explain the world of chemical distribution and describe our business model. I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world, and YC has taught us a lot in a very short time.

The outcome of our rendezvous with the Silicon Valley accelerator is not going to dramatically alter our business model or our belief that what we are doing in the chemical industry is game changing. Agilis has set out to bring digital technology into an established business. The idea of a digital business platform is not what sets us apart from the rest – the use of AI and machine learning to turn the domain knowledge into a powerful market intelligence platform, and the fact that we know this industry and have a clear vision of where we can make a difference – that’s our secret sauce. Hope the YC gurus will someday see it too.


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