Y Combinator-backed Andi taps AI to build a better search engine

It’s difficult to convince users to switch search engines. That’s one reason why public search service startups rarely succeed. Another is that it’s expensive to index a huge number of websites (Google has an estimated tens of billions of pages indexed), but one Y Combinator-backed company, Andi, is undeterred — forging ahead to build an AI assistant that provides answers instead of links when searching online.

Andi was founded by Angela Hoover, who registered for YC’s Startup School after dropping out of college and got into YC’s Winter 2022 Batch. After working overseas in construction and with Microsoft as a data center project administrator, Hoover met Andi’s co-founder, Jed White, at the Denver airport upon her return to the U.S.

Hoover and White — who had a background in AI and search, specifically content quality ranking, querying and classification — talked about how bad web search had become for things like travel and what it would take to build a new type of search engine from scratch.

“Gen-Z hates Google. To us, search is broken. We live on our phones in messaging apps with visual feeds like TikTok and Instagram,” Hoover told TechCrunch in an email interview. She’s not conjecturing — Google execs have admitted as much. “I hear my friends say constantly that Google sucks. Search results are overwhelmed with ads, SEO spam and clutter. Gen-Z is so desperate for an alternative that we’re using TikTok as a search engine. We hate the invasive creepy ads, and how Google is Big Brother and surveils everything.”

Andi search

Image Credits: Andi

Hoover offers Andi’s AI-powered assistant as an alternative. The general-purpose system attempts to find and extract answers to questions, combining large language models akin to OpenAI’s GPT-3 with live web data.

Behind the scenes, Andi extracts information from web results ranked for relevance to the question being asked as well as overall quality (although it’s not clear how Andi defines “quality”). Depending on the subject matter, the platform uses different AI systems tailored for specific verticals (e.g. factual knowledge, programming or consumer health) and language models that generate answers by combining knowledge across multiple sources (e.g. Wolfram Alpha, Forbes, The New York Times, etc.).

It’s one step beyond Google’s featured snippets, which pull text from webpages to answer commonly asked questions, and closer to so-called “cognitive search” engines such as Amazon Kendra and Microsoft SharePoint Syntex that draw on knowledge bases to cobble together answers. Startups like Hebbia, Kagi and You.com also leverage AI to return specific content from the web in response to queries as opposed to straightforward lists of results.

So what sets Andi apart? Unlike some of its competitors, Hoover claims it doesn’t charge for its service nor record personally identifiable information. Andi also doesn’t log and store searches or the results people read or click on, only using coarse location data to improve the relevance of search results.

“Even when we add the option for user accounts in future, we will only collect and retain sufficient data to help our customers use the service effectively, when they want to create an account or be remembered between devices and sessions, and to improve the service we provide,” Hoover said. “Users tell us that Andi can save them 15 or 20 minutes searching, and have been asking us to let them use it with their own team and personal data … As we improve the question answering tech and add support to connect to private data sources, we think this has massive potential.”

Andi search

Image Credits: Andi

To filter out info that might be misleading — or patently untrue — Hoover says that Andi uses techniques including blocklists and ranking metrics. Misinformation is an evolving issue, of course — one Google itself has struggled with. But Hoover expressed confidence in the technical steps Andi has taken to mitigate the impact.

“Every other new search startup out there is making yet another weaker copy of Google with the same cluttered page of blue links targeted at a web browser, with more or less variation on ads and privacy practices,” she averred. “The content you see in [Andi’s] results is retrieved from the source live wherever possible, rather than from a stale index. The question answering is improving rapidly, and in many areas is already excellent.”

In a quick experiment, I fed a couple of controversial queries into Andi and found that the search engine handled them quite adeptly, consistently pointing to factual sources. A search for “Who really won the 2020 election?” yielded the answer “Joe Biden,” while the query “Are COVID-19 vaccines fake?” pulled an article from Forbes debunking pandemic conspiracy theories.

Andi is still very much in alpha and intends to stay lean while it iterates based on feedback from early users, Hoover says. The startup will have tough decisions to make. As a New Yorker notes, search algorithms are susceptible to various biases, for example only prioritizing websites that use modern web technologies. They also open the door to bad actors. In 2020, Pinterest took advantage of a quirk of Google’s image search algorithm to surface more of its content in Google Image searches.

As it wrestles with these issues, Andi’s team continues to suss out its business model. While the core service will remain free, Hoover says that Andi will eventually offer paid pro and business plans with premium features and API access, letting customers use Andi’s search and question-answering capabilities with paid content, personal data, and internal company and team data.

Andi search

Image Credits: Andi

Paid features are probably the right route to go, considering Google’s share of the global search market has held steady at more than 90% for most of the past decade. Bing trails with 3.4%, followed by Yahoo! (full disclosure: TechCrunch’s parent company) at 1.34%, according to Statcounter.

To fund the development of these features and potential partnerships with alternative search engines, Andi recently raised $2.5 million, which including backing from YC, Gaingels, GoodWater Capital, K20 Fund, Acacia Venture Capital Partners, Fepo Capital and BBQ Capital, as well as a small family and friends round.

“We’ve kept our burn rate low, working as digital nomads out of Mexico to extend our runway, and staying frugal. Even after we add AI developers and increase our model training costs, we have well over two years of runway,” Hoover said. “We’re using the funds to improve our proprietary generative AI for complex question answering, and the ‘search of vertical searches and APIs’ tech that Andi uses to combine large language models with live data, especially: AI model development and training, adding some more AI developers to our team and hosting and inference costs as we start to grow usage once we get closer to product market fit … At this early stage, we’re focused on making really great search that our users love, ahead of generating revenue.”

Andi doesn’t collect detailed metrics, but Hoover estimates that the search engine has around 5,000 users at present. Andi plans to add a full-time AI developer before the end of the year, which would bring its total headcount to three, including Hoover and White.

Y Combinator-backed Andi taps AI to build a better search engine by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

Kiwi Bio aims to free irritable bowel syndrome sufferers from restrictive diets

One in 20 people suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, a common disorder related to how your bowels work, that can cause a number of symptoms, including abdominal pain and difficulty using the bathroom.

A go-to remedy for gut sensitivity is to avoid certain foods, but many of the associated diets are very restrictive, said Anjie Liu, one of the co-founders of Boston-based biotechnology company Kiwi Bio, who knows firsthand the difficulties of living with IBS.

“I would have stomach pains after eating and went to the doctor, who then referred me to a specialist, which is the typical IBS journey, because no one has an idea of what is wrong with you,” Liu told TechCrunch. “Between 10% and 15% of people suffer from IBS, but only half of those people are officially diagnosed.”

This led her to pair up with David Hachuel to develop a way to make eating a painless ritual for 40 million other Americans also suffering from IBS. Kiwi’s first product, FODZYME, came out in May. FODZYME uses patent-pending enzymes to break down common digestive triggers.

And now today, Kiwi Bio announced a $1.5 million seed round from a group of investors that includes Y Combinator, North South Ventures, Surf Club Ventures, Acacia Venture Capital Partners, Savage Seed (a fund managed by Emily Leproust) and Golden founder Jude Gomila.

Liu, who was diagnosed with IBS six years ago, said many people initially try medication, but find there is no way to manage symptoms other than cutting out half of the foods they would normally eat. The diet, known as the low-FODMAP diet, is what 80% of doctors prescribe. However, it is “extremely hard to follow, and as a result, there is low compliance,” she added.

For many, this means avoiding foods like garlic and onions. To Liu, who tried the diet for nearly three years, it meant sometimes missing out on life and the enjoyment of food. With FODZYME, people can sprinkle the powder on foods, in the case of the first product, like garlic, onions, bananas and wheat, before they are eaten.

Liu explained that they chose the powder form because it more easily integrates with the foods versus a capsule.

“We learned through clinical testing that capsules were one of the worst ways to deliver enzymes,” Liu said. “Those products almost never make it to the human gut where they interface with the actual users. That’s why ours is a powder that goes directly on food, which we found worked much better.”

Kiwi is also working on a chewable version as well as a supplement that will counteract sugar alcohols. All of the ingredients in FODZYME are recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, she added.

One of the company’s advisors, Thomas Wallach, a pediatric gastroenterologist at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, said via email he believes Kiwi’s work is different from other companies in the digestive health space that are relying on unproven concepts and the fact that the placebo effect in IBS and intestinal discomfort is quite strong.

“There’s nothing wrong with that to be honest, as if it’s a safe product and people feel better, I’m pretty happy,” he said. “However, Kiwi is really aimed at introducing a real therapeutic agent, with potential applications in several conditions from IBS to dysmotility to short gut. It’s a novel and exciting idea, and one I’m really excited to help investigate.”

Wallach clinically specializes in disorders of abdominal pain, including irritable bowel syndrome, as well as being a translational researcher focused on intestinal epithelial homeostasis. He explained that gas makes stretching worse, and our intestinal microbiota eat FODMAPs and many bugs turn them into gas. The low-FODMAP diet aims to decrease gas, and says it has a very good success rate, particularly in people who also have hyper mobile joints or dysautonomia.

In addition to what Liu mentioned about the low-FODMAP diet being restrictive, Wallach added that the diet doesn’t introduce a lot of fiber, which could result in someone’s microbiome being altered in a negative way. Kiwi is “Lactaid for fiber,” allowing people with IBS to eat more freely with some preparation, he said.

“Ultimately, fiber is good for you, and removing it from the diet is not sustainable,” Wallach added. “Kiwi’s enzyme package pre-digests FODMAPs, ideally decreasing the amount that ends up in the colon while avoiding nutritional limitations or removal of all fiber. I was very impressed by their focus on empiric validation, with plans for both in vitro model system testing, and as it’s generally regarded as a safe substance, rapid movement into clinical trials.”

Meanwhile, it’s been a busy summer for Kiwi. Liu and Hachuel were part of Y Combinator’s summer cohort and saw Kiwi’s inventory already sell out twice this summer. A bottle of FODZYME retails for $39 and can be purchased in a 30-day or 60-day supply. The company now serves over 600 customers and is growing at 18% weekly.

The company has been busy strengthening its supply chain to gear up for scaling its product. Additionally, it hired a head of growth and a community engagement and success manager.

The new funding will enable the company to grow the FODZYME product, to develop new products in the pipeline, for example, novel enzymes to tackle unaddressed FODMAP groups and support planned clinical studies.

“We discovered during fundraising that Kiwi Bio fit neither the mold of a traditional biotech company nor that of conventional consumer products, food or CPG,” Liu said. “We had to find the right blend of investors to support us in all the dimensions we occupy, and particularly ones who are comfortable thinking at intersections.”