Y Combinator, a company that backs technology start-ups, is famous for its early support of successful software firms such as Airbnb and Dropbox. It historically has invested a few thousand dollars into web-based businesses that require only small grants to get up and running at their earliest stages. But the programme is now expanding its reach to back biotechnology start-ups, says company president Sam Altman.

Altman spoke to Nature together with Elizabeth Iorns, hired last week as a part-time partner at Y Combinator, which is based in Mountain View, California, for her expertise in life sciences. A former cancer biologist turned entrepreneur, Iorns has herself benefited from Y Combinator funding — she co-founded Science Exchange, a firm in Palo Alto, California, that provides an online marketplace where scientists offer up spare capacity and instrumentation to do other researchers’ experiments.