The World's Most Promising Tech Startups
Every year, the Geneva-based World Economic Forum honors as "Tech Pioneers" anywhere from 30 to 50 companies offering new technologies or business models that could advance the global economy and have a positive impact on people's lives. More than half of this year's 34 honorees hail from outside the U.S. Twelve come from Europe, three from Asia, two from Africa, and one from South America. The companies were chosen by an independent panel of venture capitalists and industry experts. (BusinessWeek correspondent Jennifer L. Schenker served on the jury.) Click on to read about these leaders of tomorrow.
Advanced Track & Trace
Anticounterfeiting tracking and tracing technology
Chief scientist: Justin Picard, 35
Advanced Track & Trace makes Seal Vector, a digital anticounterfeiting and tracking technology that can be printed or marked on virtually any material. Think of it as a bar code that "leaks" data when copied. With a simple scan, copies can be detected because they contain less data than the original. Corporate customers include beauty products group L'Oréal, pharmaceutical companies, and French wine producers.
Chief creative officer: Robert Kalin, 28
Etsy is a digital marketplace for buyers and sellers of handmade goods ranging from robots to rocking horses. The idea is "to empower small businesses and keep the big guys out," says Kalin, the company's founder. Etsy has attracted 200,000 sellers from 100 countries and expects to handle $100 million in transactions this year. It charges 20¢ for each listing, and sellers who want to showcase their wares can pay an additional $7 to $15 a day for advertising. Etsy also takes 3.5% of the price of every item sold.
CEO: Klaas Kersting 28
Intergalactic conquests, gladiator quests, and gothic adventures with vampires and werewolves have attracted more than 65 million players in 36 countries to register for Gameforge's 25 multiplayer online games. The games, available in 50 languages, are free and work on any device that has an Internet connection and a browser. The company makes its money from selling features that give players an edge, such as virtual magic swords. It's forecasting more than $130 million in revenues in 2009.
CEO: John Woolard, 43
BrightSource Energy's solar thermal technology uses thousands of small mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a boiler atop a tower to produce high-temperature steam, which is then piped to a turbine that generates electricity. The company claims its system, originally developed in Israel, offers higher operating efficiencies than other solar thermal technologies, making it competitive with fossil fuels. The company has raised more than $160 million from investors.
CEO: James Hiroshi Nakagawa, 44
When one of his friends was diagnosed with diabetes and placed on a restricted diet, Nakagawa was surprised to discover how difficult it was to obtain basic information about the calories in ordinary food. This sparked the idea of Lifewatcher, a health management service for people with so-called "lifestyle diseases." The service not only allows people to look up nutrition information via the Internet or their mobile phones, but also monitors users' conditions as they log in their blood sugar levels, calorie intake, exercise, and other variables.
CEO: Richard Muirhead, 36
Call it Google for IT managers. Founded by serial entrepreneur Muirhead, Tideway Systems uses artificial-intelligence techniques to map corporate IT infrastructures. Having an up-to-the-minute view of their networks can help corporations cut data center costs and reduce downtime caused by IT troubles. Tideway has raised venture capital from Scottish Equity Partners, Apax Partners, and Accel Partners.
Windsor, N.S., Canada
CEO: Abdullah Kirumira, 53
BioMedica developed a lab test for blood clots, QuikCoag, that is widely sold in developed countries. Now Kirumira, a Uganda native and trained chemist, is using proceeds from QuikCoag to improve medical diagnostics in some of the world's poorest countries. He has developed a testing kit, Complete Lab, that can be set up in primitive clinics to test for more than 90 diseases, from HIV to malaria.
CEO: Christina Domecq, 32
SpinVox's technology uses a combination of voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and natural liguistics to convert voice messages to text. Then it delivers the messages in a variety of forms, including e-mails, text messages, blog posts, or postings on social-network sites. SpinVox has deals with operators around the globe and expects to reach 100 million customers by 2009.
CEO: Max Levchin, 33
Slide helps put the fun in online applications. Its first product, available on social networks like Bebo, MySpace, and Orkut, allows users to upload, decorate, and share photos as slide shows. It's also behind two of the most popular widgets on Facebook: Top Friends, which lets users install quick links to their virtual buddies, and FunWall, an interactive billboard that lets users share videos, posters, and fun messages. Slide is perhaps best known for SuperPoke!, an application offering virtual hijinks like "sheep throwing" and "trout slap."
CEO: Ron Gonen, 33
RecycleBank has launched programs in 15 states that motivate people to recycle household waste. It provides each household with a container featuring an embedded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag. When recycling crews empty the container, scanners on their trucks record the weight of the contents and transmit the information to a RecycleBank account. Households accumulate reward points that can be used for purchases at more than 800 retailers, including Target and IKEA.
CEO: Chris Gilbert, 51
Ubiquisys is a pioneer in femtocell technology, which lets mobile-phone users plug into broadband connections to improve their reception while using their handsets at home or in the office. Besides more reliable reception, users can enjoy higher-quality mobile Internet services while taking advantage of cheaper rates. Thirteen mobile operators are currently trying out the service, and three are expected to launch services in Europe by next March
Mountain View, Calif.
Personal finance services
Founder and CEO: Aaron Patzer, 28
Mint.com makes money by helping consumers make smarter financial decisions. Its four patent-pending technologies and algorithms help users understand where they're spending money, create budgets, and find ways to save. Launched in September 2007, the free online service already has attracted more than 600,000 consumers. Mint.com provides e-mail and text message alerts, notifying users of low account balances and upcoming bills and fees. The company earns its money from referral fees and advertising.
CEO: Trung Tri Doan, 50
SemiLEDs, with operations in the U.S. and Taiwan, aims to provide the first effective light-emitting-diode (LED) solutions for mass-market lighting. LEDs, though far more efficient than conventional incandescent lighting, until now have been too costly for widespread use. SemiLEDS, founded by a semiconductor industry veteran, tackled the problem by switching to a low-cost chip built on a flexible copper alloy.
Broadband media and online video
CEO: Jeremy Allaire, 37
Brightcove has developed an open Web-based software service that allows media groups of all sizes to publish, distribute, and make money from online video through their own Web sites and across the Internet. Hundreds of media companies use its technology to deliver tens of millions of videos to consumers worldwide. The company has raised $91 million from investors including Accel Partners, Allen & Co., Hearst Corp., the New York Times Co., and America Online
CEO: Calvin Chin, 35
Qifang has developed an online microfinance site to help aspiring Chinese university students pay for their schooling. Students who can't afford tuition post their profiles on the site in hopes of catching the attention of well-off individuals or businesses who could lend them money. Qifang brokers the transactions and helps manage the loan portfolios, earning money by charging a 2% fee on each loan. Share your views about this great idea in the comments section.
CEO: Bright Simons, 27
mPedigree offers consumers a service to instantly verify the authenticity of drugs at the point of purchase. Pharmaceutical companies emboss special codes on drug packaging that are recorded in mPedigree's database. When consumers purchase drugs, they scratch off a panel to reveal the code and send it via text message over a standard mobile phone. Within five seconds, they get a reply indicating whether the code is genuine.
Cows to Kilowatts Partnership Ltd.
CEO: Joseph Adelegan, 41
Cows to Kilowatts has found a clean way to convert slaughterhouse waste into biofuel for household cooking and electricity. Instead of smelly, inefficient traditional waste-treatment methods, Cows to Kilowatts offers a bioreactor system that turns organic waste into cheap, nonpolluting fuel. As a bonus, the system churns out environmentally friendly fertilizer from the remaining sludge
CEO: Sachin Duggal, 25
Need specialized software for a short-term project? No need to buy it; Nivio will rent it to you. The company provides customers with a personalized Windows desktop, outfitted with whatever software they request, for as long as they need it. It also makes a low-cost computing device. The company is about to launch, in partnership with Indian telcom operator Bharti Airtel, a rollout of Internet kiosks across India that will be powered by Nivio.
CEO: Simon Moroney, 49
MorphoSys is trying to reproduce the human immune response in a test tube. The company, which was founded in 1992 and went public on the Frankfurt stock exchange in 1999, boasts a library of more than 10 billion human antibodies that can be optimized to target specific diseases. It has several drugs in phase-one clinical trials, one to combat Alzheimer's disease, two aimed at cancer, and another for arthritis
Green wireless technology
CEO: Cees Links, 51
It sounds like a simple way to save energy: A wireless sensor network in your house would automatically shut off lights and turn down heating when you leave a room. But such networks have proven costly and cumbersome. GreenPeak has developed a communication technology for wireless sensor networks that can use energy harvested from the environment rather than from batteries. It claims to be the first Wi-Fi-based controller capable of providing a maintenance-free sensor network.
CEO: Fernando Nilo, 44
Recycla Chile was the first company in Latin America to recycle discarded computers, television, mobile phones, fax machines, and other electronic gizmos. Such e-trash accounts for 70% of toxic waste in landfills. Electronics makers collect old devices from business customers and send them to Recycla, which extracts valuable materials. Most of the work is done by former prison inmates, whom the company hires to help them reintegrate into society.
CEO: Ross Dueber, 48
ZPower uses advanced polymers, nanotechnology, power electronics, and processing methods to create a superefficient rechargeable battery for consumer electronic devices. The technology isn't compatible with existing devices that use lithium-ion batteries, but next-generation laptops, mobile phones, and other devices coming to market as early as 2009 will use it. Dueber says Zpower batteries can as much as double the time between recharges.
CEO: Ole-Henning Fredriksen, 45
TraceTracker is creating a kind of global information exchange for the food industry. Its global traceability network, GTNet, enables producers, distributors, and retailers to exchange information about food products, tracing them from raw ingredients to the supermarket shelf. A franchise in Germany which licenses Walt Disney Co.'s brand for use on food products uses GTNet to provide an online tool for consumers, allowing them to use Google Maps to see where ingredients came from