A Collection of Articles

50 Smartest Companies 2015

Massive solar panel factories. Fertility treatments. Friendly robots. Meet the companies reshaping the technology business.

  • June 23, 2015

Sometimes we hear that technology companies have lost their ambition. Too many great minds are pouring their energy into the next app for the affluent, the argument goes. Where is the daring?

Right here. This year, when the editors of MIT Technology Review began our annual search for the smartest companies, we did not have trouble finding big ideas. To make the list, a company must have truly innovative technology and a business model that is both practical and ambitious, with the result that it has set the agenda in its field over the past 12 months.

No. 1, Tesla Motors, has added another audacious idea to go with its electric cars. In April, it announced it would be spinning off a line of batteries in service of a big goal: remaking the energy grid for industry, utilities, and residences.

Of all the sectors we cover, biomedicine has had the biggest year. Companies have turned research breakthroughs, many powered by genomic analysis, into products that treat challenging diseases. Gilead Sciences, No. 15, sells the first pill that can cure most cases of hepatitis C. Bristol-Myers Squibb, No. 26, is selling an immunotherapy drug that is saving the lives of people with skin and lung cancer.

By contrast, energy companies have been far less innovative, it seems to us, so that sector plays a smaller role on this list. One highlight is No. 6, SunEdison, which is electrifying developing countries.

As always, many newer, private companies can be found here, starting with No. 5, Counsyl, a startup whose cheap, automated DNA analysis is expanding from prenatal testing to cancer screening.

A few giants return after an absence from the list: Microsoft, at No. 48 for its wearable HoloLens device that blends virtual reality and the real world, and Apple, No. 16, for its well-designed smart watch and digital-wallet service. All share one feature: they are innovations with impact. —Nanette Byrnes

1

Tesla Motors

  • Headquarters Palo Alto, California
  • Industry Transportation
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2010, 2014, 2015

Summary Extending its battery technology from cars to residential and commercial applications.

$5 billion Projected investment required to build its battery “gigafactory” in Nevada

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2

Xiaomi

  • Headquarters Beijing, China
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2014, 2015

Summary Fast-growing smartphone vendor is maturing beyond its original “cut-price Apple” model with ideas like flash sales over its mobile messaging platform.

$45 billion Most recent valuation for the private company

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3

Illumina

  • Headquarters San Diego, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary Shifting its fast DNA-reading machines from research applications primarily to hospitals and cancer clinics.

90 percent Proportion of all DNA data estimated to be produced on its machines

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4

Alibaba

  • Headquarters Hangzhou, China
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary The world’s largest online retailer, it conducts more than half its daily transactions through its Alipay digital wallet/banking service.

$25 billion Amount raised in its record-setting IPO

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5

Counsyl

  • Headquarters South San Francisco, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its cheap DNA tests help would-be parents plan ahead. Now it sells cancer screens.

3.6 percent Proportion of U.S. couples that use its tests before trying to conceive

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6

SunEdison

  • Headquarters Maryland Heights, Missouri
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Aggressively expanding its renewable energy products and building a business to provide electricity to the developing world.

1.1 billion number of people worldwide who don’t have access to electricity

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7

Tencent

  • Headquarters Shenzhen, China
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary China’s most-used Internet service portal is expanding by investing in companies inside and outside its home market.

549 million Active monthly users on WeChat and its related Weixin service

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8

Juno Therapeutics

  • Headquarters Seattle, Washington
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Testing cancer treatments that use a person’s own immune cells.

$304 million Amount it raised in the largest biotech IPO of 2014

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9

SolarCity

  • Headquarters San Mateo, California
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary The factory it is planning to build in Buffalo will be the Western Hemisphere’s largest manufacturer of silicon solar panels, the company says.

177,000 Number of U.S. customers who lease SolarCity’s rooftop solar panels

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10

Netflix

  • Headquarters Los Gatos, California
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2011, 2015

Summary It’s producing innovative original content and inking distribution deals with cable companies.

31 Number of Emmy nominations for its original programming in 2014

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11

OvaScience

  • Headquarters Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary The first baby conceived with the help of its stem-cell treatment has been born.

$25,000 Maximum amount it charges IVF clinics for the treatment

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12

Google

  • Headquarters Mountain View, California
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary Its Loon balloons are designed to broaden Internet access.

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13

Amazon

  • Headquarters Seattle, Washington
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary Robots now used in its fulfillment centers could make the facilities far more efficient.

$89 billion 2014 sales

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14

AliveCor

  • Headquarters San Francisco, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Maker of a heart monitor that connects to an iPhone and automatically detects irregular heartbeats.

2 million Number of ECG readings on its devices so far

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15

Gilead Sciences

  • Headquarters Foster City, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Began selling the first pill that can cure most cases of hepatitis C.

$3.6 billion
Sales of the drug in the first three months of 2015

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16

Apple

  • Headquarters Cupertino, California
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015

Summary Its new smart watch and its Apple Pay digital wallet set the pace for competitors.

1 million Number of Apple Watches ordered the day they went on sale, according to outside estimates

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17

Voxel8

  • Headquarters Somerville, Massachusetts
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Having created what it calls the world’s first 3-D electronics printer, the startup is commercializing promising new materials like conductive ink.

5,000 Factor by which its inks improve conductivity, according to the company

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18

IDE Technologies

  • Headquarters Kadima, Israel
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Offering more affordable water desalination at a scale never before achieved.

300,000 Number of people to be served by the plant it is building with partners in Carlsbad, California

19

Amgen

  • Headquarters Thousand Oaks, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its Icelandic gene database is yielding ­clues that help it decide which drugs to develop.

10,000 Number of sequenced genomes in the database

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20

Aquion Energy

  • Headquarters Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary Has gained customers for its novel batteries, which can store surplus wind and solar energy.

$129 million Money raised from Aquion’s investors

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21

Baidu

  • Headquarters Beijing, China
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2014, 2015

Summary The Chinese Internet company’s new deep-learning research lab has produced notable results in facial and speech recognition.

70 percent Increase in 2014 research spending, to $1.125 billion

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22

SpaceX

  • Headquarters Hawthorne, California
  • Industry Transportation
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary The rocket company has made progress on the technical challenge of landing and reusing unmanned rockets.

9 Number of missions completed in the last year

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23

Sakti3

  • Headquarters Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2012, 2015

Summary Uses new materials and manufacturing techniques to make solid-state batteries that store twice as much energy as rival lithium-ion technologies.

$15 million Size of recent investment by appliance maker Dyson (General Motors is also a backer)

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24

Freescale Semiconductor

  • Headquarters Austin, Texas
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2014, 2015

Summary Pioneering technology to be used in advanced computer vision systems for cars.

$12 billion Freescale’s value in a proposed acquisition by a Dutch semiconductor maker

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25

Universal Robots

  • Headquarters Odense, Denmark
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its user-friendly, relatively cheap robots have found a strong market. In May, Teradyne agreed to buy the company for $285 million.

70 percent Increase in revenue from 2013 to 2014

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26

Bristol-Myers Squibb

  • Headquarters New York City, New York
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Took a lead in cancer immunotherapy with Opdivo, a life-saving drug for skin and lung cancer.

$12,500 monthly cost of the drug

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27

Teladoc

  • Headquarters Dallas, Texas
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Though some doctors’ organizations oppose the idea of remote medicine and are trying to limit the practice, this fast-growing telemedicine company is nearing an IPO.

10 million Number of U.S. members in its remote-consultation service

28

Nvidia

  • Headquarters Santa Clara, California
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its chips are crucial for cutting-edge technologies like deep learning and driverless cars.

7,000 Number of patents it holds

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29

Facebook

  • Headquarters Menlo Park, California
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015

Summary Big ad revenue is being invested in improvements to apps like Messenger and in its new agreement to directly host work by leading news organizations.

1.44 billion Number of monthly active users worldwide in the first quarter of 2015

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30

Alnylam

  • Headquarters Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2010, 2015

Summary It is turning around the prospects for RNA interference, a promising type of gene therapy that has been challenging to use.

6 Number of the company’s drugs in human testing

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31

Rethink Robotics

  • Headquarters Boston, Massachusetts
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2013, 2015

Summary Although sales have been soft for its easy-to-train Baxter robot, the company’s newest model, Sawyer, is impressively precise and fast.

$114 million Funding raised

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32

Philips

  • Headquarters Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2013, 2015

Summary The giant of LED lighting has made the efficient technology even more affordable.

$5 Retail price of two bulbs that will last for a decade

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33

Cellectis

  • Headquarters Paris, France
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its Calyxt division uses quick gene editing to create crops that might not need regulation as GMOs.

1 year Time it took to create a genetically engineered potato that should be healthier to eat when fried

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34

Bluebird Bio

  • Headquarters Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its gene therapies may cure, not just treat, diseases like sickle-cell anemia.

9 Number of patients treated so far in studies

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35

ThyssenKrupp

  • Headquarters Essen, Germany
  • Industry Transportation
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Reinvented the elevator with magnetic levitation technology, resulting in a system that can transport more people and move horizontally.

6.4 billion euros Company’s global elevator sales in 2014

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36

Slack

  • Headquarters San Francisco, California
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its workplace communications app is taking off.

300 million Number of messages sent via Slack each month

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37

Line

  • Headquarters Tokyo, Japan
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary The Japanese company runs a hugely popular messaging and free calling app that actually generates revenue.

205 million Number of monthly active users

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38

Improbable

  • Headquarters London, United Kingdom
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Using computer science to simulate richer virtual worlds, with applications in gaming and virtual reality.

$20 million Improbable’s funding from Andreessen Horowitz this year

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39

Enlitic

  • Headquarters San Francisco, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its deep-learning technology automatically spots tumors in medical scans.

$1.7 billion Total estimated value of the market for medical image analysis software

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40

Coinbase

  • Headquarters San Francisco, California
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Helps companies including PayPal, Dell, and Expedia take Bitcoin payments without having to hold onto the cryptocurrency.

2.9 million Number of Bitcoin accounts registered with Coinbase

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41

HaCon

  • Headquarters Hannover, Germany
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Its popular travel planning apps in Europe combine information on taxis, car rental, bike sharing, and public transportation systems.

40 million Number of journeys planned on its system every day

42

3D Systems

  • Headquarters Rock Hill, South Carolina
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Moving to dominate the commercialization of 3-D printing by developing a super-fast assembly line.

50 Factor by which 3D Systems hopes to increase the speed of 3-D printing

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43

Generali

  • Headquarters Trieste, Italy
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary This Italian-based insurer will use fitness data from wearables, as well as other health data, to calculate insurance rates for customers who choose to participate.

60 Number of countries in which the company operates

44

Intrexon

  • Headquarters Germantown, Maryland
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Developing synthetic biology in multiple fields for health, energy, consumer, and environmental applications.

$41 million Amount paid to acquire the maker of a patented transgenic apple

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45

DNAnexus

  • Headquarters Mountain View, California
  • Industry Biotech
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Helping researchers and drug companies move genetic data into Amazon’s cloud.

56,000 Number of computer processors the company uses to analyze DNA

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46

IBM

  • Headquarters Armonk, New York
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

Summary Novel research into artificial intelligence could help the company in its long-term plan to make big data more useful.

14 Number of hospitals in North America that have signed up to use the Watson AI system to guide cancer therapy

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47

Snapchat

  • Headquarters Los Angeles, California
  • Industry Internet & Digital Media
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2014, 2015

Summary Innovative new formats include “Snapchat Stories,” which put videos and photos together to tell a story, and a platform for media organizations that is used by ESPN, CNN, and others.

1 billion Number of Snapchat Stories viewed per day

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48

Microsoft

  • Headquarters Redmond, Washington
  • Industry Computing & Communications
  • Status Public
  • Years on the List 2013, 2015

Summary Its HoloLens augmented-reality technology reflects the new CEO’s turnaround ambitions.

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49

Imprint Energy

  • Headquarters Alameda, California
  • Industry Energy
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2015

Summary Developing ultrathin, flexible, rechargeable batteries that can be printed cheaply on commonly used industrial screen printers.

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50

Uber

  • Headquarters San Francisco, California
  • Industry Transportation
  • Status Private
  • Years on the List 2014, 2015

Summary It’s testing ideas like ride-share services and driver deliveries.

162,037 Number of active Uber drivers as of December 2014

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