The explosion in new digital gadgets and the rapid advances in genetic knowledge have remodelled the landscape for tech companies. Old-fashioned brands are in danger of being left behind
The last two or three years have seen a shift in the technology world that analysts have been predicting for over a decade. Fuelled by universal connection to the internet, there has been an explosion in new digital devices which has revolutionized both social interaction and business.
Alex Daley, the senior editor of Casey’s Extraordinary Technology and a veteran observer of the technology world, said: “More than three billion people worldwide are linked to the internet. We have Wi-fi in almost every connected household and multiple devices connected at the same time. As a result, we’ve seen a massive expansion of digital devices designed just for the consumption of video, or just for books.
“It’s greatly increased the amount of time in a day that computers are part of our lives. My new Xbox One brings together a lot of these visions we’ve been promised for 20 years, including voice recognition and interaction. Computers are learning to change their behaviour based on our moods.”
Many of the most dynamic companies are in the information technology sector. “New devices have driven the need for different operating systems which are custom-designed to work with the new hardware. That’s created a boom of services, delivery methods, of everything,” Daley said.
“The web has been pushed to a back seat and the native app has become the big thing. Meanwhile, focusing on traditional computing – sitting down with a desktop, keyboard and mouse to crunch information and edit spreadsheets – is a slower growth model.”
With the quantity of data doubling every nine months, companies able to use machine intelligence to analyse big data are thriving. The cheap cost of starting these businesses makes them a tempting target for venture capitalists looking for quick returns on investment. “We can create more of a soup of data, as opposed to an organised data stream, and use machine intelligence to gain insight without experts managing it manually,” said Daley.
Similarly, the intelligence of algorithms is creating growth in automation technologies. “The rise of robots two decades ago provoked fears they would take every blue-collar job. Obviously they’ve eaten into them, but the first generation of robots were immobile and stupid. They could do one thing well, but lacked real intelligence, vision and mobility. All of these inference-based algorithms have advanced phenomenally over the last few decades,” he said.
One company exploiting these technological advances is Trimble Navigation. “They epitomize this trend. They have a whole bunch of automated farming machines. For instance, one machine sprays pesticides, but instead of spraying your entire field, it uses ‘machine vision’ to only spray pesticides where needed. The technology makes farms greener by adding intelligence data gathering,” he said.
The device innovations are having knock-on effects on other industries. A revolution in the nature of advertising is underway. “It’s creating a demand – which is unfulfilled as yet – for action-based and contextual advertising. Previously, Google could track your behaviour and provide ads of value to you. This has been so successful that Google’s ad revenue is higher than the entire US magazine and newspaper industries combined. But the contextual element is new and it’s another follow-on from the explosion of device form factors. Search is becoming not just about the query, but about the context that surrounds it – the things you don’t type into the search box. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others, are starting to take advantage of this.”
‘The computers are learning to change their behaviour based on our moods’ Alex Daley, Casey Extraordinary Technology
The second biggest change in the technology field is in the area of genetic knowledge in the biotechnology field, Daley says. “These developments are not yet as visible because they’re happening behind the scenes, but they are equally radical. We’re seeing a huge increase in access to molecular testing for signs of genetic markers in individual diseases. It’s an exploding market driven by the demand for biological compounds and the tools we’ve built in the drive to find biological drugs. The past couple of years have seen marketable technologies for molecularly targeted cancer treatments and the first antisense drugs which block genetic behaviour in a way that is temporary and reversible.”
An area of technology which has proved less seductive for the venture capitalists is clean energy. Jim Atwell, a partner at Deloitte and Touche, said there had been a plunge in confidence in the sector.
“We’re going to need global government intervention to help companies do the right thing. Private investors can’t fund all the R&D needed. The returns are small on a US$10 energy efficient light bulb,” he said. “Other struggling sectors include anything hardware and semi-conductor related. Even the bio-tech industries have not attracted as much investment as the cloud-based companies because of the lengthy R&D.
Most of the companies dominating the technological sector are still based in the US, Daley said. “The world sends its brightest and best to be educated in the US. Although India and China have huge pools of untapped labour and are making huge investments in education, it will take time to filter through.
“For now, the US invests more in research and development than its rivals and there are a lot more tax incentives to encourage investment. In a free market economy, the lack of regulation and availability of capital in places like Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley will keep the US on top for a long time,” he said.
SALT’s ranking of the top 50 technology companies to watch will be an annual event. This year’s inaugural LIST reflects the rapid growth in new forms of digital technologies
The obvious choice. Their willingness to commit big dollars to long-term research will pay off big for the world. It’s just a question of whether it will pay off for the company. Many other firms from the AT&T of yore through Bell Labs, to Comcast, Microsoft, Research in Motion and Nokia have contributed enormous improvements through research, but failed to ever monetize it themselves. But, with the self-driving cars and Google Glass, the company is defining the interfaces that will dominate how we use computers in the future. We’ll see if that doubles the size of the company, or simply feeds the next generation of startups.
Largely dismissed for the shinier Apple, Microsoft continues to grow revenues and maintain dominance of the business computing world. Their unparalleled ability to sell to large enterprises allows them to play catch-up in strategic areas like smartphones and tablets — though they’ve hung back too long in both by many estimates. Where they do lead is in gaming, where the Kinect is an unparalleled advance in speech recognition and motion tracking, and shows hints at what the next generation of PCs should be able to do. With billions in cash minted every year, the company also has the means to make big moves – and a new CEO will likely have the motivation to see that threat through, for better or worse.
The meandering Japanese electronics manufacturer has found its mojo again. The company is regaining a share in televisions, game consoles, and other smart home devices. That puts them in competition with Google and Microsoft, and often between those companies and their customers. The company has a chance now, with its footprint in the living room, to once again become the dominant force in entertainment technology. Can they manage to position themselves as the alternative to the style and entertainment kings at Apple, a company whose products are becoming slightly less desirable with each look-a-like product upgrade?
4. Trimble Navigation
A company most have never heard of is putting much of the research done by the companies above into practice in staid industries like farming and construction. Trimble offers autonomous driving systems for tractors, for instance, which can run more precisely than any human operator and do so 24 hours a day. They employ advanced computer vision systems to dramatically reduce the use of pesticides, spraying only when the tools “see” an invasive plant. Led by former HP researchers, it is the type of crossover company that Google risks spinning out of its own efforts – a multi-billion dollar market transformer, missed out on by the part of Silicon Valley that prefers not to play in the dirt.
5. Isis Pharmaceuticals and the entire biotechnology field
Biotech was big for investors in 2013, thanks to a handful of blockbuster drug approvals that catapulted the once cutting edge to the forefront of the US$750 billion annual drug industry. However, it is a change that has only barely started. The real biotech revolution will come in the form of customized, genetic, proteomic, lipidomic and similar treatments for the previously untreatable diseases. Isis is the poster child for this potential, with its ‘antisense’ technology, a temporary genetic off switch. One such drug, Kynamro, is already used to treat extreme high cholesterol in those genetically predisposed to it – and shows promise of bringing the same amazing results to much broader populations next. For them, it’s one of dozens of such promising programmes in development. And, there are literally thousands of other small companies building the next generation of drugs. Big Pharma’s famed “patent cliff” is much bigger than that. It is a fundamental change in the way we discover and design medical treatments, which is leaving the old guard behind.
There’s been talk about the slowdown in Apple’s sales, but it’s all relative. Last year, company revenue grew by US$15 billion, a relatively small advance compared to a couple of years earlier, but still huge. Apple remains a giant of innovation. Over the last 16 months, it’s brought out the iPad Air, the iPad Mini with Retina display, Mavericks, iOS 7 and iTunes Radio. It also brought out two new phones concurrently – the iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S – for the first time ever. Most of these products were modifications to existing lines, but CEO Tim Cook says the company is working on several products in new categories. Cook also believes the Mac is well poised to take advantage of the mass desertion of the PC.
7. General Electric
GE will invest more than US$15 billion in innovation by the end of 2015. Its eight R&D labs around the world employ more than 3,000 scientists and engineers. GE Global Research is always on the lookout for new ideas and sponsors competitions, such as a recent 3D printing challenge, that attracted worldwide participation. GE is now also using big data to analyse the performance of its own machines. The company says smart use of data can boost US productivity by 1.5% a year.
The computers are learning to change their behaviour based on our moods’ Alex Daley, Casey Extraordinary Technology
The world’s fourth largest medical device company, Medtronic, is headquartered in Minneapolis, but services 140 countries. It has made its name through designing miniature implants for the human body. Its pacemakers have gradually shrunk since the 1950s, and it is now working on a pacemaker the size of a vitamin capsule which could be inserted into the leg through a tube and directed up to the heart.
9. Tesla Motors
The California electric car manufacturer posted profits for the first time in the first quarter of 2013 after 10 years in existence, but Tesla Motors is so confident about its future that it plans to build a US$5 billion gigafactory by 2020, to produce affordable cars on a mass scale. Right now, the cost of a Tesla Model S is beyond the reach of most drivers, although the quality justifies the price tag. Tesla designs its own batteries and other electric components and the car’s range is about triple the distance of Nissan’s rival Leaf electric car. Tesla also plans to build a nationwide network of charging stations that can deliver 200 miles of charge in about half an hour. Currently that takes several hours.
Since deciding to focus R&D on rare diseases and biotech, the Swiss pharmaceutical company has been a giant of innovation. The Novartis research network spans much of the globe, with the Basel laboratory as the focal point. A former industrial production site, Novartis transformed it by getting rid of walls and cubicles to create “the lab of the future”, where informatics, bioinformatics and communication tools are integrated.
IBM’s research arm invests US$6 billion annually on R&D and employs 8,000 inventors in 41 countries. Last year, it received 6,809 patents, exceeding the combined total of Amazon, Google, EMC, HP, Intel, Oracle/Sun and Symantec. A diverse range of inventions emerged, especially in the cloud, big data and analytics. These ideas will advance the age of cognitive systems where machines interact more naturally with people.
China’s BGI is a world leader in gene-sequencing for human genomes, but also animals and plants. It wants to be the first to create a process for sequencing an individual’s DNA and strengthened its position last year by acquiring California’s Complete Genomics for US$118 million. Together, the companies can sequence 80% of human genomes. BGI’s rival, Illumina, global leader in gene-sequencing machines, opposed the bid. Through affiliates BGI Americas and BGI Europe, it is strategically placed in the West.
US biopharmaceutical company Medivation develops novel therapies to treat serious diseases. This year its Xtandi treatment for prostate cancer could reach blockbuster status with sales of more than US$1 billion. Co-developed with Japan’s Astellas, Xtandi’s sales should increase with the European roll-out.
Massachusetts-based company iRobot has sold millions of consumer robots, many of them Roomba vacuum cleaners, and its PackBot bomb-disposal units have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The company leads the way in robot technology by focusing on three areas of improvement – navigation, picking things up and perception.
The electronics giant recently introduced an innovative range of wireless LED lamps, including 3D-printed luminaires. With an eye to the future, Philips has been reducing its portfolio of consumer electronics and moving more towards personal health and wellbeing products.
16. Foxconn Technology Group
Taiwan’s Foxconn is the major supplier of iPhone and iPad products. Other notable designs include BlackBerry, Kindle, Xbox and PlayStation. Foxconn wants to manufacture for the US to open up more prospects for business with Apple. It is also prioritizing investment in Indonesia, which it sees as a manufacturing hub in the future. Foxconn’s colossal size – it has more than a million employees – allows it to negotiate cheaper component prices.
17. Abbott Laboratories
The US pharmaceuticals and healthcare giant has 90,000 employees and operates in more than 130 countries. Its treatments for diabetes, arthritis, HIV and other major illnesses are world renowned. Abbott is continually looking for new approaches in four core businesses – diagnostics, medical devices, nutrition and pharmaceuticals. Abbott partners academics, nonprofits, governments and private companies to combat the world’s most pressing health challenges.
18. Texas Instruments
Dallas-based TI is the world’s third biggest manufacturer of semiconductors, the second largest supplier of chips for mobile phones and the largest producer of digital signal processers. TI’s important innovations include commercial silicon transistors, integrated circuits and electronic hand-held calculators. The tradition of innovation lives on. Today, TI’s semi-conductors are enabling the design of automated cars.
Amazon caught the attention with its promise to create drones that deliver packages. Doubts remain over the cost feasibility of delivering small items in such a way and over safety issues. But Amazon has many other new ideas. Most profits are ploughed into research at the secretive ‘Lab 126’, where engineers design the next-generation Kindles and other devices. Amazon also spends a great deal on developing the most technologically advanced warehouses. The company has more than 1,200 patents and strives to stay ahead through innovation.
South Korea’s Samsung was the world’s most innovative tech company in 2013. Early in the year, the Galaxy S4 smartphone impressed with new features like eye-tracking technology. In summer, Samsung released a curved TV based on Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) technology. Best of all, Samsung beat arch rivals Apple, Google and Microsoft in the race to release a smartwatch – the futuristic Galaxy Gear. The innovation looks like continuing. Samsung has unveiled the first flexible smartphone, the Galaxy Round.
San Diego-based Illumina has become the leading US innovator in the genome-sequencing business, a market ready to explode into life. Illumina’s next-generation sequencing (NGS) enables researchers to study biological systems at a much greater capacity than traditional DNA sequencing technologies. The cost of deploying the technology has plummeted from close to US$1 billion to a few thousand dollars. The implications for medical research are huge. NGS will usher in an era of personalized medicine and Illumina will be the major supplier for testing equipment.
California-based Broadcom boasts that 99.98% of data crosses one of its chips. The technology is in products as diverse as microwave transmitters, wide area network switches, cellular baseband equipment, mobile phones and tablets. Being strong in the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology market, it is perfectly placed to grow as the number of connected devices increases from 2.5 billion in 2009 to a projected 30 billion in 2020. In its relentless quest for innovation, Broadcom has bought out more than 60 companies since 1961, many of them start ups in Israel.
‘The real biotech revolution will come in the form of customized, genetic, proteomic, lipidomic and similar treatments for previously untreatable diseases’
There’s a lot of excitement around the wearable device industry, but the market is at an early stage. There’s little doubt demand will accelerate in the next few years and InvenSense will be a big player. The company designs micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) gyroscopes and tiny accelerometers used in motion-tracking devices in consumer electronics. InvenSense products are found in Nintendo Wii gaming consoles, smartphones and tablets. These chip-based sensors make wearable and connected devices function. The InvenSense SoC technology will be at the heart of the tech revolution.
Samsung’s Korean rival showcased eight new mobile phones at the 2014 Mobile World Congress, including the G Pro 2, G Flex, G2 mini, F70, F Series and L Series. Its new products earned it the title of Most Innovative Device Manufacturer of the Year. Perhaps its most innovative phone is the bendable and unbreakable G Flex with its curved screen. LG says the panel is the thinnest and lightest of any smartphone. It is working on curved designs for consumer electronics and has plans to market a smartwatch which connects to rival manufacturers’ phones.
25. Oculus VR
Whilst a lot of prototypes of virtual reality headsets for gaming have been disappointing, the Oculus Rift products have received rave reviews. The units are not being sold yet, but the company has secured US$91 million in investment. The consumer version should be available towards the end of 2014.
California-based Equinix dominates the data centre market with more than 90% of the peer IP traffic of global internet routes. Platform Equinix serves more than 4,000 businesses worldwide ranging from financial institutions to telecom operators using 100 neutral data centres in 15 countries. Executive Chairman Peter Van Camp has described the Equinix Internet Exchanges (IBXs) as “international airports where passengers from many different airlines make connections to get to their final destinations”. Demand for Equinix services has rocketed and given the tremendous growth of the global data centre, the company is poised to expand rapidly.
Netflix reinvented how we rent movies. But once on-demand streaming became available, their stock fell dramatically in 2012. Netflix, however, rebounded in 2013, attracting millions of new subscribers. With more than 40 million customers and an aggressive overseas expansion plan, Netflix will remain a force. It is determined not to stand still. It has had great success with developing exclusive web-based content and has floated the idea of paying for movies that open in cinemas and online on the same day.
Japanese tech giant Canon is a household name for its cameras, but is also the world’s leading supplier of copying machines, laser printers and paper management systems. Regular innovation has maintained continuous growth since 2007 and it received 3,825 US patents in 2013, the most for a Japanese company. Much of Canon’s R&D is now focusing on optical technology and imaging.
The Swedish company recently announced the creation of a joint innovation lab with Facebook called the Internet.org Innovation Lab. It will open in the second half of 2014 on Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, California, and will aim to find a way to make internet access available to all. Ericsson will provide the ability to simulate different network environments, allowing developers to test mobile applications and services.
Qualcomm is by far the biggest provider of mobile phone chips and recently passed Intel Corp as the largest semiconductor company by market value. Qualcomm is a major supplier to smartphone leaders Apple and Samsung and gets royalties for every 3G and 4G device sold. It is also busy improving wireless standards so mobile networks can handle more data.
Dropbox was the first company to get close to perfecting cloud file storage and now has close to 200 million users and a US$10 billion valuation. Around one in seven adults in the US are using online storage service and Dropbox has the largest market share, followed by Apple’s iCloud. Dropbox claims more business customers than Huddle, or Box. Its customers praise Dropbox’s tools as being the easiest to use. The company is attracting some of the best engineers and more innovations will follow.
32. ARM Holdings
The British tech giant has expanded in tandem with smartphones. Although not a household name, ARM produces a microprocessor found in six billion mobile phones. The smartphone market is unpredictable, but ARM says there’s a lot of growth in other products, such as wearable technology and products for the ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’. Two new items are a smartwatch synchronized to mobiles and the Fitbit which tracks physical activity.
‘General Electric will invest more than US$15 billion in innovation by the end of 2015. Its eight R&D labs around the world employ more than 3,000 scientists and engineers’
The security and website optimization service provider grew by 400% in 2013. Although not a household name, the San Francisco-based company handles 5% of global web traffic. More than just a content delivery network, it optimizes huge chunks of the web for delivery, screening out hackers and providing analytics. China is CloudFlare’s second largest market, and Brazil its third. It is now adding data centres in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia.
Founded in 2000, the British app is one of the 10 most downloaded apps for the iPhone, with 420 million users worldwide and 15 million new users a month. Shazam allows smartphone users to identify music on TV and the radio. If they download the music, Shazam gets a small cut. Last year, Shazam didn’t make money, but intends to float in the US for at least US$1billion next year.
The ‘Google of China’ has a 60% share of the country’s search engine market, even though competitors like Sogou and Soso have eaten into its market share. Baidu’s founder Robin Li called on employees two years ago to demonstrate “wolf spirit”, meaning taking risks and innovating. His call has been heeded. The company has invested heavily in development and begun to move from software into hardware with new brand Xiaodu. For example, it has launched a Wi-Fi–controlled camera called Xiaodu iErmu, which records streaming video and stores it in the cloud.
California startup Ayasdi has made a big impression in big data analysis since launching in January 2013. The company has produced breakthrough work revealing genetic traits of cancer survivors, tracing the source of an E. coli outbreak, and helping the Institute for the Study of War discover patterns in terrorist behaviour in Iraq. It has raised US$30.6 million in funding from high-profile investors, including General Electric and Citi. These giants are intrigued by Ayasdi’s unique method, which uses advanced mathematics, statistics and machine learning to discover information from data automatically. Ayasdi likes to say it gives answers to questions you didn’t know you had.
A startup in 2010, Xiaomi leapfrogged more established rivals such as Lenovo thanks to aggressively priced budget smartphones. It sold more than 20 million last year to become China’s second-largest Android phone seller behind Samsung. Rather than ripping off rivals, Xiaomi develops its own brands and designs, giving it enough credibility to attract Hugo Barra, a former Head of Product Management at Google’s Android mobile unit. Barra says the company will one day be as big as Google and Apple.
Nairobi’s iHub is an innovation hub and hacker space for the technology community. The iHub has built an ecosystem to benefit Kenyan entrepreneurs, investors and tech companies. One of Africa’s most successful companies, it has grown 500% since 2010. The key is Open Innovation – the art of combining both internal and external ideas and internal and external paths to market.
The San Francisco-based company manufactures fitness trackers, a hot area of technology with great potential for innovation. A wealth of functionality is possible. In five to 10 years, there could be FitBit products customised to medical needs, alongside recreational devices and data-orientated ones. FitBit’s designers also envision that one day their products could be married with smartwatches.
As broadcasters look to make 4K video mainstream, equipment-makers are searching for new ways to handle technical issues, as well as lower costs. Altera’s technological innovations solve a lot of the complex problems. The Silicon Valley manufacturer is also a leader in the manufacture of programmable logic devices (PLD) and reconfigurable complex digital circuits.
Founded in 1982, Symantec is an information protection expert that helps individuals, businesses and governments to secure their data. Although its Norton products are household names, two-thirds of revenue comes from selling enterprise software to companies and large organizations. Ninety-nine percent of Fortune 500 companies are Symantec customers. Its 20,000 employees work in more than 50 countries.
San Francisco’s social network GitHub is not for sharing photos and pleasantries. Dubbed “Facebook for geeks”, it is a place where software developers can store, share, and update projects in computer languages such as Java and Python. With close to four million users worldwide, GitHub facilitates innovation beyond the restrictions of geography, or established companies.
Snapchat is a mobile service that allows users to send pictures and videos that self-destruct after a short time. Senders set the time limit of between one and 10 seconds. Since two Stanford students launched it in September 2011, Snapchat has been one of the fastest growing apps. In November, the company turned down a US$3 billion cash offer from Facebook. The messaging app had been valued at US$4 billion, so perhaps we should not be surprised.
Line is Japan’s largest social network and competes globally with messaging apps like WhatsApp and China’s WeChat. Since its launch in 2011, Line has accumulated 300 million registered users. In Japan, it dominates the market with 50 million users and has become a major force in the gaming market. Line initiated the trend for ‘stickers’ – copied by Facebook and Path. The US remains tough to crack, but Line is looking to Taiwan, Thailand and Latin America for more customers.
In India, people often communicate by calling briefly, then hanging up so they don’t use pre-paid minutes. The call might mean “call me back”, or “I’ve arrived safely”. Indian company ZipDial has found a way to monetize the habit. It gives special numbers to companies to print on ads. Consumers call the numbers and then get a text, or call, in return. ZipDial sees huge potential for growth in other Asian nations, such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and in South East Asia.
The McKinsey Global Institute says the IoT will have an economic impact of US$2.7 trillion to US$6.2 trillion annually by 2025 by which time 80% to 100% of all manufacturing could be using IoT applications. The Massachusetts technology company positioned itself to profit from this growth market by acquiring ThingWorx – creators of an award-winning platform for IoT apps – for US$112 million in 2013.
47. Acuity Brands
North America’s leading lighting company, Acuity Brands sells lighting controls with nearly all its LED lights. Embedding smart digital systems into lights means, for example, that outdoor spaces are not lit when not in use. In the energy-conscious modern world, this gives the company more potential for growth than rival Cree which is more of a pure LED player. Controls make anything from a car park to an entire university campus more energy-efficient.
48. XL Hybrids
XL Hybrids is developing technologies to transform our energy future. Its XL3 hybrid electric drive system meets sustainability goals by increasing miles per gallon by 25% and reducing fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions by 20%. For new Class 1 to 4 commercial fleets, the system is installed in just five hours. Customers include Coca-Cola and FedEx.
The French telecommunications giant has operations in 130 countries, but after seven years of negative cash flows, is cutting 10,000 employees from its 72,000 workforce. Alcatel-Lucent’s inventiveness, however, is not in doubt. At Bell Laboratories, its R&D subsidiary in New Jersey, researchers have developed radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, and various programming languages. Bell Labs has won seven Nobel Prizes and the company holds more than 29,000 patents.
Sales at the enterprise cloud-based storage company grew by 150% last year, giving it easily the largest market share. It now has 20 million users across 180,000 businesses. The core is based on sharing, collaborating, and working with uploaded files. Three accounts – enterprise, business and personal – are available. Depending on the account, Box offers unlimited storage, custom branding and administrative controls.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Bob West on flickr