The most successful Internet company of our time turns 16 this year. Much like a teenager trying on various identities, it’s determined to be more than a search engine, although Google is best known for that deceptively simple function, and more than an advertising platform, although the vast majority of its revenue comes from ads.
As the cost per click–the rate advertisers pay for an online ad–continues declining, Google is pursuing projects that could reinvent the company–and society. For its breadth, ambition, and relentless spirit to keep creating the future, Google tops our 2014 list of the Most Innovative Companies in business. This is the second time that Google has earned the No. 1 spot. The last time was in 2008.
Many of its current projects or milestones are life-changing, or aim to be:
Calico, a spin-off company, working to extend the human lifespan.
Google’s autonomous vehicles, which reached the 500,000 driver-free mile benchmark–incident-free.
Google Fiber, which is bringing gigabit Internet service to Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah, inspiring Los Angeles and Louisville, Kentucky, to follow.
And much of Google’s work changes our daily lives through shear convenience:
Glass, which is making wearables the next computing trend.
Shopping Express, an experiment in same-day delivery with national and local retailers.
Google Now, which reminds users when their favorite band or author has a new release and when the last train is leaving–before it’s too late.
Dropbox doubled its users last year, from 100 million to 200 million. How? By constantly expanding itself into people’s digital lives (while fending off the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others). “We want you to be able to say, ‘I know where all my information is–it’s in Dropbox. Everywhere I go, whatever device, whatever application, I know that I can pull things out of it,'” says product manager Sean Lynch.
That convenience is the result of several new tools, such as Saver and Chooser. These make it easy for any app (Yahoo Mail is a big one) to integrate with Dropbox, letting users save or retrieve files directly through Dropbox. Its new Datastore service syncs app data among multiple devices–meaning if you’re playing a game on an iPad, you can switch over to a smartphone and resume at the same point.
Once marketed primarily to consumers, Dropbox has begun to court business users by adding project-management features for workplace teams. In November, it launched a new product that allows users to access personal and business storage from within the same account and allows employers to prevent unauthorized file sharing. For now, Dropbox remains private, supported by a who’s who of venture capital firms–and valued at $10 billion.
What does it mean to be an innovator? Our editors debated many companies–and and throughout the list, we’re running some of their discussions. This is how we settled on Netflix.
NAY: I get it–Netflix shows are good. So? HBO has been making good shows for years.
YEA: You miss the point. Original programming creates leverage with studios to get premium content likeThe Avengers.
NAY: That didn’t stop it from losing the rights to 90-odd titles in 2013, including Titanic. The irony!
YEA: Netflix isn’t sinking–it’s making waves. It has turned the TV network into an app, available on any device. Every channel, plus Amazon and Yahoo, are now following.
NAY: Like HBO Go, which came out three years ago?
YEA: Go was HBO’s Netflix. This isn’t just about delivery; it’s about content. Rivals, including HBO, are mimicking Netflix by ordering series made for binge-watching. It’s the era of the 13-hour movie, no cliff-hangers or act breaks required.
NAY: House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black had cliff-hangers.
YEA: The better to make you binge-watch. Arrested Development didn’t, though. It was the kind of thing only Netflix could pull off. Form-breaking TV is just getting started.
NAY: Maybe I’m angry because I still pay for cable.
Successfully applying a proven model in a new context is innovative. Netflix added its own bravura to the cable-TV formula of growing through original programming, along the way strengthening its business, creating new freedom for TV showrunners, and cementing binge-viewing into the cultural landscape.
Nike’s most exciting new product last year wasn’t a LeBron James sneaker (although the 11s are pretty sweet). It was an app called Making that helps companies measure the environmental impact of using different materials–which made up approximately 60% of Nike’s footprint and spurred the creation of the app. “Before, if you asked, ‘Which is better, hemp or cotton?’ nobody had that at hand,” says Hannah Jones, Nike’s VP of sustainable business and innovation. “We created this enormous database of materials and turned it into an index for the entire industry.” Released last summer, the app evolved out of Nike’s push to eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals in the creation of its products by 2020 and has been incorporated into the curriculum at two design schools and downloaded in 23 countries.
The company also expanded its ambitious Launch program, which it created with NASA and the State Department. Hundreds of key players in the materials ecosystem come together to discover, incubate, and accelerate companies developing innovative materials to be used on a wide scale to address global issues in the space. “Sustainability can’t be just a single product line,” says Jones. “It has to be across everything we do.”
With $452 million distributed in 2013, Bloomberg Philanthropies is among the largest foundations in the United States, but it distinguishes itself by acting as its namesake, Michael Bloomberg, does–with sophisticated, data-driven solutions for every step of the process, from identifying priorities to monitoring progress to scaling pragmatic solutions. As a result, the foundation has been extraordinarily effective.
Bloomberg data wonks have ranked the top 10 global causes of death. By focusing on tobacco control, they address 60% of deaths on the list. And by concentrating on the countries that together contained two-thirds of the world’s smokers, Bloomberg positions itself for maximum impact.
The foundation also spurs others to innovate. Its inaugural Mayors Challenge last year challenged U.S. cities to come up with solutions that could be applied throughout the country or the world. Chicago, one of five winners, received $1 million to implement an open-source, real-time analytics platform. By looking for trends in the city’s daily 7 million new data points, it acts as an early-warning system, enabling officials to be proactive about health care, weather, and traffic emergencies. This year, Bloomberg’s ideas competition is for European cities.
In January, data pointed the foundation to a new area. Bloomberg committed $53 million over five years to take on overfishing in Brazil, the Philippines, and Chile. This is the largest philanthropic effort yet to reform the management of international fisheries. The goal is rejuvenating 7% of the world’s fisheries and, more importantly, creating a model to protect the threatened global fish supply anywhere it’s needed.
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