I SAT DOWN with the head of a major Hollywood studio this week, at a chic and exclusive destination in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, and he plied me with tales of intrigue, drama, sudden collapse, and heartfelt resurgence. No, he wasn't pitching upcoming releases; he was telling me about his studio's business over the past year. It was a compelling saga, full of twists and characters and exotic foreign locales. Perhaps in a subsequent issue of Fast Company, you'll get to read all about it.
His drama couldn't unseat the business story of the year, though, which undoubtedly is Apple. How long before we see a film version of "The Invincible Apple" (which is the cover line we used last summer to capture Apple's triumphs)? Imagine Daniel Day-Lewis as Steve Jobs, struggling with health ailments, yet still zooming past his old rivals at Microsoft! The iPhone 4 gets crushing reviews from Consumer Reports — and still sells like hotcakes! The iPad is ridiculed as a terrible name (remember those blogs?), yet becomes a ubiquitous cultural touchstone that spawns a new app ecosystem. In putting together this month's special package on the 2011 Most Innovative Companies, we really had no choice: Apple had to be No. 1.
There were other stories of the year, not least of which is the No. 1 from our 2010 list, Facebook. Founder Mark Zuckerberg deftly sidestepped the distractions of The Social Network, calmly guiding his company to an estimated $2 billion in revenue and a $50 billion valuation. Then there's Groupon's snubbing of Google — and its charge toward a mega IPO.
But it takes more than a good story to earn a spot on our Most Innovative Companies list. No algorithm can adequately compare a worldwide auto business like Nissan (No. 4 this year) with a small, New York — based not-for-profit like DonorsChoose.org (No. 21). Still, both have done extraordinary things in very different areas.
The goal of our list is to represent the breadth of innovation across the economy — and to inspire our readers to engage with it. We try to include surprises, which is one reason we are biased against repeating businesses that have been on the list before. Is a company like China's Changchun Dacheng Industrial Group (No. 46) really more innovative than Hulu or Disney (neither of which made the list this year, though they are highlighted in Updates, beginning on page 18)? Tough call, yet Changchun Dacheng allows us to highlight how sophisticated Chinese manufacturing, science, and eco-industry have become — a larger point that is more important than any one company.
Think of our Most Innovative Companies list as a tool we're using to deliver key information about innovation across the globe. And if 50 companies aren't enough for you — plus the 32 in Updates, and 88 more in our Apple gatefold on page 71 — check out our Top 10 lists: the 10 most innovative companies in 26 categories, from Brazil to biotech. On page 126, you'll see brief write-ups on six of those categories, and over the coming weeks we'll present fuller coverage on all of them on FastCompany.com. The combined experience, in print and digital — well, we hope it's a hit.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.