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Letter from the Editor: The Secrets of Innovation
20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection
20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection

I cannot reveal the details of the proprietary algorithm that underlies our Most Innovative Companies list. It isn't because I'd have to kill you afterward. Truth is: It doesn't exist.

What makes a company innovative is a question debated by professors and management gurus, with no clear resolution. At Fast Company, we grapple with it every issue and with each online post. For our annual Most Innovative Companies package, we amass and assess information on thousands of businesses, looking for creative models, real-world impact, far-sighted risk taking, and paradigm-busting execution.

We vetted our selections the way an investment firm would vet its portfolio: We set up a committee that heard arguments for and against each candidate. There were statistical submissions and impassioned essays, oral reports and head-to-head debates. We gradually, and sometimes grudgingly, squeezed our way down to 50 companies. We could not deny Facebook, which after establishing both itself and the concept of social media, added 200 million users in a year, turned cash-flow positive, and now has its sights set on Google. (See "#1 Facebook" for senior writer Ellen McGirt's inside account of why Facebook ranks No. 1.) We embraced Novartis, in light of the H1N1 threat, for its long-term investment in vaccines and its adoption of cell-based technology that allows faster development and mass production. We decided to highlight Spotify, a music-streaming site not yet available in the United States but strong in the U.K., and the Indian Premier League, which has built a billion-dollar business on a speedier version of cricket.

We found so many inspiring examples that we couldn't include them all. So we created top 10 lists of the most innovative companies in 24 categories, some of them expanded on Among them are businesses such as Ctrip, which is revolutionizing the travel industry in China; STX Europe (formerly Aker Yards), which built the world's largest ocean liner; and Intuitive Surgical, maker of the world's foremost robotic system for soft-tissue operations.

For me personally, it was invigorating to engage with so many exciting new ideas and developments. Our goal was to give a snapshot of the creativity at work in the global marketplace, and I hope looking through our efforts gets your synapses crackling. We encourage you to share your opinions about our selections and our rankings, whether via the email address below or in the comment areas on our Web site. That is the beauty and fun of innovation: It is no one's to own and all of ours to debate — and to try to move forward.

One of the most insightful comments in this issue comes from the chairman of Taiwan-based HTC, maker of Android cell phones, including Google's Nexus One. Cher Wang, who cofounded HTC 13 years ago, is unexpectedly candid about how her faith has made an impact on her business, citing the Book of Proverbs in her interview. Yet she also offers this very secular — and instructive — observation: "What you have learned is never enough."

That spirit, more than any algorithm, defines what this list, and Fast Company itself, is all about.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.