Brazil’s 10 Most Innovative Companies

How a low-cost airline, a pioneer in tropical agriculture, the maker of an affordable solar-powered hearing aid, and others are leading the way in South America.


01 / Azul >>

For converting bus riders into frequent fliers. Brazilian-born David Neeleman, founder of Jet Blue, brought the low-cost airline model to his home country and tweaked it to fit its nuances. About a quarter of the flights cost less than the same trip on the bus–and passengers without credit cards or with low credit limits can pay by direct bank withdrawal or in installments.

02 / Ambev

For leading the merger that formed the world’s largest brewer. When Belgian brewer Interbrew teamed up with this company to form Inbev, the boys from Brazil quickly initiated takeovers of giants such as Anheuser-Busch and Burger King. Ambev, best known for its signature beer brands Skol, Brahma, and Antártica, as well as the wildly popular soft drink Guaraná Antártica, is the conglomerate’s Latin American property and operates in 14 countries.

03 / Petrobras

For becoming the world leader in ultra-deepwater drilling. While many oil majors were content to skim the easy stuff when oil was cheap in the roaring ’90s, Petrobras invested heavily in bluewater oil deposits, using cutting edge seismic sonar to find oil and developing innovative rigs, pipes, and pumps to retrieve it from the ocean bottom. It now controls 14 ultra deepwater rigs worldwide. It’s also the sole operator in Brazil, where massive reserves of oil were recently found buried off the Atlantic coast.


04 / Osklen

For designing clothing that’s both chic and sustainable. To manufacture its chic sportswear, the company has experimented with everything from handmade silk to leather from sweet water fish to latex from the Amazon. The clothier now touts store in five countries; its second U.S. outlet opened in South Beach in 2010.

05 / Embrapa

For pioneering innovations in tropical agriculture. In 2010, Embrapa employed traditional techniques to boost vitamin content in banana, beans, corn, manioc, and squash. It also used gene splicing to increase disease resistance in papaya and beans, and up the energy content of sugar cane, Brazil’s ethanol source. Recently, Embrapa launched a Brazil-Africa partnership to share agricultural technology.

06 / Gerdau

For responding with speed and smarts to shifts in the market for steel. The most international of Brazil’s steelmakers doubled down during the recession, investing $750 billion in new plants and modernization and rescaled production to concentrate on supplying emerging markets in Asia and Latin America, which continue to grow as the richest countries struggle.


07 / Natura

For growing a green empire with Brazilian flora. Brazil’s largest beauty and personal care products company relies on local plants for its cosmetics and personal care products, uses recycled materials in its packaging, and supports environmental projects in the country.

08 / Embraer

For challenging the outsourcing model in the aviation industry. The brainchild of Brazilian engineering geeks and military technocrats, Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica, better known as Embraer, “stood the outsourcing model on its head,” in the words of emerging market analyst Antoine van Agtmael, by importing the world’s best avionics parts and ginning them to a flying machine designed by Brazilians, instead of Boeing or Airbus.

09 / Metalfrio Solutions

For identifying and exploiting a profitable niche. While larger electronics and white goods manufacturers dominate world markets by offering a broad range of products, Metalfrio decided to pour its efforts and R&D into one good thing: plug-in refrigerators, coolers, and freezers for business establishments.


10 / Solar Ear

For making hearing aids affordable. Two-thirds of the world’s 600 million hearing-impaired people live in poor countries, but the batteries that run most hearing aids cost $1 and last less than two weeks. Recognizing this problem, retired Canadian appliance dealer Howard Weinstein developed the world’s first digital solar-powered rechargeable hearing aid, which costs a fifth the price of standard equipment. His Sao Paulo-based not-for-profit, whose employees are all hearing-impaired, now ships to 30 countries.

Browse our list of The World’s Most Innovative Companies 2011