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Updates From Our Most Innovative Companies

Roku takes over smart TV operating systems, 23andMe revolutionizes research, and more.

Updates From Our Most Innovative Companies

Roku

As it introduces its next generation of TV sticks and players this fall, the country’s most popular enabler of cord cutting is already thinking beyond set-top boxes. Roku today commands 49% of the U.S. streaming-device market, ahead of Google and Amazon. But behind the scenes, the hardware maker is steadily becoming more of a streaming platform, an interesting move considering Roku’s origins as a Netflix spin-out in 2008. In the past two years, cable providers, including Time Warner, Charter, and, soon, Comcast, have added their own streaming services, and dozens of new TV shows, on Roku, making the platform even more of a one-stop shop for television. Meanwhile, smart-TV makers such as Sharp, Insignia, and Hisense have installed Roku’s in the back ends of their products, giving users access to Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu, and more. "We believe that the [operating system] phenomenon is now happening with TVs," says Roku CEO Anthony Wood. "Our business is to distribute our system to as many TV screens as we can and then monetize that base." The early results are promising: Just two years into its smart-TV efforts, Roku claims 15% of the market (behind Google’s 18%) and has seen its media and licensing sector grow from 20% to 44% of gross profit. And with 10.6 million subscribers across cable, TV, and devices, Roku can sell valuable demographic data to advertisers and marketers eager to reach cord cutters. "One aspect that’s an advantage for us is we’re a neutral party, we don’t make our own content," says Wood. "We’re a level playing field for content providers to compete on." —Nikita Richardson

[Illustration: Kuocheng Liao]

Milestones: In September, Roku landed in Asia, announcing a licensing deal with PLDT, the Philippines’ largest telecom company.

Challenges: Google’s Chromecast device is growing more powerful, thanks to full integration with its Chrome web browser and the release earlier this fall of a new 4K-enabled version of the device.

Buzz: Positive

Digging deeper: 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki wants scientists to use her genomic database to scale research.

23Andme

This past August, with backing from Pfizer, researchers from 23andMe and Massachusetts General Hospital sent a ripple through the scientific community with the announcement that they had identified several genetic markers associated with depression, ending years of frustrated efforts to locate the genetic risks for the pervasive mental illness. Just as significant: The study was based on data from more than 120,000 people who had reported a diagnosis of depression to 23andMe, the genetics testing-kit company that has become a hit with people searching for their personal history in their DNA. A study of this size "wouldn’t have been possible before," says 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki. "We’re hoping to enable a kind of research that has never been done." The Silicon Valley company has come a long way since 2013, when federal regulators ordered Wojcicki and her team to stop marketing its at-home genomics service. Today, it is working closely with the Food and Drug Administration to share select genetic-derived health reports directly with consumers—without a doctor’s note. The vast majority of 23andMe’s 1.2 million customers, who sign up for an at-home genetic test, agree to participate in research studies and surveys. So far, they’ve answered more than 350 million survey questions. The company says the scientific community is now waking up to the potential of this database, though 23andMe has been engaging in research projects for years. "Research studies don’t normally have hundreds of thousands of people," says Wojcicki. "We can help with that." —Christina Farr

Milestones: 23andMe’s new Genotyping Services for Research program has made it possible for scientists to access customer data for their own studies.

Challenges: Some customers are wondering whether they should receive compensation for making their DNA available to researchers.

Buzz: Positive

HTC

Milestones: Consumer electronics maker HTC is capitalizing on the success of its Vive virtual-reality device; it recently turned the division into a wholly owned subsidiary and launched a new $100 million VR accelerator.

Challenges: The company faces wider financial issues, and with revenue down 44% year over year, sales of its new HTC 10 phone continue to flag. In August, T-Mobile stopped selling the phone after just two months.

Buzz: Neutral

SalesForce

Milestones: In Septem­ber, the sales software maker announced Einstein, a new suite of AI-enabled products designed to help clients by predicting the most promising sales leads and alerting them when a competitor hones in on their territory.

Challenges: Salesforce hopes to fend off both Oracle and Microsoft, which recently beat out the company to purchase LinkedIn for $26.2 billion.

Buzz: Positive

WeWork

Milestones: In an effort to build more long-term relationships with clients, coworking-space startup WeWork is experimenting with a yearlong lease option with a significant discount.

Challenges: After cutting its profit forecast by 78%, an internal memo from CEO Adam Neumann recently urged employees to save energy, reduce the number of expensed meals, and take other cost-cutting measures.

Buzz: Neutral

Sony

Milestones: This month, Sony will release a new 4K- and high-dynamic range-enabled Pro version of its popular PS4 console in a bid to attract players looking for higher-quality gaming experiences.

Challenges: Sony follows in the footsteps of rival Microsoft and its Xbox One S console (released earlier this year) and, with future iterations, promises to feature more powerful graphic-rendering software than the PS4 Pro.

Buzz: Positive

Kind Bars' new fruit bars

Kind Snacks

Milestones: In August, Kind became the first snack manufacturer to break out its added sugar numbers, two years ahead of the FDA’s deadline to publish such information. Meanwhile, the company is rolling out new fruit bars that contain between 14% and 56% less added sugar than prior recipes.

Challenges: With U.S. sales of energy and nutrition bars hitting $2.5 billion in 2015, big players Pepsi­Co and Hershey are joining the fray with their own healthy snack brands.

Buzz: Neutral

Coursera

Milestones: Looking to diversify its user base and find new revenue streams, online education site Coursera recently launched Coursera for Business, which companies such as L’Oréal, Axis Bank, and BCG will use to train their employees and enroll new talent.

Challenges: Coursera is still struggling to become profitable, as many people use its online courses for free, and is running up against competitors such as Harvard Business School and Udacity for the same customers.

Buzz: Negative

Tala (Inventure)

Milestones: Originally focused on offering short-term, credit-building loans to people in Africa and India, InVenture has taken a new name, Tala, and shifted to mobile banking services, allowing users to make and send payments and track their credit score in real time.

Challenges: Tala is still relatively small and has yet to reach the size or potential of African mobile payments juggernauts like Safaricom’s M-Pesa, which currently has more than 20 million users in Kenya.

Buzz: Positive

Equinox

Milestones: Equinox has hired Four Seasons exec Chris Norton as the first CEO of its forthcoming luxury hotel brand, due in 2019. Earlier this summer, Equinox also tapped Generator Hostels founder Josh Wyatt as the hotel’s president.

Challenges: With the first hotel’s grand opening still nearly three years away, the gym brand must maintain its momentum to avoid playing catch-up with other wellness-themed brands, including Barry Sternlicht’s growing 1 Hotels, which feature SoulCycle studios.

Buzz: Positive

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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