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The 10 most innovative small and mighty companies of 2021

Here’s why Bookshop, Bubble, Tractor Beverage Co., Pledge, and more are our top picks for this vibrant new category.

The 10 most innovative small and mighty companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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For the first time in Most Innovative Companies history, we decided this year to showcase organizations with fewer than 50 employees. Initially, we thought that this inaugural Small and Mighty list would be a nice venue for recognizing companies that are driven by an audacious idea, but whose impact is still nascent. Ultimately, however, we were blown away by the way in which these organizations have punched well above their weight, from creating a new kind of insurance product to slaking our to-go order thirst to giving us a viable digital bookseller that’s an Amazon alternative.

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1. Thimble

For selling insurance by the pound

Thimble, which launched in 2019 (after an earlier incarnation as Verifly, a drone insurance provider), offers small businesses instant, flexible insurance policies, reinventing both the process and the product. Tell Thimble where you’re located, the work you’re doing, if you’re licensed, and how long you need insurance, and if the company offers this kind of coverage, it will spit out a quote in less than a minute. The policies are offered on demand, and they can last one hour, a day, a week (depending on the type of insurance), or via monthly or annual subscription. The price goes down in subsequent months. Coverage can be paused, upgraded, or canceled without penalty, and the company serves more than 200 job types. In July 2020, Thimble introduced its API so that its insurance could be offered on marketplaces such as Angie’s List. The New York-based startup also partnered with Hiscox, ostensibly its rival, to sell Hiscox customers Thimble’s on-demand insurance services. These deals and product enhancements helped the company grow revenue 128% year over year, and since its inception, it has sold more than $175 billion in coverage.

2. Pledge

For transforming Zoom gatherings into charity fundraising opportunities

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Pledge offers tools that enable anyone to raise funds for their preferred nonprofits. Originally designed for businesses to raise money easily for charitable causes, in the wake of the pandemic, the company extended Pledge to be available to everyone for free for all fundraising. It integrated with Zoom so that virtual events could become fundraising opportunities, and it built dedicated tools for individuals, including text-based fundraising. For its core corporate customers, it offers such features as checkout-based solutions for rounding up to donate or just adding a donation while going through the payment process. Pledge runs impact programs for more than 4,000 businesses and supports more than 2 million not-for-profit organizations. Transaction volume doubled in 2020; it attracted over half a million individual donors, and well over 150,000 virtual events included Pledge-powered fundraising, from the OutsideLands’ 2020 festival, dubbed “InsideLands,” to Ringo Starr’s 80th birthday party, which raised money for Black Lives Matter, the David Lynch Foundation, MusiCares, and WaterAid.

3. Bookshop.org

For offering book shoppers a happy alternative

Bookshop.org is an online bookstore that launched in January, 2020 with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. Here’s how it works: Bookstores—the site has partnered with more than a thousand in the United States—set up their own curated storefronts on Bookshop for free, and they receive 30% of sales made through those storefronts—reaping the entire profits. Customers, particularly those loathe to support Amazon, can shop millions of titles directly on the site. Bookshop allocates 10% of the cover price from purchases not affiliated with a particular storefront to a profit-sharing pool for independent bookstores. The Brooklyn-based Benefit Corporation raised more than $11 million for indie bookstores and welcomes more than 2 million visitors per month. During the pandemic, Bookshop has proved a lifeline for many local booksellers, which are poised to emerge as vital community hubs when lockdowns lift.

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4. OnSite Waste Technologies

For making medical waste more easily disposable

OnSite Waste Technologies has created a connected device that can turn regulated medical waste, such as used syringes, into normal trash, which saves customers money and makes workplaces safer. TE-5000 is an IOT device that uses heat to sterilize and destroy waste and tracks customers’ waste processing. The California-based company’s subscription model costs 25% to 70% less than the traditional waste-hauling model, takes care of customers’ regulatory paperwork, and maintains container inventory via an auto-replenish model. Onsite Waste says it doubled its business a couple times in 2020 and should end the year with almost 1,000 units in the market.

5. Bubble

For enabling anyone, not just engineers, to build apps

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Bubble is a “no-code” web application development platform that empowers people without programming skills to design, develop, and launch their own marketplaces, web products, or tools for solving their business problems. Bubble features more than 1,000 integrations and plugins that extend the core functionality of the platform; last year the New York City-based company built and supported several major no-code integrations, including Airtable, Figma, and Zoom. Bubble says there were 15 times the number of new monthly paying customers on the platform in November 2020 vs. November 2019, with annual revenue having increased by 240% year over year. Since April, the company has held more than 100 app-building bootcamps for more than 1,000 students worldwide and released more than 50 free tutorials.

6. XP Health

For training the focus on a new era of corporate benefits

XP Health is the world’s only AI-powered vision benefits platform covering employees and their families, helping companies provide 10X better coverage at a fraction of the cost. The company started 2020 by offering vision care services (from eye exams to finished glasses in one hour) to employees working in-person at such companies as Zoom, Twilio, Udemy, Chegg, Zenefits. When the pandemic hit and sales plummeted quickly to zero, XP Health created a “convolutional neural network” that uses computer vision techniques compatible with a smartphone or desktop camera to measure the unique facial dimensions and pupillary distance between the eyes of each client. Each client then receives personalized eyewear recommendations online, selected glasses frames delivered to their home for in-person trial, and next-day delivery of their new prescription or protective eyewear. Since launching this new online platform in July, XP Health, which is based in Redwood, CA and has fewer than five employees, has multiplied its client base three times and seen 1,250% more glasses sold per corporate client, compared to its original onsite business model. Meanwhile, XP Health’s clients, which have more 10,000 employees combined, claim a $70,000 productivity increase for every 100 employees; more than $250 in eyewear savings per employee; and a 99% employee approval rating.

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7. Zenernet

For reflecting what users want from a solar energy company

Solar power has been gaining ground among homeowners for years, but barriers to adoption persist even for the most interested parties, particularly the hassle of installation and opaque pricing structures. During the pandemic, these factors became even more of an obstacle. But Zenernet, a four-year old company founded in Kansas City, spent 2020 overcoming them, making solar energy more practical, affordable, and transparent for more people. The company embraced remote sales early, enabling a greater rapport between consultants and homeowners. Virtual home visits eliminated the need for a technicians’s onsite measurements and proved both faster and more accurate (and led to a nearly 100% completion rate). Zenernet also became the first to introduce a modular pricing structure and instant, firm quote, based on a users’ address and energy usage. Customers responded to its user-friendly focus and commitment to transparency: Year over year sales were up 45% in 2020, while revenue ($9.4 million) was up 88%.

8. Tractor Beverage Co.

For quenching our thirst for a better-for-you restaurant beverage

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The Idaho-based startup, created by an organic farmer, sells certified organic, non-GMO drinks, both carbonated and non-carbonated, and free of artificial flavors and preservatives. It sells them to restaurants, offering unconventional flavors such as orange blossom and spice, cucumber, and lemongrass. Tractor Beverage Co. also differentiates itself by selling its drinks as concentrates, eliminating cost and waste for its vendors. Tractor’s offerings had started to find an audience in several hundred fast-casual restaurants, such as Jose Andres’ Beefsteak and PokeWorks, but then the pandemic-related shut down of most dine-in services forced both Tractor and its customers to adapt. The company developed its first packaged drinks, in resealable bottles, for Chipotle in just eight weeks. The bottled teas, lemonades, and agua frescas gave the burrito slinger an easy add-on option to its takeout and delivery orders, increasing the average check size and helping Chipotle double digital sales year over year compared with 2019, more than $2.5 billion. It also enabled all its customers to self-fill bottles for its to-go orders, supplying the empties and improving their margins on drink sales. Tractor is now selling 300,000 drinks a day from 3,500 “pouring partners,” and sales of its drinks grew 475% in 2020.

9. Tonic.ai

For parsing big data

As companies large and small accumulate petabytes of data from users, they have to deal with several layers of complexity around how to use it most effectively, from adhering to regulatory requirements to managing data that lives in different parts of a company’s ecosystem. Tonic.ai is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of data synthesis, helping customers create a representative subset of their data from multiple databases, which speeds product development and testing while preserving customer privacy. Developers can then create new products—in fields from healthcare to edtech to e-commerce—without exposing any data, either to those working with it or putting it at risk of a breach. (Tonic.ai also sets up its platform on premise as a matter of course, to further mitigate any data vulnerability.) Customers include eBay, Flexport, and PwC, and 2020 revenue grew several hundred percent from 2019.

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10. Harbinger Ventures

For investing in the future

The future is female, and Harbinger Ventures is betting on female entrepreneurs (or mixed-gender founding teams) in addition to focusing on early-stage consumer brands in underserved niches. Harbinger’s portfolio is designed both to deliver consistent, upper-quartile returns and cross-pollinate in a way that enhances the overall value of all the companies. In 2020, Harbinger decided on the novel approach of giving each founder it works with equity in the total fund, creating an incentive for them to find ways to collaborate. For example, Usual Wines, which sells high-quality, single-serving wines in elegant bottles, partnered with fellow Harbinger-backed oenophile discovery brand Vinebox for a limited-edition “12 Nights of Wine” holiday package that quickly sold out. In addition to backing female-led teams, Harbinger also has made a concerted effort to add female board leadership to its portfolio companies, which notably include Jennifer Garner’s Once Upon a Farm food startup. Fifty-seven percent of the board members across the companies it backs are female, and portfolio companies grew revenue more than 50% in 2020.