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The 10 most innovative North American companies

From a children’s book publisher to a premium whiskey distiller, these companies are taking on the toughest societal challenges from within their industries.

The 10 most innovative North American companies
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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Our inaugural North American list features innovative companies that span the continent. They’re based in places like New York, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Colorado, and Mexico City. But each one is working on problems that are inherent to the region. From educating children on injustices, to getting things like solar energy, fresh produce, and COVID-19 tests into peoples’ homes, these companies are making resources more accessible and improving the quality of life on this continent.

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1. Chobani

For innovating its product line while standing by its stakeholder model, even during COVID-19

Chobani stuck by its stakeholders during the pandemic, providing paid time off, a $100 per day childcare subsidy, cash bonuses, and free boxed lunches and toilet paper to its employees. To help communities outside its offices and factories, it turned its upscale Chobani Cafe in Soho into a temporary food bank and launched Chobani Pantry to support local food banks across the nation, ultimately donating more than 7 million products. Meanwhile, Chobani Oat made a splash in the burgeoning alternative-milk segment, and in July 2020, the company introduced new product innovations such as the plant-based drink, Chobani Probiotic, and a high-protein nutrition yogurt called Chobani Complete.

2. CannonDesign

For its focus on creating healthier, educational, and equitable spaces that help communities flourish

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This design firm’s “living-centered” approach addresses systemic challenges to communities by creating spaces for health, education, and equity. Its Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Restorative Care Village integrates modular housing units, public art, and holistic treatment spaces to help those experiencing mental illness and homelessness recover. Cannon also helped Jamaa Birth Village open a new Equal Access Midwifery Clinic in Ferguson, Missouri. The space, which it designed pro bono, brings midwife and doula training to Black mothers, who are more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white mothers. And to combat the pandemic, Cannon designed modular, customizable rooms that can be placed outdoors to expand testing while keeping healthcare workers safe.

3. A Kids Book About

For helping children understand the most challenging societal problems in an accessible and timely way

This Black-owned media company breaks convention in its publishing business by operating on a quarterly cycle rather than an 18-month contract-to-market model, meaning its more timely books can address challenging societal topics as they arise and help adults engage with kids in meaningful conversations. All the company’s titles, like A Kids Book About Feminism and this summer’s best-seller, A Kids Book About Racism, use color, typography, and minimalist design elements that eliminate the need for a central character, leaving room for every child to think about how concepts apply to their lives. In an industry where just 4% of executives are people of color, this publisher also removes traditional barriers by seeking out underrepresented writers. As a result, almost 50% of its authors are BIPOC.

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4. Everlywell

For moving quickly to bring COVID-19 tests to consumers and their homes

Everlywell launched in 2016 on a mission to modernize lab tests by bringing them into consumers’ homes. Since then, it has helped more than a million people test for things like fertility, cholesterol, and Lyme disease. The company started tackling the pandemic in March, developing its COVID-19 test in about 13 days. It was the first digital health company to receive FDA authorization for coronavirus testing and the first to announce a COVID-19 test that people could take at home. Everlywell’s initial supply of 30,000 test kits nearly doubled the amount of available testing in America overnight. The company also expanded its footprint to more than 10,000 locations at such retailers as Target, Walgreens, and CVS.

5. Kavak

For driving a good bargain

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In Mexico, buying and selling cars is a much less ritualized affair than it is in the United States. There isn’t a network of used car dealers, so most vehicle sales have historically taken place between individuals. Fraud has been a lingering concern. Kavak, which launched in 2016, has sought to bring both trust and technological savvy to car sales. Kavak assesses a car for sale, values it using its proprietary algorithms, buys it, and then refurbishes it for resale direct from the company. Cars can be ordered via its site, app, WhatsApp, or phone, and Kavak offers financing and a three-month warranty, neither of which would be available in a person-to-person sale. The company added home pickup and delivery this year, digital paperwork, and the ability to see a potential car purchase via video call. In September, Kavak raised a $385 million round of funding to fuel its expansion plans across Mexico and Latin America (it expanded to Monterrey and Buenos Aires by the end of 2020, with plans to enter the Brazilian market in early 2021). The funding made it the first Mexican startup to be valued at more than $1 billion.

6. Dutchie

For making legal cannabis more accessible online while lifting up small dispensaries

The cannabis industry’s largest and fastest-growing e-commerce solution was among the first to launch a credit-card payment processing system for small dispensaries, helping them implement digital and contactless payment methods to reach their full potential. Dutchie‘s software makes it easier for customers to purchase cannabis products online and receive items via in-store and curbside pickup or delivery. The company facilitates sales for more than 1,800 dispensaries in 25 U.S. states and Canada. That means it powers more than 25% of all dispensaries in North America and processes 10% of all legal cannabis sales worldwide. Between March and September, Dutchie witnessed a 650% increase in online orders while customers rode out the pandemic, with average order sizes rising 32%.

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7. BARC Electric Cooperative

For making renewable energy accessible and bringing broadband to rural areas

This consumer-owned electric cooperative was the first utility company in Virginia to adopt a carbon-neutral public commitment in 2020. As part of its sustainability plan, the company launched SolarizeBARC, which offers rooftop, community, and utility-scale solar power, as well as EV charging and battery storage, to its 30,000 customers. Now, BARC‘s electric consumers have the flexibility to obtain all or part of their energy mix from renewable sources, and it’s committed to 100% carbon-neutral energy sales by 2035. The community-focused co-op also launched the second phase of its fiber-to-the-home project, which has made broadband available to nearly 8,000 previously unserved homes, businesses, and schools in the state’s Shenandoah Valley and Appalachian region.

8. 80 Acres Farms

For using automation to run the first profitable indoor farms

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This vertical farming company runs farms that produce 300 times more food than traditional, Old McDonald-style operations with the same land equivalent. By turning to automation, 80 Acres increased yields while reducing labor costs, making it the first profitable indoor farming company. It also boasts a 30,000-square-foot facility that grows more than a ton of tomatoes weekly without sunlight—another first. In 2019, 80 Acres contributed no pesticides, wasted just 3% of its produce compared to the agriculture industry average of 40%, and used 97% less water than traditional farming. During the pandemic, it opened its largest facility yet in Ohio and fed thousands of New Yorkers from its tomato farm at the Guggenheim, expanding its commitment to growing organic food locally while reducing its environmental impact.

9. Tersus Solutions

For fine-tuning a cleaning system that saves water and keeps garments out of the incinerator

Tersus‘s cleaning-as-a-service model allows customers to ship used and damaged clothing to its Denver facility to be cleaned, repaired, and redistributed to consumers instead of landfills. In 2020, it ramped up its circular system that utilizes recycled liquid CO2 rather than water to clean larger volumes of textiles simultaneously. It also established the technology to clean both raw and used down material and perfected the ability to effectively clean technical PPE-like firefighter gear while maintaining its flame-retardant and oil-repellent attributes. The small company saved 250,000 gallons of water in 2019, doubled its employees since that year, more than quadrupled its number of active customers, and collected partners such as Patagonia and REI.

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10. Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey

For honoring a piece of American history while helping the spirits industry move into a more diverse future

Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, founded by the first woman and African American to lead a major American spirit brand, is named after Nearest Green, the first master distiller for Jack Daniel’s and a formerly enslaved man. In the summer of 2020, the company launched Operation Brother’s Keeper, a public health campaign and mask distribution effort to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. In partnership with Jack Daniel’s, it started the Nearest and Jack Initiative to develop a pipeline of women and people of color into the distilling business while helping other Black-owned spirits startups succeed so that more can follow. Both projects were an acknowledgment that the historically white industry needs to take greater care of one of its top customers: Black Americans.