Companies from Colombia, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico led the innovation charge in 2020. From fintech to food, sneakers to solar energy, veggie burgers to video games, our list showcases the energy and dynamism of a regional economy meeting the pandemic (and beyond) needs of increasingly engaged and tech-savvy consumers.
For bringing plant-based milk and meat to the masses
Chilean food company NotCo makes plant-based stand-ins for mayonnaise, milk, ice cream, and meat, using AI to optimize flavor and texture. In February, Burger King Chile started selling the vegetarian Rebel Whopper, made with NotCo’s plant-based burger. In November the company (which is backed by the Bezos Expedition Fund) launched its NotMilk in U.S. Whole Foods stores.
For digitizing farm-to-table food sourcing
Bogota-based Frubana is an online platform that lets restaurants and small businesses source food products directly from farmers—lowering prices for buyers, while raising margins for suppliers. In 2020, it raised a $25 million Series A and rolled out Club Frubana, a suite of free tools to help restaurants navigate COVID-19 guidelines, digitize menus and services, source supplies, and even post and search for job openings. It also launched Frubana Fresco, a consumer grocery delivery service, with a “community leader” feature that allows individuals to order bulk groceries to distribute in their neighborhoods.
For making popular sneakers from bamboo and sugarcane
Brazilian sustainable sneaker maker Cariuma has enjoyed record sales every month since May 2020, selling direct to consumers and select retail partners. In 2020, it launched two colorful lines in collaboration with Pantone; its Color of the Year 2020 style sold out in five days and had 5,000-person waitlist. In the summer, it launched a program to plant a pair of trees in the Brazilian rainforest for every pair of sneaker sold.
For helping small businesses bank up
During the pandemic, this Rio de Janeiro-based fintech startup introduced Zoop PIX, an instant payment system; helped customers access new sources of credit through Zoop Antecipa, which allows big companies to extend credit to smaller businesses; and launched Banking as a Service, which lets non-financial companies offer digital accounts to customers. Brazilian VC Movile invested $11M in a September 2020 to fund expansion of the company’s B2B digital payments, banking, and credit services throughout South America.
For capturing super-green solar energy virtually anywhere
In December 2019, Brazilian green chemistry company Sunew completed the largest installation of organic photovoltaic film in the world, on the 2,000-square-meter rooftop of a facility in Cajamar, Brazil, owned by the beauty conglomerate Natura. In August 2020, it announced a partnership with Pepsi to pilot its “green” PV films on 2,000 Brazilian delivery trucks, and expanded its furniture unit, which makes things like benches, bus shelters, and tables that capture solar energy.
For teaching professional skills through a pandemic
Brazilian online education platform Descomplica, known for college entrance test prep, has raised $32 million from global investors. In 2020, it launched into online learning with Falcudade Descomplica, offering courses in accounting, administration, human resources, and education. With many users tuning in on cell phones, the company has rolled out courses specifically designed for mobile learning, breaking classes down into five-minute classes that can be watched on the go.
For bringing fast food into the 21st century
RobinFood is Latin America’s largest “cloud kitchen,” operating 50-plus virtual restaurants across major cities in Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico. Each kitchen offers food from up to a half dozen brands, from rice bowls to pizza to burgers. The whole concept is contactless: customers can have food delivered, or order it through an app or touchscreen kiosk at brick-and-mortar locations, picking it up from an automat-style cubby. The Bogota-based company, founded in 2018, secured $16 million in debt financing in October 2020 (on top of a $15 million Series B in 2019) to help expand to 1,000 stores in the next five years.
For promoting progressive values in a resistant market
Brazilian consultancy Mandalah‘s 2020 work includes defining a new brand strategy for Unilever’s TRESemmé, creating a new sustainability vision with Fiat Chrysler, and helping the United Nations High Commissioner launch a program to help Venezuelan refugees and immigrants in Brazil find jobs in the green economy.
For helping small businesses get paid through a pandemic
In late 2019, Mexico City-based fintech company Clip announced a multiyear partnership with Visa to scale its Square-like mobile credit-card processing service for small and medium-size businesses. In response to the COVID pandemic and declining in-person transactions, the company (which has raised close to $150 million from SoftBank, General Atlantic, and Google for Startups Accelerator) introduced a remote payment system that lets vendors send invoices by text, email, Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp, with payment through a secure transaction portal.
For providing addictive distraction when most needed
The Buenos Aires-based maker of mobile games such as the 2009 hit Trivia Crack published eight new titles during the pandemic, including Word Crack 2, Trivia Cars, and Trivia Crack Adventure (which hit 2 million downloads in its first few months). In 2020, Etermax acquired Performash to beef up its ad tech game, and significantly grew headcount, to more than 450 employees across offices in Argentina, Uruguay and Germany. The company’s AI unit has created chatbots for the likes of Walmart Lat Am and Mercado Libre.