Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative media, design, and branding companies.
Seemingly every week for the last two years there has been another product shortage chalked up to supply-chain challenges. We started with toilet paper and lumber, and recent panics have included cream cheese, headstone stencils, and a couple (but thankfully not all) Girl Scout cookie varieties. The surge in demand for goods brought on by the onset of the pandemic has only abated somewhat, but its effects on the supply chain linger and are expected to do so for another year or two. For every fix that gets addressed, another pain point can arise elsewhere in the system, much like how compensating for a sore ankle only puts more pressure on the next joint, the knee.
No one company can single-handedly “fix” the supply chain, but these 10 companies are addressing aspects of the multivaried complexity that is our global economy. One of the more inspiring examples of success are the efforts of Zipline and Controlant relating to the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. Zipline, which has long been an innovator in the drone delivery of medical supplies, adapted its systems to be able to get vaccines into remote rural regions of Ghana. Controlant, which specializes in tracking the so-called cold chain (logistics expertise for the delivery of goods that need to be maintained at a particular temperature), helped Pfizer make sure that vaccine shipments remained at -94 degrees Fahrenheit as they were distributed.
Beyond the delivery of these critical medicines, one company became a bit of a household name for its efforts to ameliorate supply-chain woes via its digital savvy: Flexport. CEO Ryan Petersen was seemingly everywhere—from popular podcasts to the L.A.-area ports—an expert resource for sophisticated business professionals who wanted the kind of intelligence that can only come from the sort of holistic view that Flexport’s expanding solutions for its customers could yield. The company’s entrepreneurial spirit could be seen in its product solutions for knowing when a factory shipment was ready to getting through customs more efficiently to Petersen’s fabled boat trip to view the Long Beach port from the vantage point of the ships awaiting entry.
The trucking industry has become another window into a potential point of failure for goods getting to their ultimate destinations, and it, too, is undergoing a technological transformation on multiple fronts. Convoy matches shippers such as Home Depot with truckers ready to go, seeking to eliminate what has to come to light as drivers often have to wait, unpaid, for a loaded trailer. Zuum Transportation similarly seeks to get shippers, truckers, and freight brokers on the same software platform to save money and time, and Platform Science builds internet-connected savvy into the trucks themselves. Meanwhile, Outrider has focused on bringing autonomy and electrification to the specialized rigs that operate in the distribution yards that sit between the warehouse and the highway.
Warehouses, too, are benefiting from the focus on how to improve the entirety of the supply chain. Berkshire Grey, which makes robotic systems for order fulfillment, has developed systems that can handle grocery orders with care and get items in place for packing more quickly. And Saltbox has cleverly combined coworking space with warehouse space, allowing businesses to be closer to their inventory and order fulfillment.
For easing the pain of the global supply chain
Flexport digitizes global logistics, which has only become more essential amid the pandemic-induced supply-chain chaos that’s upended the global economy for two years (and likely not abating for at least the next couple of years). The company, which works with both direct-to-consumer companies such as Bombas and large industrial firms like American Metalcraft, seeks to connect every aspect of the supply chain from its legacy of spreadsheets, PDFs, and emails to a connected dashboard offering real-time visibility from a factory in Vietnam to a fulfillment center in suburban Virginia. In 2021, Flexport added order management so a client’s contract factories can alert them when an order is ready so that the company can secure a container and its placement on an ocean freighter. If it has to get to its ultimate destination more quickly, Flexport also introduced premium services to attain passage on a boat that’ll make fewer calls into port in its transoceanic voyage and have its container of goods loaded on the top layer of containers so it’s the last on and the first off the ship. That service alone can save customers weeks of time in getting their goods. If there’s trouble getting a container, Flexport can steer them to a smaller one or booking less than a container load, and if there are no boats, Flexport can reroute items to a smaller ship called a reefer. The more nodes of the supply chain Flexport digitizes, the more resilience and adaptability it builds into the system. It’s also good business: Flexport generated more than $3 billion in 2021 revenue.
For staying cool while delivering COVID vaccines
When the African nation of Ghana received its first allotment of 600,000 COVID-19 vaccines in February 2021, Zipline, the medical drone-delivery service that has operated in the country since 2019, was among the first to receive them. Just two days after the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines arrived, the company had forged a partnership with the UPS Foundation and the government to make sure that they could be transported in ultra-refrigerated trucks to the country’s National Cold Room and then four Zipline distribution centers where they’d take to the skies in insulated packaging. Zipline later joined forces with Pfizer and BioNTech to discern how to deliver the first mRNA vaccines in Ghana, helping to engineer thermal packaging that could transport even a single 2 ml vial or as many as 25 and withstand external temperatures from 32 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit while maintaining the vaccine’s acceptable transit range of 36 to 46 degrees for up to four hours. As of December, Zipline’s unmanned aerial systems had delivered more than 250,000 doses of multiple COVID vaccines into rural Ghana, which can be difficult to reach by road, and still comprises more than 40% of its population.
For hauling waste out of trucking
Convoy, which uses predictive analytics to match shippers such as Home Depot, P&G, and Unilever with its network of several thousand sensor-enabled trailers, expanded its Convoy Go service this year. The startup first introduced Go in 2017 to provide trucking owner-operators and carriers with instant access to preloaded trailers. But demand surges and other unforeseen events have upended the predictable but sometimes brittle system of trucking goods from one place to another. So in May 2021, Convoy added the ability for shippers to dynamically price and then tap tens of thousands of carriers and thousands of Internet of Things-enabled trailers to be in the right place at the right time to handle excess capacity. Convoy can do this because its intelligent tractor-trailers communicate where they are and if they’re loaded or not. A few months later, Convoy Go introduced a new element that lets customers’s private fleets order just a truck to haul their preloaded and empty dry van trailers so they’re in the correct position for the future. Between 2019 and 2021, revenue from Convoy Go has reportedly risen more than fivefold, and cargo volume has grown by 260%.
For keeping track of the cold chain
Controlant, an Icelandic company founded in 2007, had its breakthrough moment in 2021 when its supply-chain visibility system was tapped to monitor the global distribution of Pfizer’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, which must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit. Controlant’s internet-enabled sensor tags communicate such metrics as temperature (naturally), light exposure, and location in real time. That data is transmitted to Controlant’s cloud-based platform, so in the event of any anomaly, whatever needs to happen to prevent spoilage can be communicated to whomever is in possession of the cargo. Controlant, which works in securing the cold chain for the food industry as well, has helped Pfizer deliver more than 1.3 billion COVID-19 vaccines, and the pharmaceutical giant reports that 99.9% of deliveries have been successful. Controlant reports sixfold growth in 2021 compared with 2020. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution selected its data-logging device to be part of its collection of significant artifacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. Berkshire Grey
For building heavy robots with a light touch
Berkshire Grey, which makes AI-enabled robotic solutions for warehouses and sorting facilities, rolled out the next generation of its picking and mobility system in June 2021. The new system can fulfill more orders in less time and at a lower cost—and handle delicate perishables such as bread and eggs in the case of fulfilling online grocery orders. Berkshire’s algorithms also allow for its warehouse robots to learn how to pick items that are otherwise unfamiliar to it. In September, as worker shortages continued to affect the economy, the company, which went public last summer, debuted a robotic shuttle wall to allow for e-commerce orders to be fulfilled up to 33% faster without requiring additional staff. The company estimated 2021 revenue would surpass $50 million, which is a 50% growth rate over 2020, and in January, it reported an order backlog worth $105 million in future revenue. Alas, it can’t put its own robotic systems to work fulfilling the demand for its products.
6. Zuum Transportation
For whizzing freight managers into the future
Throughout 2021, Zuum Transportation, a digital freight marketplace that also offers an array of software solutions for managers across the conveyance ecosystem, launched a number of new tools as it builds out what the company calls its Super Platform. The Zuum Automated Broker, a digital transformation product for freight brokers, gives them a dynamic pricing engine, automated booking, real-time tracking, centralized documentation, reporting and analytics, and accounting software. The Zuum Shipper transportation management system and Zuum Fleet Manager similarly offer single-system platforms for shippers and trucking companies, respectively. All of these efforts to put more advanced software in the hands of transportation agents have helped save shippers approximately 13% on freight costs and about 40% of the time previously required to schedule and book freight. As for Zuum, its revenue is expected to zoom upwards fivefold in 2021 compared with 2020.
For hitching its trailer to autonomy
Distribution yards—the space between the warehouse and the highway, where trucks spew diesel fumes while helping trailers into the right position for loading and then hitting the open road—are dangerous, dirty, and often overlooked nodes in the supply chain. Outrider, a five-year-old startup devoted to making these freight hubs safer and more sustainable, made a significant leap toward this goal last July when it introduced the first autonomous tractor-trailer hitching system. One of Outrider’s electric, autonomous yard trucks positions itself in front of a semi-trailer, backs under it, and the company’s patented robotic arm attaches to the connection point on the trailer—without a human having to verify it manually. Last November, Georgia-Pacific confirmed that it had completed more than 1,000 autonomous trailer moves in its Chicago-area distribution yard.
For appifying farm-to-table freshness
The Chinese agricultural mobile e-commerce giant connects more than 850 million buyers with 16-million-plus producers. To choreograph this complicated dance, Pinduoduo has re-architected China’s hub-and-spoke-style delivery infrastructure, with the help of third-party logistics providers, and built out new cold-chain transportation routes to eliminate unnecessary transit points, which slow down delivery, diminish freshness, and increase food waste. At the end of 2020, the company rolled out Duo Duo Grocery, its next-day self-pickup service as one means by which it’s committed to creating more convenient locations for farmers to deliver their goods and for consumers to retrieve them. Pinduoduo is proactively investing in research and development to benefit China’s rural population and its farmers. In the company’s third-quarter earnings, it revealed that revenues grew more than 50% year over year, even as it cut sales and marketing spending.
For blending warehouse space and coworking for e-commerce startups
Atlanta-based Saltbox creates hybrid spaces with both office suites and warehouse logistics services for small and medium businesses selling online and in need of a flexible offering. This lets these companies run their business and directly oversee inventory and order fulfillment all in one place. Saltbox facilitates this not only via its physical square footage but with a variety of services for its customers, from on-site photo studios for product shots to equipment rental and on-demand workers. Customers take only as much space as they need, and there are no long-term leases. The company added locations in Dallas, Seattle, Denver, and Los Angeles in 2021, and its earliest Saltboxes, in Atlanta and Dallas, reached full occupancy within several months and customer churn is less than 5%.
10. Platform Science
For being truck smart
Platform Science introduced its “Virtual Vehicle” fleet-management hardware and software platform in 2021, which incorporates applications, telematics, and cloud connectivity directly into trucks as they’re manufactured. Traditionally, these services have been an after-market add-on, which would delay a fleet owner from being able to take advantage of real-time insights and offer driver services. In November, Daimler Trucks North America, which makes the Freightliner and Western Star truck brands, announced that all of its vehicles would be built with Virtual Vehicle, and Platform Science reports more than 200% growth in its annual recurring revenue.