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The 10 most innovative companies with fewer than 10 employees

These small and mighty businesses, all with fewer than 10 employees, have outsize impact on their industries.

The 10 most innovative companies with fewer than 10 employees

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 consumer goods companies.

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It might be hard to fathom that a company with fewer than 10 employees is creating products or popularizing ideas that could result in widespread impact. But believe it: The companies on this year’s list of the most innovative “small and mighty” businesses with fewer than 10 employees delivered a stunning array of innovative achievements in 2021.

Some were seemingly straightforward but previously untapped ideas: upcycling old paint (Up Paint), creating a nutritious and affordable salmon hot dog (Kvarøy Arctic), and building an easy-to-use resale platform for pricey office furniture (Reseat). Others were more complex scientific and technological advances, like launching a platform (Vivodyne) to scale the use of organs on a chip in drug testing that could greatly reduce reliance on animal testing and streamline the process and cost of getting new life-saving drugs to market.

This year’s winners have helped major corporations like McDonald’s become more accountable for their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives (Have Her Back), advocated for reducing sexual violence in the military and reforming its criminal justice system (Riff City Strategies), and supported Black-owned businesses and communities trying to recover from economic fallout of COVID-19 (NCRC Community Development Fund). They’re changing the ways startups access and pay for legal services (Westaway), popularizing jewelry with lab-grown diamonds among Gen Z (Kimaï), and helping home chefs easily make complex Asian dishes (Omsom).

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Some of the companies on this year’s list only launched in the last two years, but are already making great strides—and raising millions from venture capitalists. Reseat, the office furniture resale platform, has already saved millions of pounds of desks, filing cabinets, and ergonomic chairs from ending up dumped in landfills. Vivodyne is helping major pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline quickly adopt viable alternatives for testing drugs on monkeys. And Omsom is not only satiating food lovers at home, it’s changing the conversation and perception around Asian food and culture.

Read on for a dose of inspiration—even if your company is small, it doesn’t mean you can’t be an outsize force of change for the better.

1. Vivodyne

For creating a scalable alternative for drug testing on animals

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Organs on a chip have been around for more than a decade, but until recently hadn’t been widely used in drug research. Vivodyne, launched in 2021, has created a platform that allows fully automated, complex studies at a far larger scale and lower cost than would be possible with manual experimentation, so pharmaceutical companies can actually test lab-made organs instead of animals in their drug-development processes. When done by hand, only 20 to 40 living tissue samples can be managed in parallel; Vivodyne’s instrument can cultivate, dose, and image more than 2,000 living tissues at once. The company, which raised $4 million in seed funding last year, says its instruments currently play pivotal roles in clinical drug testing for respiratory diseases, cancer treatment, vaccine development, diabetes therapies, and maternal medicine. GlaxoSmithKline, one of Vivodyne’s clients, estimates that for some projects the lab-grown tissues may displace as much as 80% of its animal testing. The company’s ultimate goal? “To supplant the vast majority of animal testing within the next decade,” says CEO Andrei Georgescu.

[Illustration: Daniel Salo; Photo: Azure-Drago/iStock/Getty Images Plus (Kvarøy Arctic)]

2. Kvarøy Arctic

For leading the way on sustainable aquaculture—and making sure we get our omega-3s

A hot dog may not seem like the world’s most important innovation. Sometimes, though, a hot dog is more than a hot dog. Kvarøy Arctic Salmon’s version, launched in August 2020, uses the trim and scrape meat from its fish that previously went to waste. Thanks to special, sustainable feed Kvaroy developed from insect meal and microalgae, each 100-gram frozen hot dog provides the weekly recommended amount of omega 3 fatty acids at an affordable price point. Kvarøy calls it “sustainable salmon that can fight nutritional injustice.” In 2021, the Norwegian company delivered more than 20 million pounds of fresh and frozen salmon and salmon dogs and burgers, and estimates that its revenue almost doubled to $80 million from a year earlier. It also donated up to 4,000 pounds of salmon a week to food pantries and food-bank kitchens in the U.S.

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3. Reseat

For finding new homes for upscale office furniture

Each year, 17 billion pounds of commercial-grade office furniture ends up in landfills—even though it’s designed to last for a decade or more. The fluctuating need for office space was especially pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic as companies downsized, reconfigured spaces, or shut down offices altogether. Reseat, launched in October 2020, provides companies a place to buy and sell preowned office furniture by manufacturers like Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll, Haworth, and Allsteel, along with delivery and installation. In its first year, Reseat worked with companies like Oracle, Yelp, Uber, Square, and Twitch on projects ranging from whole office relocations, to downsizing or office redesigns, as well as outfitting home office settings. In its first year, it saved more than 3 million pounds of furniture from being sent to the landfill.

4. Up Paint

For rescuing unused paint—and giving it new life

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Nine U.S. states have programs that fund drop-off and collection facilities for unused paint, which have saved more than 50 million gallons of paint from landfills. While that’s great news for the environment, this glut of paint has grown to the point where storage is scarce. Up Paint’s technology takes stockpiles of abandoned paint and processes, purifies, and refines it into retail-ready paint with a variety of viscosities, sheens, and colors. Added bonus: the reconditioned eco-friendly result is sold at a fraction of the cost of traditional paint. New partnerships in 2021 with major retailers like Tractor Supply Co. and HomeSense are helping get the paint into consumers’ hands.

5. Riff City Strategies

For launching campaigns with social impact

A decade ago, communications and advocacy firm Riff City Strategies helped launch Protect Our Defenders, a human-rights organization committed to curbing sexual violence in the military and reforming its justice system. In 2021, that advocacy came to fruition with new legislation with broad bipartisan support that overhauls the way the military prosecutes sexual assault. Last year, Riff City also helped the Donors of Color Network launch the Climate Justice Funders Pledge, which challenges the nation’s top funders to commit at least 30% of their climate funding to BIPOC-led environmental groups.

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6. Omsom

For making complex Asian dishes easy for home cooks

Omsom partners with iconic chefs to make shelf-stable pantry starters that help people cook restaurant-quality Asian dishes at home—in less than the time it’d take to order Grubhub. Colorful starter packs contain complex sauces like lemongrass BBQ or yuzu misoyaki—just add protein and vegetables. The brand imports 90% of its domestically difficult-to-source ingredients from Asia, and bases its recipes on those dating back generations in the chefs’ families. Since it launched in May 2020, it has sold more than half a million starter packets throughout all 50 states. Its Thai krapow starter, created in partnership with Pepper Teigan and launched in May 2021, is the first in its category to boast about containing MSG—an ingredient the founders say has been “slandered by bad science and anti-Asian xenophobia.”

7. Kimaï

For glamorizing lab-created diamonds for a new generation

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Kimaï’s sparkly gems are catnip for jewelry lovers who are also concerned about blood diamonds, child labor, human rights violations, and the environmental impact associated with traditional diamond mining. Gem-quality diamonds created in a lab have been around since the 1980s, but Kimaï is using marketing smarts that appeal to Gen Z to make them the norm within the luxury industry. Celebrity investors like Diane von Furstenberg and Rebecca Minkoff have helped burnish the brand, which received a flurry of press just a few months after launch when Meghan Markle was photographed wearing its earrings; the founders had put the brand on her radar by sending emails to her “inner circle.” Two years later, Kimaï’s rings and other baubles are now available at luxury retailers Selfridges, Nordstrom, and Browns. When COVID-19 presented challenges to the fine-jewelry market, Kimaï saw a rise in lockdown engagements and pounced on the trend, launching a line of engagement rings in November 2021 that is now one of its most popular brand categories.

8. Westaway

For offering predictably priced legal services for startups

Billable hours—the typical way lawyers charge clients—makes for bad user experience, with high fees, opaque billing, and little incentive to move quickly. Westaway offers “legal as a service,” working with clients like Warby Parker, General Assembly, Change.org, and Ideo for a flat monthly fee. In 2021, it added automation and artificial intelligence to help serve its startups more quickly and with fewer errors, and evolved its model to offer three tiers of subscription services so it can better serve startups large and small alike.

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9. NCRC Community Development Fund

For helping Black-owned businesses survive and navigate the pandemic

In the wake of a pandemic that hit Black, brown, and low-income communities disproportionately, the NCRC Community Development Fund (CDF)—a subsidiary of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition—amassed millions in capital to help these communities recover. In May, when the U.S. Treasury awarded $1.25 billion in COVID-19 relief funds to 863 community development financial institutions, CDF received the maximum grant, totaling $1.8 million. CDF was named one of five organizations to receive grants from Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund, in total bringing nearly $10 million to Washington D.C., to help underserved businesses stay open and preserve jobs. In just under a year, CDF also facilitated more than $1 million in paycheck protection program loans, 96% of which went to borrowers who were Black, Hispanic, women, and immigrants, and $1.3 million in grants for 65 small businesses primarily from Black and brown communities. Now, the CDF is leading development and pilot of NCRC’s small business training program for entrepreneurs of color.

10. Have Her Back

For working with the world’s leading companies to create accountable DEI initiatives

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This women-owned culture consultancy helps companies move from good intentions to action and accountability on DEI initiatives. In July 2021, Have Her Back client McDonald’s signed the Mutual Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, an action both from the company and its top 20 suppliers to build diverse talent pipelines, infrastructure, and cultures that support increased representation and inclusion, and close equity gaps. At the same time, it tied 15% of McDonald’s executive bonuses to diversity targets across four different categories related to its values, goals for racial and gender diversity, and creating a culture of inclusion—encouraging executives to put their money where their mouth is. Other notable clients include LinkedIn, United Airlines, Carhartt, and Hyatt.

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About the author

Erin Schulte is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fast Company, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar, and Entrepreneur, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter @erin719nyc.

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