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The 10 most innovative companies with fewer than 100 employees

From the Fifteen Percent Pledge to Synthesis AI, these small and mighty organizations—all with between 10 and 100 employees—are punching above their weight.

The 10 most innovative companies with fewer than 100 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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Construction, banking, death (yes, death): those are just three of the notable categories that snagged a winning spot in this year’s list of the most innovative “small and mighty” companies with between 10 and 100 employees.

Two of this year’s winners, HeadLight and ProStar, are B2B companies that help make construction projects more accountable above ground, and safer underground—especially notable given the $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last November. The bill designated $100 million in funding to incentivize modernization in the industry, like the use of advanced digital construction management systems.

Step, another winner, is a digital bank for teens; it was the fourth-most downloaded digital banking app in the first half of 2021. The company aims to serve the 21 million teens in the U.S. whose collective spending power exceeds $145 billion—as well as teach financial skills and offer people under 18 a way to digitally send money, which they can’t do with popular existing payment apps. Investors include a constellation of notable companies and high-profile backers, including payments platform Stripe, Will Smith’s Dreamers VC, Justin Timberlake, EDM duo The Chainsmokers, Eli Manning, and executives from Facebook, Square, and Visa.

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Finally, Israel-based Empathy—which has a mission to “change how the world deals with loss”—helps users deal with a problem that no one wants, but everyone eventually has to face: the death of a loved one. Empathy launched an app last year to help families navigate both the emotional and practical aspects of death. The app helps users stay focused and on track with tasks like planning funerals, untangling legal and financial issues, and probate assistance, as well as softer interpersonal skills like how to talk to family members (or learn how to grieve yourself) in an emotionally charged time.

1. Fifteen Percent Pledge

For bringing Black-owned businesses and retailers together

If you’re seeing more Black-owned brands on store shelves, it probably has something to do with the Fifteen Percent Pledge. Founded by fashion designer Aurora James, the organization’s goal is to close the racial wealth gap by getting major companies to commit a minimum 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. In the first half of 2021, 385 Black-owned brands launched new business relationships with companies like Macy’s, Nordstrom, West Elm, Sephora, Ulta Beauty, and Gap—all of which have taken the Pledge. Partnerships also grew outside the U.S. with commitments from Hudson’s Bay and Sephora Canada, and MatchesFashion in the U.K. Since its founding in 2020, the Pledge has shifted almost $10 billion in revenue to Black-owned businesses, and the retailers that have signed on have at least doubled their assortment of Black-owned brands. In 2021, the Pledge also launched a career board and a database of more than a thousand Black-owned businesses for consumers who want to support Black entrepreneurs. Ultimately, the Pledge aims to create $1 trillion in economic impact for Black-owned businesses.

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Fifteen Percent Pledge is No. 23 on Fast Company‘s list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2022.

2. ProStar

For making the invisible visible

Much like Uber or Airbnb did in the transportation and travel industries, ProStar is using cloud, mobile, and GPS to disrupt the infrastructure industry. In 2021, ProStar released PointMan Pro, which captures, records, and displays the locations of critical infrastructure, including buried utilities and pipelines. With around 35 million miles of buried utility lines in the U.S., damage to utilities due to construction activities costs the economy about $30 billion every year. Fortune 500 companies, municipalities, and government agencies using PointMan saw a 90% decrease in utility line strikes—preventing loss of electrical, communication, and water services, and keeping dangerous substances from being released into the environment.

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3. Step

For helping teens establish a healthy credit history

“Venmo” is a verb for most of us by now—but not for teenagers, who can’t use the app until they’re 18. Enter Step, a banking platform built for teens and their families that includes a free, FDIC-insured bank account, a Step Visa Card, and a peer-to-peer payments platform for people under 18 who can’t join platforms like Venmo or Cash App. The Visa card, released at the end of 2020, enables teens to start establishing their credit history at an earlier age—without the pitfalls of a traditional credit card or the ability to overspend, since deposits in the account must cover in full anything bought with the card. Parents can set up recurring payments to mimic a paycheck and help kids learn how to budget.

4. Synthesis AI

For training algorithms to be less biased, thanks to diverse 3D facial models spanning gender, ethnicity, age, and BMI

Synthesis AI’s FaceAPI product, launched in April 2021, combines visual effects and CGI tools with generative AI models to create diverse 3D facial models spanning gender, ethnicity, age, and BMI to help companies train computer-vision models with less bias. Because the images are created with computer-generated faces, the privacy and regulatory issues with typical facial computer-vision systems are eliminated. The company has delivered more than 10 million labeled images to customers—including to phone manufacturers trying to recognize people with masks on who wanted to open their phones using facial recognition.

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5. Empathy

For streamlining end-of-life bureaucracy

Families can spend more than 500 hours dealing with logistical tasks in the months following the death of a loved one. The Empathy app, which launched in spring 2021, combines technological solutions with human support to help families do and track everything from arranging a funeral and validating a will to canceling accounts and managing estates. Step-by-step guidance walks families through all the tasks they have to complete, and helps inform decision making. The app flags time-sensitive tasks to help users prioritize and prevent overwhelm. Empathy partners with insurance companies, hospices, palliative care facilities, and funeral homes. New York Life, America’s largest mutual life insurer, has also begun offering Empathy’s app to its beneficiaries. In September, only five months after launch, Empathy announced a $30 million Series A investment, for a total of $43 million raised.

6. Jeenie

For eliminating language barriers, 24/7

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What do you do when you and your doctor don’t speak the same language? It’s a common problem, since almost a quarter of U.S. residents require access to interpreting services to receive fair and equitable healthcare. In 2021, Jeenie, an on-demand, mobile interpreting service, evolved to help clients—especially healthcare providers—respond to COVID-19. Employing a global, multilingual workforce, Jeenie’s peer-to-peer community of interpreters are on round-the-clock standby to jump on video or audio calls with healthcare providers who need to speak to patients who speaks a different language. Human interpreters can speak more than 250 languages, and respond to requests in under 60 seconds. Also in 2021, the unprecedented numbers of migrants entering the U.S. at the southern border resulted in a corresponding surge in language demand for rare, indigenous languages for El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants. Jeenie created “relay interpreting” between HIPAA-trained interpreters to, say, interpret English to Spanish, while a second linguist interprets Spanish to the Guatemalan dialect of Kanjobal. The app is now the primary source of interpretation for rare indigenous languages at the border. Next up? A partnership with Zoom to develop an integrated app so interpreters can join calls with the touch of a button.

7. Maestro

For juicing the creator economy

Ads and sponsored content are two ways the creator economy sustains itself—but what if you could also sell stuff to your biggest fans in real time as they watch you do your thing? Maestro combines content, commerce, and community to convert followers into active customers. Powered by an integration with Shopify, “shoppable livestreams” from Maestro let users create seamless shopping experiences within live platform experiences. Officially launched in partnership with global superstar Billie Eilish for her Where Do We Go Now? global livestream in October 2020, Maestro’s integration with Shopify meant fans had exclusive access to merchandise throughout the entire event. Maestro has now powered a million unique purchases—the equivalent of 25 40,000-person stadiums making a purchase, and has paid out $12 million to creators. Creators using the platform make an average of $93,000 annually that they weren’t earning before.

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8. Merit America

For pulling low-income families into the middle class

The nonprofit Merit America offers a scalable, sustainable solution to help low-income families build new pathways to the middle class. Low-wage workers without college degrees are coached online for in-demand careers, while receiving peer support. Merit’s programs are designed for underemployed and unemployed adults, who can learn while they balance work and family. In 2021, Merit America experienced 100x growth from its pilot three years ago, thanks to innovations like a part-time, asynchronous curriculum. More than 80% of its 1,250 learners in 2021 were people of color. Eight-four percent of learners graduate, and 65% have new careers within six months. The average annual wage gain is $20,000 a year from starting salaries of just $27,000.

9. Twentyeight Health

For increasing access to birth control for women in contraceptive deserts

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Food deserts are a well-known problem, but contraceptive deserts are also real—20 million women across the U.S. live in places without convenient access to a doctor or clinic that can affordably prescribe birth control. Twentyeight Health provides low-cost, mobile access to birth control prescriptions; the service expanded to 25 new states in 2021 and now covers 85% of women of reproductive age in the U.S. (It also launched its services in Spanish in November.) Users fill out a medical questionnaire online, which a U.S. board-certified doctor reviews within one day; they can also schedule audio consultations and message the doctor securely at no extra charge for follow-up issues like updating prescriptions or addressing side effects. Twentyeight Health accepts Medicaid and commercial insurance, offers affordable out-of-pocket options, and has partnerships with contraceptive access funds that provide free birth control for women in need.

10. HeadLight

For bringing transparency to construction projects

Infrastructure projects are expensive and lengthy, and the majority come in both over budget and late, creating hassles for the public (which also funds them). HeadLight—think of it a little bit like a juiced-up Slack, but for construction professionals in the field—is a photo- and video-based platform that lets inspectors capture and share data from job sites in real time to ensure on-time and on-budget project delivery; the platform has been used on construction projects worth more than $30 billion. In 2021, HeadLight expanded into materials management, enabling users to track, trace, and manage materials simply by scanning a code. The recent infrastructure legislation includes provisions to ensure that taxpayer-funded projects are built with American construction materials; by providing a way to track and document the provenance of building materials, HeadLight will be useful to organizations seeking federal infrastructure funding.

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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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