The 28 Startups to Watch
By Eugene S. Robinson
It’s one thing to survive. It’s another thing to thrive. And to thrive with a certain amount of style and grace, or dare we say, flair? Magical. So when March 2020 hit like a ton of bricks and the entire world was shot into a spiral of shutdowns, quarantines and viral panics, there were two ways to react: Tap out or pivot and push ahead. In today’s Sunday Magazine you’re going to find exemplars of the latter, companies pivoting, pushing ahead and damning the torpedoes to change the future of work and so much more. As a startup doing big things ourselves this year, we know a bit about pivoting with flair. Read on for more.
Sepsis Is So 2019. Imagine starting your company this year. The San Dimas, California-based Curative did just that with a plan to market tests for sepsis, a potentially deadly blood infection. And then? The not-just-potentially deadly pandemic hits. So the company’s whole raison d’être was refocused toward an oral-fluid-swab test for COVID-19. Which with brightly colored curbside boxes, collection stations and vans is a colossal pivot. Did we mention the CEO is only 25?
Greener Guacamole. Mexican chemical engineer Scott Munguia takes avocado stones and uses the polymer they contain to make disposable biodegradable cutlery that’s gained in popularity across 19 nations as the global demand for avocados surges. The cutlery disintegrates in 240 days. Biofase, his firm, is already the largest biopolymer maker in Latin America. But he’s hoping to scoop out a bigger chunk of the global $5.8 billion bioplastics industry.
Internet From Space. Neha Satak, a 36-year-old Indian engineer with neatly cropped hair and a ready smile, is challenging the giants of the private space industry, promising something Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ OneWeb can’t offer yet. Her startup Astrome is building satellite transponders that have 11 times more capacity than traditional transponders, and could revolutionize internet access in remote parts of the world. Read more on OZY.
Shaping the Future of Work
Rethinking Online College: Cofounded by the founder of Masterclass, Outlier.org launched in 2019 with one mission: to increase the quality of student education and dramatically decrease student debt. How? For $400 — less than one-sixth the cost of a traditional college course — learners on Outlier.org are able to enjoy a modern, high-quality learning experience taught by leading professors for college credit. It’s a disruptive notion at a time when most college students have been forced to go remote and still pay full price.
Hail to Them: Chief, a two-year-old New York City company, is to the moment born. With President-elect Joe Biden projected to have his cabinet full of women in great positions of power, Chief proposes to offer professional coaching to advance gender equality by helping women rise through the executive ranks. It’s about time, though busting up male insecurity over female leadership will be a bigger task.
Meet When You Feel Like It. The degree to which most of us like our jobs is the degree to which we have agency over our lives and schedules. Meetings that are called, then canceled, then rescheduled are precisely the kind of small-scale stuff that in the long run might make you lose your mind. Enter: Loom. The 5-year-old San Francisco startup allows users to make a video presentation and colleagues to provide feedback when schedules permit. This bit of genius, tailor-made for those working at home, has the company valued at $350 million this year.
A New Way to Link: Four-year-old, Chicago-based Upkey bridges the gap between employers that are looking for students and students who are searching for employers. Because trying to find a job now? It’s rough, but with 15,000 kids now partaking it might just make that whole first job two-step a little less miserable.
Bibbiti-Bobbiti-Boo: Dubbed “Glassdoor for women,” FairyGodBoss has created a community of people who elevate women at work — a community of fairygodbosses. Founded in 2015, the company is now the one of the largest job platforms for women, millions of whom use it monthly to access job reviews, community advice, salary information and job postings.
Tech of the Moment
Take Your Data Back. Sick of Facebook and Google making megabucks off of your online presence? The blockchain company Harmony is leading the revolution. If we imagined a world where we took back control of our data, what kind of new income could this unlock for everyday people? The recent tech-lash against these giants signals the need for change. Harmony’s blockchain protocol, built on a spread-the-wealth philosophy, aims to offer a solution.
Word Up. The rise of Cameo is both totally surprising and totally unsurprising. Sure, delivering personalized celebrity video messages to friends, family and associates sounds cool, but not the blue-sky kind of cool that requires 121 employees and enjoys a 400 percent increase in revenue. But who knew a virus would create a situation where both celebrities and fans had the time and the inclination for one to pay the other to tell their moms happy birthday?
India’s TikTok. Less than six months after its rebranding, Chingari is using innovations like augmented reality filters to draw 30 million downloads as it fills the void left by New Delhi’s ban on TikTok in late June. It won’t be easy to replace TikTok. But Chingari — which means spark in Hindi — is keen to ignite a new social media revolution. Available in multiple Indian languages, Spanish and English, the app is making a bid for both small-town India and global markets. Read more about what Chingari’s chief told OZY recently.
Rollin’ Robots. Nuro, neighbors of OZY’s in Mountain View, California, realized that there was gold in those supply chain hills. From the tchotchke makers to the tchotchke buyers, there were lots of steps where a fairly enterprising company could insert itself, and the 4-year-old Nuro took this to heart with a twist: robots! Nuro can get anything to you without you having to breathe in what the delivery person has breathed out. With groceries, meals (on autonomous wheels), and now medical supplies, Nuro’s seen a tripling of demand since the shutdown started. The company has also volunteered its R2 vehicles to aid with contactless delivery of medical supplies for COVID-19 patients being treated in two California stadiums and schlep pharmaceuticals for CVS in Houston — legally on open streets. Read more on OZY.
China’s Tesla. It’s just four years old, but it’s already hitting top gear. Pony.ai is behind China’s first fully self-driving fleet of vehicles. Last year, it launched a robotaxi service in California. In February, it drew $462 million in a fresh round of funding, before adding another $267 million in November. Pony.ai is already a unicorn (it’s valued at $5.3 billion), and it’s fast emerging as a horse to bet on.
How Thoughtful! It’s so simple that you’ll kick yourself for not having thought of it first. Kick. Yourself. Repeatedly. Sendoso, very simply, is a platform that makes it possible for you to easily and almost effortlessly send gifts (emblazoned with your brand, if desired) to prospective clients, buyers or whomever you might want to woo with your thoughtfulness and kind regards. That’s it. And then again, that’s everything.
Health, Beauty, No Beasts
The Right Prescription. Right before COVID-19, San Francisco-based Alto Pharmacy got about $250 million from folks who thought it was a good idea. The idea being, specifically, a digital pharmacy that delivered medicine and served as a handmaiden to pharmacists. Of course after COVID and the muscled-up development of tele-doctoring, something like this is gold.
Pump You Up. Having home fitness gear pre-pandemic seemed like a luxury. Why bother clogging up your house with kettlebells and exercise bikes when you can go to a gym that even provides you with a personal trainer? Now you have no choice. So New York’s own P.volve marries online workouts with easy at-home equipment and saw its September subscriptions jump 191 percent above August’s.
Strong Mind, Strong Body. With large chunks of the quarantined population experiencing mental stressors that have heretofore not been a part of their lives, Mountain View, California-based Mindstrong keeps patients with mental health issues connected to their care providers. And through software that detects indications of unhealthy thoughts (texts, scrolling and even typing speed), it can tip off providers to the need for possible interventions.
Get Away for Wellness … If You Can. In post-Soviet Georgia, 39-year-old Valeri Chekheria is turning a picturesque nation once known as the home of Stalin into a modern destination for those seeking off-the-beaten track wellness and health retreats. Amid the pandemic, Chekheria has doubled down on eco-tourism as a mantra for success. He faces long odds but like millions of his generation, he’s dealt with worse: the chaos, economic tumult and war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the transition to democracy. The pandemic? That’s easy peasy by comparison. Read more on OZY.
The Realest Estate
Refi Reimagined. It’s a great time to be a digital mortgage lender, considering how first-time borrowers or those looking to refinance are soaring during pandemic-lowered interest rates, and seeing your banker in person isn’t a good idea right now. The four-year-old New York company Better.com is taking advantage and now boasts some 3,000 employees.
After the Dorm. Calling Bungalow an Uber for rental rooms wouldn’t be that far off of the mark. Started in 2017 in San Francisco, Bungalow simply helps you find rooms to rent. And after completely rejiggering its business courtesy of COVID-19 it then raised $47 million to help kids who are out of college and in their first jobs find places to live.
LinkedIn for Farmers. When everything around you is falling apart, you trust those who’re in battle alongside you. As the pandemic disrupted agriculture’s supply chains, more and more farmers turned to what’s billed as the world’s largest peer-to-peer communication platform for small farmers, asking and answering questions to help each other navigate the crisis. Wefarm is London-based, but its area of impact is East Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda, where one in five farms uses the technology. Rural access to the internet can be spotty, so the firm relies on old-fashioned SMSs but then uses artificial intelligence to match questions with answers for its 2 million users. While many of us can afford to worry about farm-to-fork food, those who actually grow what we eat need to first build a farm-to-farm network.
Remote Rentals. The last thing on anyone’s wishlist in 2020 is visiting an unknown, closed space. But what if you need to rent an apartment or new space for an office? Brazilian property tech firm QuintoAndar has the answer. Backed by global investors such as Softbank and General Atlantic, QuintoAndar is digitizing Brazil’s rental market and now has assets worth nearly $6 billion across 30 cities that you can check out online without having to physically visit the space. Little surprise then that the firm is Brazil’s third-most successful startup this year, with total funding of $335 million.
Buy Buy, Retail
Smokin’. Pass the Dutchie. The three-year-old Bend, Oregon, company does online ordering for cannabis products and if there ever was a time to mellow the hell out? This is it. With more than 100 employees and $35 million from Howard Schulz, Snoop Dogg and Kevin Durant, Dutchie helps dispensaries track their orders and maintains their websites. A growth industry for sure.
Between the Sheets. The six-year-old, 80-employee Brooklinen — based in Brooklyn (get it?) — started out selling super expensive luxury sheets for non-luxury prices and raised $50 million in March to expand well beyond bedding. How far beyond? Lounge wear, robes, towels and other things we might want to buy during shutdown but can’t otherwise reasonably afford.
Protect Your Epidermis. Six years in, the New York based online company Tula Skincare is cashing in on pandemic closures of brick and mortar competitors, as well as a massive uptick in the amount of time most of us have to stare in the mirror and worry. Tula has seen its business increase 400 percent this year for a product line derived from probiotics. Yeah, it’s not just for yogurt anymore.
Going Where Amazon Won’t. Jessica Anuna, 28, is an Amazon alumnus who is integrating Africa into global e-commerce delivery networks. At the moment, Amazon doesn’t deliver anywhere on the continent. Anuna’s Lagos-based online fashion retail startup Klasha has developed its own payment and delivery solutions, which it’s integrating into the systems of global brands so African consumers can have goods shipped from across the Atlantic faster than DHL.
Uber for Buses. Ride-sharing apps have transformed urban transportation. But for millions of working class people around the world, spending a few dollars every day to commute to work is not an option. They must depend on often unreliable public transport. That’s where Plentywaka comes in. The Nigerian bus-hailing app lets you type in your destination and connects you with the nearest bus traveling on that route. It’s had a baptism by fire: Plentywaka was launched in September 2019, just months before the pandemic forced millions of people to stay indoors. But it has managed to click with more than 40,000 riders who have so far taken over 190,000 trips using the service.
Time to Insure. Even if you live in a shack or a home without a deed, you deserve to have your investment protected. That’s the simple premise behind Sugar, Ntando Kubheka’s venture in South Africa that the entrepreneur believes could prove to be a valuable financial lifeline to billions in poverty around the world. Using an innovative model to gauge risk, he’s insuring those previously deemed uninsurable. Read more on OZY.