The world’s 10 smartest companies are all in the US and China

4 Sep 2017

Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Once again, the US dominates an examination of the smartest future-focused companies, but Chinese sci-tech superstars are making gains.

MIT Technology Review released its list of the 50 Smartest Companies of 2017 in June. This annual list is the publication editors’ “best guess as to which firms will be the dominant companies of the future” and, indeed, many of them are sitting comfortably in that position in the present.

There are certainly some usual suspects featured in the full 50 – household tech names such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon all get their billing. But this is about brains, not just brawn (where brawn equates to multinational might and eyewatering revenues, in this case). And so, we have some lesser-known clever companies happily placed alongside the world’s top tech giants.

“Though they might be unfamiliar to you today, we believe they have an inside track to take advantage of the technologies, such as artificial intelligence, that will define business in the coming years,” wrote MIT Technology Review editor David Rotman. “Being smart about innovation won’t guarantee that these firms become superstars. But it does, at least, give them the potential to create and dominate new markets in an increasingly competitive business environment.”

US and Chinese firms dominate the list overall, taking all the top spots. California alone has 18 contenders on the list.

Of the entire 50, just six come from Europe, with the highest ranking going to Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems at 15, just ahead of Apple, while familiar brands Adidas and Daimler give Germany two spots on the list.

After eight years on the list, IBM hangs in at No 39 and the only company other than Alphabet to have been featured every year since the list began. Three newcomers – iFlytek, Kite Pharma and Regeneron – shot straight into the top 10, while US pharma company Merck makes its debut at No 17.

So, which are the top 10 smartest companies in the world? Let’s begin the countdown.

10. Spark Therapeutics

Philadelphia biotech Spark Therapeutics is still at the clinical stage with its products, but its pipeline is promising revolutionary gene therapy for some devastating diseases such as a progressive form of blindness known as choroideremia. According the MIT Technology Review editors, this company earns its place among the smartest because of this and its novel work to combat haemophilia B using intravenous treatment with viruses carrying a corrected gene. Haemophilia B affects one in 5,000 men but is expensive to treat conventionally, so Spark Therapeutics has the opportunity to create real impact with its breakthrough therapy.

9. Regeneron

Headquartered just outside New York City, Regeneron will be known in Ireland by its Limerick base – one of the largest biologics manufacturing facilities in the world. Another biotech company, Regeneron mines data on the human genome to find targets for specific diseases in order to produce monoclonal antibodies that hit those targets. Its flagship product is Eylea, a treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetic macular oedema. Eylea stormed onto the scene in 2011, undercutting the price of a competitor AMD drug by Roche and taking over this sight-saving slice of the market.

8. Tencent

Up to March 2017, the world’s top 10 most valuable companies by market capitalisation all hailed from the US. Then Tencent, the first Chinese entry on this list, broke into 10th position.

If you don’t recognise this Shenzhen company by name, you will have likely heard of its primary product, WeChat, the massive social network that even the likes of Facebook aspires to emulate. Much more than just a media-sharing platform for its 770m-plus dedicated daily users, WeChat supports messaging, videos and music alongside online gaming, shopping and peer-to-peer payments, all through one convenient, and ubiquitous, mobile app.

Tencent is also the world’s largest video-gaming company, though its success in generating addictive content has put the company in an uncomfortable spotlight.

7. Kite Pharma

California sci-tech company Kite Pharma deals in immunotherapy, engineering T-cells – one of the body’s natural defenders – to fight cancer. The company’s progress in developing a treatment for aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is encouraging, with more than one-third of participants in one study showing no sign of disease six months after treatment.

This promising study and Kite Pharma’s other endeavours have seen the company snapped up by Gilead Sciences, a biopharma giant with a $96.36bn market value. Gilead recently acquired Kite Pharma for $11.9bn, with the deal expected to close in the fourth quarter of this year.

6. iFlytek

One of the lesser-known names on this list, iFlytek, is headquartered in Hefei, China, and has a valuation of more than $6bn. This smart company’s business is voice recognition and, in this field, it dominates the Chinese market with 70pc market share. According to iFlytek, more than 160,000 developers use its software and more than 400m people use its products. Its voice-activated command systems are spreading through cars, homes, robots and schools, and the company has also established a multimillion-dollar fund for AI-related start-ups around the world.

5. Alphabet

Google’s parent company oversees a sprawling family of companies that do more than just index the internet – even though that service alone has proven invaluable in this age of information. The MIT Technology Review report seems most taken with the Alphabet subsidiaries leading experiments in autonomous vehicles (Waymo), virtual reality (Daydream VR) and AI (DeepMind).

In the case of DeepMind, the company itself is already enjoying the benefits of a division dedicated to bringing AI closer to human intelligence. By applying these machine-learning algorithms to data-centre cooling, Alphabet claims to have saved 40pc in energy.

4. 23andMe

Life sciences start-up 23andMe caused quite a buzz when it first came on the scene in 2006. After a rocky start, it all changed for the company this year when the US FDA granted permission to tell customers whether their DNA puts them at higher risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and eight other conditions. Now, the California company has a unicorn-level valuation of $1.1bn for its at-home genetic testing kits, snapped up by more than 2m customers worldwide. Of these, more than half have consented for their genetic information to be used for scientific research, and 23andMe products have been put to use in research projects investigating fertility, depression, Parkinson’s and even nail biting.

3. Amazon

Amazon is so much more than an online marketplace. Jeff Bezos’ Seattle company is actively exploring AI technologies such as computer vision, machine learning and natural-language processing, and often leads the pack when it comes to deploying these emerging technologies commercially.

After being held responsible for destroying many brick-and-mortar retailers, Amazon has surprised some with a march back into offline shopping with Amazon Go convenience stores and its $13.7bn acquisition of Whole Foods. With Amazon Go, the tech giant is developing a real-life shopping experience as high-tech as the online one, where purchases are monitored using AI, cameras and sensors, so that customers can simply walk in and out with their required goods in a checkout-free experience.

2. SpaceX

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is fast becoming a well-recognised brand, helped along by highly publicised rocket launches of varying degrees of success. Recently valued at $21bn, SpaceX is in the business of making rockets reusable, which would be a revolution in space travel, dramatically shrinking costs and launch timelines. Indeed, SpaceX has managed to squeeze the time needed to refit recycled rockets down to just a few months and is considering a 10pc discount for customers who agree to use them for their payloads. Thinking long-term, SpaceX’s commercial innovations contribute to the California-headquartered company’s ultimate goal of establishing an interplanetary transport system.

1. Nvidia

Nvidia isn’t typically known by the average tech consumer, but its powerful processing chips will have been encountered by many. The California-headquartered company’s chief revenue earners are its graphics chips for video games, but it also claims to have all the major internet and cloud-service providers using its chips to accelerate their processes. A $3bn investment in R&D for its Tesla V100 data-centre chip is well placed, as the company recently posted a 186pc year-on-year increase in revenue from its data centre business. MIT Technology Review considers Nvidia the leader in processing power for AI software, citing deals with autonomous carmakers, ensuring these smart cookies have a solid future in an emerging tech revolution.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.