The World Economic Forum has announced which 24 startups for 2014 that it thinks will improve the world in the decades to come.
The Swiss nonprofit organization, which was formed in 1971, has a remarkable track record, with today’s most influential technology companies the toast of the economic forum in years past. Previous picks include Wikimedia, Spotify, Twitter Inc. (NYSE:TWTR) and Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL), not to mention Kickstarter, the Mozilla Corporation and a slew of other big hitters.
This year’s picks range from messaging apps to a sharing economy transportation app that could redefine the way Europeans take vacation. The International Business Times has put together a list of the six coolest and most interesting startup companies that, hopefully, will eventually make life easier for people around the world.
What they do: Already operating in 12 European countries with 8 million members, the French startup is a popular ridesharing service that makes it possible for Europeans traveling from one city to another to book a ride with a regular driver already planning on heading in that direction. The passenger meets someone new while traveling for cheap, while the driver earns some extra cash and the company takes 10 percent.
Who’s backing them: BlaBlaCar exceeded its own expectations by raising $100 million in funding earlier this year from a variety of venture capital firms, with San Francisco-based Index Ventures leading a charge that also included existing partners Accel Partners, ISAI and Lead Edge Capital.
Why they matter: Unlike Uber and Lyft, the young French company has yet to face any major legal barriers and will likely find it easier to convince Europeans -- who are more accustomed to various forms of public transportation than Americans -- to participate in ridesharing. Better yet, BlaBlaCar will only thrive as it continues to grow with passengers finding more and more rides available in their area as word spreads. Oh yeah, and it’s been suggested that BlaBlaCar is the next French billion dollar company behind Criteo SA (NASDAQ:CRTO), a French online advertising company that debuted on the Nasdaq in October 2013 and has a current market cap of around $1.8 billion.
Startup: Kakao Talk
What they do: Kakao Talk, released in March 2010, is a free mobile instant messaging app with 140 million users who use it for iOS, BlackBerry Windows Phone, Nokia Asha, Android, and other major phone carriers. It’s used by 93 percent of smartphone owners in South Korea (where the service began) but is also available in Korean, Russian, Chinese and other major languages. There’s no limit on the number of friends who can join group chats, and users don’t even need to know each other’s number.
Who’s backing them: Most of the company’s revenue comes from its gaming platform, which is used by unknown developers to start their careers and build brand awareness. It’s already raised $63 million from Tencent, the massive Chinese holding company that controls the WeChat messaging app, and earlier this year was reportedly in negotiations with Morgan Stanley and Samsung securities to file for a $2 billion initial public offering in South Korea.
Why they matter: Rather than being just another messaging app, Kakao has transformed itself into an entire platform where users can share photos, videos, voice messages, location, URL, and a variety of other information. It’s also possible to buy physical goods (think Starbucks or jewelry) through the “gifting” service.
Startup: Mera Gao Micro Grid Power
What they do: Mera Gao Micro Grid Power builds, owns, and operates micro grids in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, literally meaning northern region. The state is the largest in India.
Mera Gao means "my village" in Hindi language. MGP aims to serve off-grid villages with high quality, dependable lighting and mobile phone charging services. MGP’s model allows it to provide service to a typical hamlet (about 30 households) for a total cost of $1,000 that is collected as a tariff over a period of time. The households pay this at the rate of about 50 cents a week for two LEDs and a mobile phone charger, a Mera Gao Power spokesman said in a Facebook message.
Who’s backing them: The U.S. Agency for International Development is MGP’s first investor. USAID, through its Development Innovation Ventures, has awarded MGP a grant of $300,000 to build and operate micro grids in 40 off-grid villages of Sitapur district, in the state of Uttar Pradesh and evaluate the impact of MGP’s services on health, income, and education.
Why they matter: “Roughly four hundred million rural inhabitants -- more than the entire U.S. population -- still lack electricity, making energy access a development imperative,” the World Resources Institute said in a report with India’s Centre for Development Finance at the Institute for Financial Management and Research. Giving these 400 million people reliable power even for part of the day would go a long way in helping them increase the productivity of their work as well as attempt incremental improvements that would raise their income levels. That, and the ability to recharge even the low-cost mobile phones that some of them might be able to afford, or even afford collectively, would help bring them financial inclusion, given India’s central bank is strongly encouraging the use of mobile banking as one of the ways to reach India’s un-banked population.
Startup: SmartThings (Physical Graph Corporation)
What they do: “We believe that the everyday objects around us can do more to make our lives better,” SmartThings’ founders stated on their site. SmartThings is building an open platform for the "Internet of Things" that enables consumers to install connected devices and control them through a mobile app, turning the phone into a remote control device enabling convenience and security.
Who is backing them: On Aug. 14, SmartThings said it had been acquired by Samsung, without disclosing the financial terms. SmartThings would move its operations from Washington, D.C., to the Korean electronics giant’s open innovation center in Palo Alto, California. TechCrunch had reported the deal could be worth $200 million. The acquisition came 10 months after SmartThings announced its first major venture funding: $12.5 million from Greylock Partners and Highland Capital Partners, taking the total venture money the company had raised at that time to $15.5 million.
Why they matter: The really smart people at SmartThings are at the center of a global race to build the best platforms for what has popularly come to be known as the "Internet of Things," as more and more devices get embedded electronics in them. Their home automation technologies could make houses safer and easier to live in for people with disabilities, for instance. They could also make houses much more energy efficient to use, lightening the green house burden on the planet. Samsung’s acquisition of the startup puts it in position to compete with the likes of Google and Apple that are building their own IoT platforms. For SmartThings, every Samsung customer is a potential customer.
Raspberry Pi Foundation
What They Do: The United Kingdom-based not-for-profit develops and produces affordable credit card sized Linux computers that can be plugged into a TV and keyboard.
The Raspberry Pi foundation, which was founded in 2008 by Eben Upton, Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft, of the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, was initially started in response to declining student interest in computer science. It aims to make computer hardware more affordable for educational use and developing markets.
Who’s Backing Them: The Rasperry Pi Foundation is a charity funded primarily through the sale of Raspberry Pi devices. However, it has also received support from the University of Cambridge, Wolfram Research, Mythic Beasts and Olswang. The foundation reportedly raised 1.15 million pounds ($1.9 million) in 2012, according to the U.K. Charity Commission.
Why They Matter: With Raspberry Pi devices starting at only $35, the foundation enables its users to explore computing and learn programming without the high startup cost. While the foundation aims to make computing accessible to children, it has also enabled the development of embedded computing solutions such as audio book readers for the blind.
Raspberry Pi computers have also caught the attention of hobbyist programmers, who have developed mini-game consoles and media centers using the technology.
ETA Devices Inc.
What They Do: ETA Devices is a semiconductor company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which aims to solve the growing power issues in mobile devices by providing power management chips, consulting services and reference designs to the mobile industry.
ETA's technology has led to significant power savings for cellular base stations and smaller hardware cabinets. For mobile devices, the company's technology has increased battery life and added support for wireless technologies such as LTE Advanced for a fraction of the cost.
Who’s Backing Them: The company has raised more than $10 million through two rounds of venture capital funding from Stata Venture Partners and other investors.
Why They Matter: As mobile phones continue to slim down, device manufacturers will have to turn to other ways to extend the life of their handsets. ETA Devices claims its technology has helped solve this problem by extending smartphone battery life by 50 percent through the reduction of heat waste. By equipping ETA Devices technology to mobile phone base stations globally, the company believes the technology can cut their power consumption in half and greenhouse gas emissions by 36 million tons.
“The world’s mobile networks consume approximately 120TWh of electricity per year, and 50-80 percent of these networks’ power is consumed by their power amplifiers and associated components,” ETA Devices said. “Implementing Eta Devices’ new power amplifier solution on a global level could save mobile operators 60TWh of energy per year, which is equivalent to the amount of power produced by more than seven average-sized American nuclear power plants.”