Silicon Valley: 25 to watch
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Grocery delivery service
Hungry but too lazy to go to the shops? Pull up the Instacart app and they’ll take your order and send someone there for you. Instant delivery is a growing trend in ecommerce as smartphones make digital shopping ubiquitous. Amazon and Google are also getting into this space, sometimes called “Uber for X” after the app that delivers drivers instantly. Instacart remains one of the fastest-growing start-ups in the area, launching in more than a dozen US cities this year and beginning to look at international expansion.
Smart door locks
Designs by Yves Béhar range from the “One Laptop Per Child” project to Jawbone’s Jambox speaker and Up fitness tracker. His latest is the August Smart Lock, which has been hailed as the best “connected home” gadget since Nest’s thermostat. The device automatically unlocks the front door when it detects the homeowner’s phone approaching, via Bluetooth. It is already a top seller in US Apple Stores and chief executive Jason Johnson says a second product is in the works.
Classroom management app
Getting young students to behave in class and keeping their parents in the loop are not easy tasks, especially for teachers who may struggle with too many students and too little time. ClassDojo allows educators to track student behaviour, award points for improvement and email parents a weekly report about how their son or daughter is doing. Founders Liam Don and Sam Chaudhary, both raised in the UK, worked in the education field before relocating to San Francisco to launch the company.
Early stage investment
An online platform for individuals looking to invest in promising new companies, AngelList has ridden the start-up boom. Its syndicates allow people to invest alongside more established investors in return for giving up some of their gains. It is also developing a recruitment business on the side by doubling as an employment network for the start-up industry: encouraging entrepreneurs and engineers to list themselves on the site.
Commercial use of drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles, as the industry calls them – is still a legal grey area. But that hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs, and Airware, founded in 2011, leads the pack. Its autopilot software is cheaper than military versions, safer than consumer drone equivalents and acts as a platform from which to build systems for any industry, from wildlife conservation to vaccine drops in remote areas.
Online payments technology
Not many start-ups can claim Apple, Facebook and Twitter as major partners. Stripe can. Founded by the young Irish Collison brothers, Stripe has developed a system that makes it easy for online retailers to process payments. Their code underpins some of Facebook and Twitter’s forays into ecommerce, and they worked with Apple on turning iPhones into digital wallets.
Code-sharing social network
GitHub has revolutionised the management of software development. The site lets developers store open-source code, which they can then modify as needed. That makes it easier for developers to build on the work of others. Companies can also pay for private code storage. It has had some management issues, however. Earlier this year a female developer quit, accusing some colleagues of sexual harassment, and a co-founder stepped down following an investigation.
TechShop is a playground for makers. The nationwide chain of workshops gives members access to impressively sophisticated power tools and 3D printers, allowing them to invent and build products far more sophisticated than any tinkerer could do in his or her garage. The possibility that TechShop could help rejuvenate American manufacturing has also caught the attention of some powerful people in Washington. It partners with Darpa, the Department of Defense’s engineering research wing, and Barack Obama dropped in on a branch in Pittsburgh to give a speech on the state of the economy.
09. Proteus Digital Health
Embedding ingestible sensors in pills to help doctors monitor their patients in real time sounds like sci-fi but Proteus is already piloting its digital medicine system in the US and Europe. The California-based company also raised an impressive $172m in funding this summer from backers including Novartis and Oracle. Its tiny “chip” reacts in the stomach to emit radio waves that are then picked up by a chest strap and transferred to a smartphone which sends them into the cloud.
Chat app popular with protesters
Proof that an app designed for one thing – sending messages when there is no mobile reception – can be transformed into something totally different. FireChat, an app which uses Bluetooth capabilities to create a private internet, made its name earlier this year after Iraqis adopted it as a way of communicating when the government was restricting internet access. Its use soared during the recent protests in Hong Kong.
Workplace collaboration app
Many successful start ups are created when a struggling company “pivots” to a new idea. Stewart Butterfield has done it twice, first with photo-sharing pioneer Flickr and now with Slack. After an online game failed, his company released Slack, its internal messaging tool, as a free app for other companies. Aimed at teams of five to 150 people, it provides a searchable group chat and has become the “back channel” of choice for many Silicon Valley start-ups.
Predictive keyboard app
SwiftKey improves on the most used but least liked part of any smartphone: the keyboard. Founded in London in 2008, the team expanded to San Francisco last year just before Apple opened up its iPhones and iPads to third-party keyboards. It is already among the most popular Android apps in the world. SwiftKey learns your writing style by analysing your emails and text messages, and suggests what it thinks will be the next word you’ll want to use even before you’ve started typing it.
If the digital currency Bitcoin is a vehicle for disrupting the financial services industry, then Coinbase is one of its most ambitious creations. Founded by software engineer Brian Armstrong and Goldman Sachs trader Fred Ehrsam, Coinbase is a leader in the race to attract consumers with easy-to-use online accounts and merchants with the promise of low-cost transactions.
14. Unity Technologies
3D gaming platform
As a nine-year-old company, Unity is hardly a new start-up. But in that time, the gaming world has expanded to include smartphones, tablets and PCs as well as new consoles and, soon, virtual reality. Unity’s gaming engine works with them all, making it the platform of choice for millions of developers and hundreds of millions of players.
While there are plenty of social apps for distributing single images, Storehouse co‑founders Mark Kawano and Tim Donnelly have created a new kind of “visual storytelling” platform. Its templates, slick design and smooth animations can make a day out look like a magazine photo spread.
Sometimes 140 characters is just not enough. After pushing the world to adopt the brevity of a tweet, Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone founded Medium, a long-form blogging platform, in 2012. Writers can opine for however many lines they want, making it a home for bloggers, journalists and academics, as well as some pretty awful PR pitches.
Uber for domestic chores
This start-up is trying to rethink one of the most universal problems: how to keep your home tidy. Its platform lets users book cleaners by the hour and at short notice. Just two years old and a graduate of prestigious start-up incubator Y Combinator, it is already operating in more than 30 metropolitan areas in the US and Canada. The company’s work has proved somewhat controversial, however, for its reliance on contract workers who are not formal employees and therefore lack guaranteed hours or benefits.
18. Super Evil Megacorp
“Hardcore” tablet games
Super Evil Megacorp says its mission is to “destroy the productivity of mankind with endlessly entertaining games”. But it wants to do it with more intense, “hardcore” games, not just another Angry Birds. It has a stellar team of experienced games executives drawn from Grand Theft Auto makers Rockstar Games, social gaming pioneer Playfish and Riot, the company behind League of Legends. And now that devices such as the iPad have much more powerful graphics and processing capabilities, their new target is tablets.
A mission to defeat death
Calico (short for California Life Company) is Google’s attempt to “defeat death” – or, at least, tackle the chronic diseases of ageing. Its chief executive, Google non‑executive director Art Levinson, once led Genentech to become the most successful US biotech company and has reassembled some of that company’s former leaders for his new venture. In one of its first big initiatives, Calico reached a partnership with drugmaker AbbVie whereby each will invest up to $750m in early-stage drug research.
Automated investment management
Wealthfront is one of the fastest-growing online investment tools. With more than $1bn under management, it offers low-cost, diversified funds with a twist, claiming to adjust individual portfolios automatically to reflect a customer’s risk tolerance. Wealthfront has marketed itself heavily to staff at Silicon Valley companies that have gone public, using this rich young clientele to get its name out.
With Amazon dominating most of ecommerce, it can be tricky for start-ups to find a niche. One promising area is home decor. Houzz is a star of the space, raising $165m this autumn to accelerate its move into selling home goods online. The site has already built up a business among users who plan their renovations on it, mining its inventory of design ideas and database of architects and contractors.
A list of personal investors that reads like a who’s who of the tech world – including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel – has made Vicarious one of the hottest new start-ups in artificial intelligence, even though its technology is still experimental. Vicarious hopes to mimic the human neocortex to carry out tasks such as image recognition – a notoriously difficult problem for computers.
Control anything with anything
All software works on the principle of “If This Then That”. IFTTT allows people who aren’t programmers to control that cause and effect between dozens of different apps. That could mean automatically saving all your Instagram photos to Dropbox or triggering a text‑message alert if it is going to rain tomorrow. It also works with a range of internet-connected devices such as “smart” lightbulbs and thermostats that may not otherwise “talk” to each other.
24. Shape Security
Shape Security has developed a technology that allows web pages to change constantly. This shape-shifting code means hackers cannot use botnets – vast virtual networks of computers – as a cheap and quick way to discover passwords. Backed by Google’s venture capital arm, the company is led by a former senior adviser to the US defence secretary.
At a time when many health-tracking device developers are nervously eyeing the Apple Watch, Hello’s first product, Sense, has found a niche: sleep monitoring. Founded by 23-year-old Brit James Proud, Sense raised $2.4m on Kickstarter this summer. Hello is also backed by a who’s who of Silicon Valley angel investors.
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