What does the Firefox web browser, which you might use on your own computer, have in common with the AlloMap blood test, which can help cardiologists determine whether a patient is rejecting a transplanted heart? The answer is that both, in their own way, at the cutting edge of technology. Both are former World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, a group of companies whose 2014 intake will be announced tomorrow.
The work of xDx, the company behind the AlloMap test seems pretty obviously groundbreaking, even to someone without medical expertise, and was included in the 2006 class of Pioneers. Firefox, the web browser made by Mozilla, is perhaps less obviously revolutionary, but it is the product of a groundbreaking open source movement that shows how even mainstream consumer software can be produced by volunteer programmers and engaged users.
Selected as a Pioneer in 2007, Mozilla Firefox today holds a 16% share of the browser market and has driven many of the innovations in a once stagnant product category.
In 2000, the WEF began highlighting innovative companies through its Technology Pioneers list. Google was a Pioneer in 2002. Over the years, the list has included companies that have gone on to become mainstream successes, such as The Wikimedia Foundation (2006) and Spotify (2011). It has also highlighted innovations with the power to change the world in quieter ways. For example, MicroCHIPS (2010), connects patients with their doctors through an implanted chip that monitors vital signs and delivers drugs. Its work points the way to a future of connected medicine.
The Pioneers are small, entrepreneurial businesses working in all fields of technology, from healthcare and the environment, to robotics and new media. What unites them is their potential to have an enormous impact on society and business. Certain themes emerge year after year, reflecting the consistent concerns of the 21st Century world, such as the need for cleaner energy and the growing pace of communications and connectivity.
Other inclusions reflect trends that flourished briefly but have since been usurped. In 2007, for example, the WEF selected Technorati, the blog search engine, as a Pioneer. At the time, blogs were the driving force of the social internet but in the intervening years, though blogs and Technorati itself still exist, the momentum has shifted to newer social media players, such as Twitter, which was a Pioneer in 2010.
In other cases, it is still too early to tell what impact Pioneers will have. Kickstarter (2012), the website that brings people together to ‘crowdfund’ projects from smart watches to new movies, seems clearly to be remaking the funding process, for example. Its success, while not guaranteed, seems all but assured. Meanwhile, Foursquare (2011), the location-based social service that helps people find local restaurants, cafes and so on, remains a relative niche service, its 33 million members making it roughly one sixth of the size of Twitter. It needs more time to reach its potential.
The 2014 list will be announced tomorrow, and it will highlight another group of companies that are doing extraordinary work. Like their predecessors, some will have the potential to radically remake our world while others will bring about change more subtly. As always, aside from the companies themselves, the interesting thing about the list will be finding the themes that reveal 2013′s concerns and questions about the world.
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Author: Shane Richmond writes about technology for the World Economic Forum. The 2014 set of World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer companies will be announced on Tuesday.
Image: A man looks at light bulbs filled with water in an art exhibition REUTERS/Pilar Olivares.