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2014 CNBC Disruptor 50: The most innovative start-ups in business

2014 Disruptors: Birchbox, SpaceX, Uber and Airbnb
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2014 Disruptors: Birchbox, SpaceX, Uber and Airbnb

In the second annual Disruptor 50 list, CNBC features private companies whose innovations are having a dramatic impact across their industries and society. These so-called "disruptors" are remarkable in that they have identified an unexploited niche in the market and rushed to fill it, all the while pushing the boundaries of the status quo. In the process, they have built ecosystems for new products and services and turned traditional sectors upside down.

Finding these trailblazers wasn't easy. We vetted 522 companies from around the world that were nominated by venture capital firms and accelerators—including Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures, Google Ventures and Y Combinator—against a proprietary set of criteria that included the founder's track record, financial backing, estimated size of the company's addressable market and the originality of the company's business model. A panel of academics that specialize in entrepreneurship and innovation helped CNBC's editorial staff weigh the benchmarks that we used to score and rank the companies.

Read MoreHow CNBC chose the most disruptive companies of 2014

The result: a list that ranks disruptors in 27 industries—from aerospace and banking to enterprise technology, telecom and travel.

This year the software market was the sector that was in the midst of the most change. Fifteen companies in this field made the ranking. It was followed by enterprise technology; then online investing; telecom, personal finance, and retail; and banking, hardware, media, mobile and social media.

Five of the companies on our Disruptor 50 are from abroad. These are Dropbox (Ireland), Fon (Spain), Nexmo and TransferWise (U.K.) and Spotify (Luxembourg).

Who tops the list?

Elon Musk's (also founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal fame) aerospace venture SpaceX. It got the highest marks for creating a new ecosystem for the formerly government-run space industry, developing low-cost original products and its revenue-growth potential.

Read More America's weapon in the US-Russia space war

This year's disruptors have a tough act to follow. Ten of the 2013 Disruptor 50 have "graduated" since the list was published last June, with names like Twitter and Castlight Health going public; and Tumblr, Nest, WhatsApp and more getting big-dollar buyouts from Yahoo, Google, Facebook and others. Seventeen others were renominated for 2014 and made it through our tougher ranking methodology to be named to the list for a second straight year.

Despite challenges, the 2014 Disruptor 50 companies are on a firm upward-growth trajectory. Collectively, the group has raised an impressive $10.3 billion in angel and venture capital funding. Two have bragging rights: Uber (No.10), the ride-sharing app, raised $1.5 billion; and Dropbox (No. 24), the cloud file-hosting service, raised $1.1 billion.

Read MoreApple evangelist reveals the art of innovation

Read on for a dose of inspiration, and learn how these innovators have grand visions to change the future.

—By CNBC's Lori Ioannou

FULL LIST: 2014 CNBC DISRUPTOR 50

The List

1. SpaceX The company that wants to send you to space and colonize Mars.

2. Warby Parker Taking on the Luxottica eyewear machine.

3. Etsy A big voice for small artisans.

4. Motif Investing Building theme-based portfolios online.

5. Palantir Technologies Silicon Valley's CIA operative.

6. GitHub Cracking the code on collaboration.

7. Aereo The company TV hopes will die.

8. Moderna Therapeutics Reprogramming cells to fight disease.

9. Spotify The most controversial act in music.

10. Uber The 21st-century taxi service.

11. Zuora A renewal in the subscription business model.

12. ChargePoint Putting the gas station out of business.

13. Dataminr The search for intelligence on Twitter.

14. Skybox Imaging The spy who came into the Google fold.

15. Stripe The start-up challenging PayPal.

16. TransferWise Getting bankers out of the forex biz.

17. Personal Capital A 360-degree view of your finances.

18. Quirky Crowdsourcing an idea for basement tinkerers.

19. Pure Storage Predicting a flash flood of data.

20. Wealthfront Silicon Valley's plan to oust wealth managers.

21. Fullscreen YouTube's hot multichannel talent network.

22. EcoMotors Turning the engine inside out, in Detroit's backyard.

23. Shape Security Putting organized cybercrime out of biz.

24. Dropbox The 800-pound gorilla in the cloud IPO room.

25. Cool Planet Energy Systems From farm to fuel, and back to farm.

26. AngelList Getting disruptors the money they need to disrupt.

27. BrightRoll Betting detergent ads on TV won't wash.

28. Yext Resurrecting the Yellow Pages.

29. DocuSign Sign on the dotted e-line.

30. Apptio A cloud-based Peter Drucker.

31. Nebula A cloud storage device the size of a pizza box.

32. Pinterest The world's bulletin board.

33. Lending Club Borrowing without banks.

34. Redfin The only real estate broker who hates commissions.

35. Coinbase The closest thing bitcoin has to a central bank.

36. Hampton Creek Foods The egg comes first; no chicken necessary.

37. Bill.com Making sure the check's never in the mail again.

38. Rent The Runway Nice dress. Can I borrow it?

39. Nexmo How billion-dollar start-ups text.

40. Fon The Airbnb meets Uber and Aereo of Wi-Fi.

41. Airbnb The newest idea in room service: renting one.

42. MongoDB Solving humongous data problems.

43. Oscar Health insurance for the Obamacare era.

44. Kumu Networks A much-needed boost for wireless networks.

45. Betterment Robo-advising for the masses.

46. Kymeta Bill Gates' next potential blockbuster.

47. Twilio Riding the mobile-app wave.

48. Snapchat The app for selfie photo lovers.

49. Kickstarter Cashing in from the crowd.

50. Birchbox Free samples, for a price.

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