CNBC Disruptor 50

50 disruptive start-ups revolutionizing business—and the world

2015 Disruptors: Birchbox, SpaceX, Uber and Airbnb
Getty Images

The biggest dream of many aspiring entrepreneurs is access to the so-called Billion Dollar Club, the fraternity where successful start-ups have bragging rights for snaring a billion dollars or more through private equity, an IPO or major corporate acquisition. While only a tiny percentage of upstarts can ever boast this claim to fame, the ones that do operate on high octane in their quest to capture market share in a huge and lucrative industry niche they aim to revolutionize.

It's that moxie that helps the founders woo venture capital and strategic partners from the get-go.


In the third annual CNBC Disruptor 50 list, private companies profiled raised more than $22 billion, and seven attracted $1 billion of finance in private-equity rounds. (Tweet this)

These highfliers topped the list and include Moderna Therapeutics (No. 1), which raised $1 billion; Space X (No. 2), $1.2 billion; Bloom Energy (No. 3 ), $1.1 billion; Uber (No.4), $4.9 billion; Dropbox (No. 6), $1.1 billion; and SurveyMonkey (No. 14), $1.2 billion. Another seven companies raised more than $500 million, including Palantir Technology (No. 7) at $896.2 million.

CNBC Disruptor 50: Top 5 companies

Finding these trailblazers wasn't easy. We vetted 400 companies from the U.S. and abroad that were nominated in a public submission process and through venture capital firms against a proprietary set of criteria. These 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. Of key importance was the scalability of the business and its ability to create a new market or ecosystem.

Read MoreA hot biotech that may be the next Genentech

An advisory council of academics that specialize in entrepreneurship and innovation—from such schools as Babson College and Columbia University—helped CNBC's editorial staff weigh the benchmarks that we used to score and rank the companies.

The result: a list that ranks Disruptors in 16 industries—from cybersecurity and biotech drugs to data storage and financial services.

This year, the category we broadly call "business services" was the industry sector in the midst of the most change. Eleven companies in this field made the ranking, offering everything from reverse logistics and social media support to payroll services. It was followed by financial services; retail; media; data analytics; cybersecurity; health care and biotech; food; telecom; travel and transportation; energy and aerospace.

Surprising trends spotted on the 2015 CNBC Disruptor list debunked many widely held misconceptions about start-ups and innovation.

Myth No. 1: Companies that are too old cannot remain disruptive.

Reality: There are 14 companies on 2015 Disruptor list that are seven years old or more and have attracted big sums of venture capital. Seventeen disruptors are three to seven years old and are still in the emerging growth stage. GENBAND, a company that makes software for telecom and cable TV operators (No.22), was founded in 1999 and continues to shake up its industry. Recently, it launched a new communications platform, Kandy, for its customers in more than 80 countries. Since its debut, the company has attracted a whopping $550 million in venture financing from companies, including One Equity Partners.

The bottom line: Only 19 Disruptors are young ventures between one and three years old that were founded in the last three years.

Myth No. 2: All the innovation is happening only in Silicon Valley.

Reality: While more than half of this year's Disruptors (a total of 29) grew out of Silicon Valley's brain trust, others popped up in various locations in the U.S. and abroad. You might expect that these hubs included Boston, Chicago and New York City. But sparks of innovation happen in many nooks and crannies stateside—and across the globe.

Read MoreGoogle is even more influential than you think

For example, Spotify (No. 47), the commercial music-streaming service, and Klarna, an e-commerce company, were both founded in Stockholm, Sweden, attracting notable investors, including Sequoia Capital and Fidelity Ventures.

London-based TransferWise (No. 8), an international money-transfer service, was founded by Taavet Hinrikus, the first employee at Skype, and Kristo Käärmann, a former management consultant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The entrepreneurs came up with the idea for the company when they got tired of the fees they were paying big banks to transfer money between their jobs in Estonia and London.

Myth No. 3: Young, white male Ivy-Leaguers have the most start-up success.

Reality: Today, the universe of successful entrepreneurs is becoming more diverse, as evidenced on the Disruptor list. Baby boomers are launching innovative ventures, as well as hip millennials and Gen Xers. Two years ago Patrick Brown, a 60-year-old Stanford biochemistry professor, founded Impossible Foods (No. 42), a company that makes sustainable foods from plants. He's attracted funding from Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures.

Read MoreCan SpaceX beat rivals in the global rocket war?

While male entrepreneurs dominate the list, four 2015 disruptors have female CEOs: Houzz (No. 11), a home remodeling site; Rent the Runway (No. 28), an apparel-rental company; Birchbox (No. 43), a subscription service for beauty samples; and Hearsay Social (No. 39), an SaaS social marketing tool for FAs.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are also making their mark as trailblazers in a host of industries. India-born Vivek Ravisankar, a former Amazon engineer, came up with the idea for HackerRank (No. 30), an IT hiring service to help companies find tech talent. The company claims it is the first Indian company to be accepted into the Y Combinator, the accelerator that funds early-stage start-ups. Customers so far include Bloomberg and Target, to name a few. No wonder the entrepreneur has wooed capital from Khosla Ventures and Battery Ventures.