- The Big Five may dominate tech these days, but start-ups can still thrive by tackling big thorny problems.
- We interviewed angel investors, limited partners who invest in venture firms, and senior investment partners with funds in San Francisco, Boston and New York to get a sense of which start-ups are likely to raise big rounds soon.
Everyone in tech needs to relax for a minute.
The Big Five -- Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft -- aren't killing everybody and squashing all innovation. And not every start-up that scores venture funding from a prominent Silicon Valley firm turns out like Juicero or Theranos.
Start-ups still have a chance to go big if they operate honestly, and build their products and services around new technologies that the incumbents still haven't mastered.
While we used to think of mobile phones and cloud computing as cutting edge three or four years ago, the frontier in tech moves quickly. Today's frontier technologies include synthetic biology, deep learning, quantum computing and the blockchain.
These fields, and companies that exploit these technologies, are just starting to reshape our world. They also have the chance to raise growth capital from more firms and to raise bigger rounds than ever before thanks to the presence of huge new entrants like Softbank Vision Fund which intends to pump $100 billion into startups over the next several years.
Here are 29 tech start-ups we expect to draw massive (over $50 million) rounds in the next two years to challenge the giants -- or at least get snapped up by them for hefty sums. To create and vet this list, CNBC.com interviewed multiple angel investors, limited partners who invest in venture firms, and senior investment partners with funds in San Francisco, Boston and New York. The firms represented a mix of early-stage, growth and corporate VC's.
May their products live long after the acquisition.
AirMap – Today, drone users rely on AirMap to figure out where it's safe and legal to fly. In the future, AirMap's software will function as a kind of navigational guidance system for self-flying drones and possibly larger unmanned aircraft. The app can feed drones information about the safest routes to fly, with real-time traffic or weather data, and temporary airspace restrictions that the company constantly collects and analyzes.
AliveCor - Led by the former head of Google's developer and social initiatives, Vic Gundotra, AliveCor has built an FDA-approved wearable that provides continuous heart monitoring to the wearer. The technology could help users predict, prevent and survive various health problems like cardiac arrest and heart attacks. The company is seen as a potential acquisition target for large firms like Apple, now ramping up their health offerings.
Amino – Amino matches patients to doctors best-suited to treat them. The company uses machine learning algorithms to analyze millions of records -- including insurance claims, medical billing records and more -- to generate recommendations. Rather than telling people what doctor is simply available, the app tells users which doctors have the most experience treating their health issues, predicts who will deliver the best care and take their insurance.
Axiom Space -- The ambitious Axiom Space is building a commercial space station that it hopes to launch in 2020. It may be possible to develop new drugs, novel materials and more in orbit that we can't possibly create on Earth. Yet, it's nearly impossible for research and development teams to score a spot in the labs on the International Space Station today. The company's co-founder and CEO, Mike Suffredini, previously worked as an ISS program manager.
Boom -- A start-up building supersonic commercial aircraft, Boom has attracted interest from airlines and inked billions of dollars in aircraft orders already. The company is planning to fly a demonstration vehicle next year. They're seen as the next generation's Concorde, but they're aiming for their planes to be more affordable than their forebears.
CircleUp – CircleUp began as a crowdfunding platform helping food and beverage start-ups raise equity funding from qualified investors. It has since developed a massive database tracking consumer products, how well they sell at retail and online. CircleUp uses machine learning to then predict which products are likely to strike a chord with consumers, and which companies are best positioned within those categories. The company's AI platform, Helio, helps investors make bets on promising food and beverage start-ups, and helps those companies figure out how to tweak their strategies and product lines.
DeepMap- DeepMap is building machine-readable maps for self-driving cars. The company's software ingests data from sensors on board autonomous vehicles, and combines it with data from all the cars connected to its system. DeepMap then tells vehicles where they are, what's around them, and where they can safely go -- down to the centimeter. The maps could give automakers a shared navigational resource that keeps data about their cars and customers out of competitors' hands (unless they want to share it).
Embark - Despite competition from huge auto-makers, including Tesla, Embark is building autonomous trucks that use lidar, cameras and other sensors to find their way. The start-up is already delivering refrigerators and making highway trips in a pilot with logistics firm Ryder and Frigidaire. In light of the trade secrets lawsuit filed by Alphabet's Waymo against Uber-owned Otto, the start-up represents a fresh start for venture and growth investors still excited by the prospect of self-driving semis.
Carta -- Carta, formerly known as EShares, makes software to help start-ups track all the shares they give to investors, early employees and other important partners. But of late, the company has become something of a secondary market for selling shares in privately held companies, and a startup's on-ramp to an IPO. Carta is creating a huge database of who owns what in the world of privately held tech ventures. And that data can be used to help investors guide their funds, and more accurately forecast returns.
Evolv Technology -- TSA security lines make air travel a drag in the U.S. Even at the fastest airport in Tampa, travelers faced 12-minute waits at security on average in 2016. Evolv Technology has developed gates that use millimeter wave imaging sensors to do high-speed body scans, detecting things like concealed explosives, firearms or other weapons in a few seconds. The company also uses AI and data from biometric sensors, and security cameras to make physical security faster, and more affordable, for airports, courts, stadiums and other venues.
Freenome -- A life sciences unit of Google, Verily, invested in and custom-built a lab for Freenome. That's one sign of how much support there is for the start-up's founders and mission. Freenome is developing new ways to detect cancer early, while it's still treatable, through affordable blood tests. A major competitor, Grail, has raised upwards of $1 billion already.
Farmers Business Network – This start-up created a social network and data-sharing platform for farmers that has already changed the way that the agriculture industry buys "inputs" -- things like fertilizers, seeds and pesticides used to raise healthy crops. The company has amassed a huge amount of proprietary data about what's working for farms in different geographic regions, and what farmers think of and are willing to pay for various agricultural products.
GrabIt -- GrabIt makes robots that use static cling, a.k.a. electro-adhesion, to lift a wide variety of items, such as layers of leather, fabric, glass windshields and easily-bruised apples. Electro-adhesion allows the robots to handle items that other grippers can't manage during high-speed, high-volume production in factories, or picking and packing in fulfillment centers. The company has attracted strategic investments from Samsung, Nike, ABB and Flex to name a few.
HashiCorp -- Best-known for its Terraform and Vagrant products, HashiCorp builds open source tools used by individual software programmers, as well as teams of corporate developers. These tools help developers manage the use of computing resources from multiple cloud providers, like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. The start-up is seen as a potential competitor to VMware.
Karamba Security -- This start-up's software keeps hackers out of self-driving and internet-connected cars. It works by locking down the factory settings for all the ECUs in a car, which are the tiny computers that control systems from brakes to air conditioning and navigation. Doing so bars the execution of code that could cause problems with a car's normal operation. While it's a long slog from pilot projects to sales in the auto-industry, Karamba is poised with an office in Detroit and funding from Bill Ford's fund, Fontinalis Ventures.
Modern Meadow – A pioneer in what it calls "biofabrication," Modern Meadow is using synthetic biology to brew leather from cells in a lab rather than raising livestock and later using tons of chemicals to treat their hides. The company's leathers have been featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. CEO Andras Forgacs previously cofounded Organovo, a company that uses 3-D printing to create human implantable kidney and liver tissue.
Mythic – This early-stage start-up makes chips to enable edge computing in any device. Its chips, which are smaller than a shirt button, could help hardware makers to add sophisticated AI and voice features to their products, and help users enjoy these these without draining their batteries.
Natilus -- Global e-commerce revenue is expected to surpass $4 trillion by 2020, according to eMarketer forecasts. To help deliver all those orders, Natilus is developing self-flying planes that could each potentially haul 200,000 pounds of cargo around the world. While other aviation juggernauts, like Boeing, are developing robo-pilots for their existing passenger planes, Natilus' approach has been to build a plane from scratch, optimized for autonomous flight.
Opus 12 -- Founded in 2015 by researchers from a chemical engineering lab at Stanford University, Opus 12 has developed a way for companies to capture carbon dioxide where it's emitted, then turn it into something they can use or sell, like chemicals or fuels. Opus 12 stands to grow as polluters are challenged to curb CO2 emissions by a spate of new regulations.
PokitDok -- PokitDok is using blockchain technology to make it easier and faster for a patient to get insurance claims resolved, and health bills paid. The company also wants to help all the silos in the healthcare industry share relevant patient info, securely, and without violating Hipaa. The company's Dokchain technology is being tested by a consortium of partners including Intel, Amazon and others.
PivotBio – Backed by Monsanto Growth Ventures, among others, PivotBio develops microbes that can make plants -- including soy, corn wheat and beans -- more productive by helping them produce their own nitrogen. In other words, PivotBio is making an alternative to traditional, chemical fertilizers which can prove very expensive to farmers.
Rigetti Computing -- This start-up is building quantum computing hardware and software that could make all of the world's computers, from smartphones to systems on board vehicles and spacecraft, radically more efficient and powerful. The company is not yet selling any hardware, but has made quantum computing hardware virtually available to developers.
Rohinni -- An Idaho tech start-up, Rohinni, has developed micro-LEDs and robots that put them in place. What can be made with such super small LEDs? New displays that are paper thin, flexible, energy efficient and less expensive to produce than the screens in our phones and televisions today. Rohinni's micro LED technology can also allow new designs for anything lit, including headlights on self-driving cars or a backlit laptop keyboard.
Saildrone - While several startups have looked at trends on Earth from satellites or planes, Saildrone has built wind-powered, autonomous boats that cruise the oceans gathering data on weather patterns, ships and submarine activity, fish populations and more. The company competes with Boeing-owned Liquid Robotics whose ocean roving machines are powered by the sun and waves.
Sourcegraph - As writers rely on content management systems like Wordpress, coders are coming to rely on Sourcegraph to create and collaborate on software. The company offers coders a "development environment" that allows them to see who is using certain lines of code and where, in a given development. The idea is to speed up software development by teams.
Spire – A "newspace" start-up, Spire uses radio frequency technology and machine learning to track the world's ships, and predict where they're going. The company launches its own nano-satellite constellations and uses proprietary data from these, along with data from other ground-based systems in its reporting. Spire clients have included hedge funds, commodities traders, anti-pirate security firms, civil and military government agencies and NGOs. It's now targeting meteorologists and climate scientists with highly accurate weather data and forecasting.
Woebot.io — Woebot is building therapy chatbots, mixing machine learning and cognitive behavioral therapy. The company insists its technology won't ever replace human therapists, but can help people attain "mood management" and mental health help affordably, at any hour of the day. The company's founder and CEO, Alison Darcy, has the kind of industry expertise and credentials that make venture capitalists sigh, including a PhD in psychology and a Stanford MBA. Her board includes ex-Baidu AI expert and Coursera founder Andrew Ng.
Virta Health -- This health startup aims to reduce the amount of medications that diabetics need to live well and combat their disease. The Virta app coaches users to adopt lifestyle changes, including extreme carb restriction, or a ketogenic diet. The company is verifying the efficacy of its app with clinical trials, and is backed by Rock Health, Max Levchin and Venrock, among other seasoned health investors.
Zipline -- Zipline develops drones and delivery systems for use in places lacking infrastructure and facing health crises. With deployments in Rwanda and Tanzania so far, Zipline's drones are already delivering blood, and other life-saving medical supplies, to hospitals and field clinics in hard-to-reach areas. The company employs engineers with experience from SpaceX, Boeing, Google and Willow Garage, coveted credentials in Silicon Valley.
We left many promising start-ups out of this list, either because they're not likely to raise a large funding round soon, have already done so, or are not working with emerging technologies, primarily.
But there will always be another story -- let us know who we missed. Email Lora.Kolodny@nbcuni.com
Christina Farr and Jordan Novet contributed to this report.