CNBC Disruptor 50

The coronavirus-fueled tech trends that will continue to dominate daily life

Key Points
  • A majority of the CNBC Disruptor 50 start-ups are in hiring mode, even as the U.S. unemployment rate sits at 13.5% due to Covid-19.
  • Many of these companies have an existing focus on health care, financial services, cloud connectivity, digital marketing and online distribution to consumers, and they have seen demand for their core products and services more than double during the economic shutdown.
  • Machine learning and artificial intelligence underlie much of the explosive growth. 
Ariel Skelley

Coronavirus hasn't just shut down huge swaths of American business and sent many employees scrambling to work from home — it's also driving the acceleration of technological adoption. As people adapt to new modes of life, start-up businesses that enable us to work, study, shop, and interact virtually have skyrocketed to mainstream adoption. Driving these companies are key underlying technologies that have been growing in importance slowly for years and now have become essential.

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"Businesses that had not only developed digital strategies but executed on them prior to the pandemic are now in a position to leapfrog their less nimble competitors," writes consultancy BDO in a report on how Covid-19 is accelerating the rise of the digital economy. "That isn't to understate the Covid-19-related challenges they now face, irrespective of their current level of digital maturity. Going digital in and of itself isn't a panacea to all that ails businesses in the current economic environment. They do, however, have significantly more tools at their disposal to not only weather the storm but to come out the other side stronger for it," stated BDO.

Businesses that had not only developed digital strategies but executed on them prior to the pandemic are now in a position to leapfrog their less nimble competitors.
BDO
in a report on how Covid-19 is accelerating the rise of the digital economy

This year's Disruptor 50 list features companies that built digital strategies into their DNA. The fact that these companies, since day one, have focused on cloud connectivity, digital marketing and distribution to consumers, and virtual, rather than in-person interactions, gives this group an advantage over incumbents. Thirty seven of this year's Disruptor 50 say they've hired new employees since the pandemic began. That's a direct result of many of them scaling faster than before Covid-19 to meet surging demand. At least 18 of this year's Disruptor 50 companies say demand for their core products has more than doubled since the coronavirus crisis unleashed itself across the world.

Being digital-first also put many Disruptor 50 companies in a position to quickly develop and introduce new products or services to meet the challenges of the pandemic. At least 20 of this year's Disruptors say they have done just that.

Breakthrough technologies accelerating growth

For many the ability to accelerate business growth and develop new products is a result of breakthrough technologies that were core to their disruptive businesses in the first place. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are hands down the most prevalent of these technologies, with 31 of the Disruptor 50 companies citing machine learning and 30 listing artificial intelligence as essential to their operations.

C3.ai, a company that is so defined by artificial intelligence that it changed its name from C3 IoT a few years ago, has taken a leading role in using the technology to fight Covid-19. The three-time Disruptor 50 company teamed up with Amazon Web Services in April to create a Covid-19 "data lake," which unifies data sets, updates them in real time and offers researchers a clearer starting point for generating usable insights. It's now the largest source of Covid-19 data in the world, according to C3.ai.

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Artificial intelligence and machine learning are speeding up the development of medical treatments to fight the virus. Tempus, which has earned a spot on the Disruptor 50 List for the first time, built a drug discovery-and-development platform designed to be disease-agnostic. So when the pandemic hit, it was in a strong position to pivot and support efforts to slow the spread and find short-term and long-term treatments. Tempus brought a test to market in April and launched a research project examining 50,000 Covid-positive patients to find the most effective treatments and other insights.

Using its huge library of clinical and molecular data, along with an operating system to make the data accessible and useful, Tempus was able to help physicians make real-time, data-driven decisions to deliver personalized patient care for Covid-19 patients.

Other technologies have helped Disruptors take advantage of the forced acceleration of tech trends. Nineteen of the 2020 Disruptor 50 companies say cloud computing is critical to their underlying businesses, helping support everything from virtual learning, to telemedicine, to food delivery. Nine companies say they rely on software-defined security, which cybersecurity disruptors like Sentinel One use to fight the growing number of attacks as criminals prey on new vulnerabilities created as a result of so many being forced to limit their life to online interactions, including work and school and shopping from home.

The pandemic also accelerated the adoption of disruptive trends in financial services, epitomized by Stripe at the top of the 2020 Disruptor list. The online payment platform is one of 12 "fintech" companies on this year's list — more than any other category. And five of those fintech start-ups are, like Stripe, specifically focused on digital payments. This reflects the accelerated shift of so much commerce and banking to online as a result of the stay-at-home economy.

Stripe is just one of many online payments companies that will be a big winner in the post-Covid world. Here, engineers collaborate on building new tools for internet commerce.
Stripe

The surge in e-commerce is reflected in the second biggest category of companies on this year's list — eight logistics and delivery companies. This category includes several Disruptor 50 newcomers, including Coupang, South Korea's largest e-commerce platform, which earned the No. 2 spot on the 2020 list. Its end-to-end fulfillment and logistics operation enables the company to deliver millions of items to customers within hours. Attabotics, a supply chain solution for e-commerce companies, replaces traditional warehouses with vertical storage, accessed by robots and inspired by ant colonies.

The question of which of these Disruptors graduate to the public markets, or return to the list in future years, will depend on their ability to continue to adapt to the economic downturn and to a new set of demands as people return to work, retail and entertainment, in distanced settings.

As we look forward to future Disruptor 50 companies, we expect to see these same underlying technologies help address the next wave of challenges. Perhaps more important, as established public giants follow Disruptors' lead and embrace digital disruption, we'll see how these private companies fare against the incumbents investing in their own transformation for this new, increasingly digital world.