You might be forgiven for thinking 2013 was a year of redundant, me-too startups flailing around trying to come up with the best way to gamify wage slavery, deliver butt wipes to your door, or make a buck off the badly misnamed “sharing economy.”
But we’re not here to tell you about all that.
We’re here to tell you about the real innovation that’s been going on this year. In fact, there were a lot of startups — consumer, enterprise, hardware, and health-tech — that got us non-ironically excited in 2013.
This is not an exhaustive list, but the 26 companies here are a good start on reclaiming your sense of amazement at what the tech business, at its best, can come up with.
These companies will be worth paying attention to in 2014. Mark our words.
Consumer software and services
Aereo is potentially the biggest game changer to hit television in a long time. It delivers local TV over the Internet using a clever hack: Each subscriber has a corresponding tiny television antenna at Aereo’s facility. That antenna picks up a broadcast TV signal over the air, digitizes it, and then delivers it via streaming video technology, giving subscribers DVR-like capabilities. Naturally, that has broadcasters in a tizzy, and Aereo is locked in legal battles — which don’t scare it, the company claims. The New York-based company has raised $63 million to date, led by Barry Diller’s IAC.
Cameo aims to do more than just let you shoot bite-sized video clips on your iPhone — its cloud video editing platform lets you turn those clips into two-minute long short films. The goal? To let you share stories, not just repeating clips of your cat struggling to stay awake. It may also inspire a new generation of filmmakers.
Circa’s news app is one of the most significant attempts to reinvent news delivery for the mobile age that we’ve seen. It brings you the news one small paragraph or photo at a time, giving you the most critical pieces of information first, followed by expanded explanations, photos, interactive maps, and suggestions for related content. There’s also a notification system for breaking news. The San Francisco-based company has raised $2.4 million in seed funding from Quotidian Ventures, Lerer Ventures, Dave Morin, Matt Mullenweg, David Karp, Gary Vaynerchuk, and others.
Cyanogen went from a hacky Android mod to a real startup with some serious money in 2013. Definitely a company to watch. Its CyanogenMod (CM) completely replaces the operating system on your Android device with a custom image sporting a modern version of Android, support for multiple themes, and some tweaks. Geeky, right? But more than 10 million devices are running CyanogenMod. The company announced in September that it had raised $7 million, then followed that up just three months later with a big $23 million round led by Andreessen-Horowitz.
Elepath is a Web product development shop in San Francisco. It’s just launched a brand-new content management system called Exposure that’s built to showcase photos in clean-as-a-whistle layouts that allow for creative, picture-based storytelling. It’s our pick for the best-designed service of 2013. The seven-person company is based in San Francisco and has taken a seed round of funding.
Entangled Media‘s Younity app is a clever tool with lots of promise. Using Younity’s share feature, you share music, videos, photos, and other kinds of files with other Younity users. But they can’t ever download those items — and you can “unshare” the content at any time. It’s kind of like Snapchat for files. The company has just nine employees and has raised $3.5 million to date from Crosslink Capital, Draper Associates, PROfounders Capital, and others.
The last thing the world needs is another second-screen service for TV shows — and yet the TV viewing audience desperately needs Fanhattan. Earlier this year, the company pivoted to become a hardware startup determined to revolutionize crappy cable set-top boxes with its own product, Fan TV. The device, which integrates Fanhattan’s second screen service, provides access to a universal “queue,” or watchlist, of programming from all services, such as Netflix and Hulut — then sends you to those services to watch the content you want. It is far closer to Steve Jobs’ vision for a revolutionary TV product than Apple’s own Apple TV.
A simple image service that was born from community news site Reddit, Imgur has grown into a formidable force across the web. Now more popular than Reddit itself, the San Francisco-based startup has forged its own social community of image sharers (calling themselves Imgurians). Also, Imgur is profitable, has taken exactly $0 in outside funding, and is rumored to be in acquisition talks with Yahoo.
Americans turned comic book publishing into a thriving industry in the mid 20th century. Now, a group of British entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley aims to do the same for digital comic book publishing in the 21st century. Madefire‘s technology takes advantage of touch screen mobile devices, adding movement and subtle animations to previously static pages of comic artwork. It’s the way digital comics should look, and recent publishing partner DC Comics certainly agrees.
Shapeways is a 3D printing service — it can print almost anything you want, including a set of keys. That’s a promising proposition, because despite the wave of interest in 3D printing, there’s still no compelling reason for most people to own a 3D printer. We were entertained by the story of Shapeways and Victoria’s Secret partnering up to make lacey, 3D-printed “wings” for model Lindsay Ellingson, then spangling them with Swarovski crystals. Objectification of women aside, this is a key milestone: A 3D printing startup played a key role in a major fashion brand’s event. Shapeways has come a long way since it started in a Philips incubator in the Netherlands. Shapeways picked up a huge $30 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz in April.
Enterprise and developer startups
Quantum computing, which utilizes the ambiguous “quantum” states of matter rather than clear-cut 1s and 0s, has been a fertile area of research and speculation for years. But is it ready for real-world applications? D-Wave thinks so, and it’s building a business on commercializing quantum computing. It has even sold its computers to the likes of Lockheed Martin and, in 2013, to Google and NASA. D-Wave raised $30 million in October, 2012 from the CIA, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and other investors.
Egnyte, an enterprise-oriented file-sharing startup, caught our attention earlier this year when we got to know cofounder and CEO Vineet Jain. He was clearly in the right place at the right time. With revelations about the extent of the NSA’s snooping on cloud-based networks, many companies are concerned about security. Egnyte has a promising solution: hybrid cloud storage that lets companies keep data on-premises or in the cloud, depending on how much security they need for each file. A $29.5 million funding round, with participation from CenturyLink and Seagate, positions Egnyte well for the coming year.
Firebase is a great example of a company that is trailblazing in the hot market of Backend as a Service (BaaS). In general, BaaS simplifies the lives of developers who don’t want to deal with complicated server, database, and messaging technology — and Firebase does that by providing a real-time database, on which gives applications access to data that can be updated (and transmitted to those apps) at high speed. One customer, Simtable, has used the tech to build an app that helps firefighters track and put out wildfires, and we featured it onstage at our inaugural DataBeat conference. Firebase was founded in 2011 and went through the Y Combinator incubator; it raised $5.6 million in funding from Union Square Ventures and FlyBridge Venture Capital.
Mass Relevance‘s platform interprets what people are saying about brands on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Vine, and Instagram. It presents that data via a manageable dashboard media companies can actually make sense of and use for both marketing and interacting with fans/customers. The Austin, Texas-based startup’s clients include The White House, ultra popular TV shows like HBO’s True Blood and NBC’s The Voice, and a variety of top brands.
Numecent‘s “cloudpaging” technology puts application code in the cloud — and delivers it to users almost instantly. You don’t need to understand how Numecent makes complex applications seem like they’re running natively. The important thing is that now software companies can sell on a regular subscription basis and provide fast access in browsers, without forcing users to go through the pain of installing the software. And implementing cloudpaging is said to take less than a day.
Redstone Technologies made us sit up and pay attention with its claims to have a new technology that can deliver gigabit Internet everywhere — wirelessly and with lower power consumption and far cheaper installation costs than is possible with cellular, Wi-Fi, or WiMax technologies. So far, the Tampa, Fla.-based startup is long on promise and short on actual proof. But there’s enormous potential here, and we’ll be watching Redstone closely in 2014.
RelateIQ is an ambitious startup, pitching “relationship intelligence” as a smarter tool for salespeople to stay on top of conversations with all their important contacts. In short, it’s taking on the entire category of customer relationship management (CRM), a market dominated by Salesforce.com and other behemoths. It’s got some serious data science talent on hand. DJ Patil, a co-creator of the now-hot term “data scientist,” joined the company after being data scientist in residence at Greylock Partners and previously head of data products at LinkedIn. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has raised $29 million to date.
RethinkDB, a modern, distributed database with a custom query language, hopes to show its database’s advantages over competitors. Developers have indicated they like the ease of use of Rethink’s query language, which is one hard part that popular NoSQL database MongoDB gets right but others have struggled with. Now RethinkDB must show that it’s also good at handling huge volumes of data. We think it has a shot at becoming a viable company and a standout in the increasingly crowded NoSQL field.
Canary is a $200 device the size of a soda can that can keep your home secure using its HD camera and a variety of sensors to track motion, air quality, and sound, and to deliver updates to your smartphone whenever something happens. When it launched an Indiegogo campaign in August, it set out to raise $100,000. Instead, Canary pulled in close to $2 million, making it Indiegogo’s most successful campaign ever. Its “device + service” model is very much in vogue now, with companies such as Dropcam, Fitbit, and Jawbone seeing lots of success — among customers and investors — by combining a useful gadget with an ongoing service that makes it even more useful. When Canary sells a device, it’s also creating a relationship with customers that will last long after that product is shipped.
Scanadu raised $1.6 million in a record-breaking Indiegogo campaign for its Scanadu Scout “tricorder” — a $200 hockey puck-shaped gadget that can collect a vast amount of data on your medical vital signs with ease. Hold it to your temple and, in less than 10 seconds, it will collect data on your heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, temperature, and even emotional stress level. A few months later, it raised $10.5 million in venture capital and started talking about a second device, the ScanaFlo, which is a portable urine analysis device that can detect pregnancy. Together, these two devices promise to turn your smartphone into a powerful medical tool — and that holds a lot of promise for anyone wanting to get a better handle on their health. “By getting precision diagnostics into the hands of people, this can enable them to get early detection and to inform their conversations with their doctor in the ways that haven’t been possible,” chief executive Walter De Brouwer told VentureBeat earlier this year. ScanaFlo will hit the market in 2014, the company promises.
Lemnos Labs is a startup incubator with a difference: It’s focused entirely on hardware startups. We’re bullish about this sector for two reasons: One, the rise of interest in do-it-yourself projects, aka the “maker movement,” is inspiring a new generation of hobbyists to become gadget-making entrepreneurs. Two, even big companies like General Electric and Apple are starting to move some of their manufacturing back to the U.S. Lemnos Labs is in a good position to capitalize on those trends. Highway1, another hardware accelerator (backed by offshore manufacturing facilitator PCH International), is also worth paying attention to.
Oculus VR makes a headset, the Oculus Rift, that just might fulfill the long-empty promise of truly immersive virtual reality. Starting as an independent project, the Oculus Rift attracted the attention of seasoned gaming execs Brendan Iribe and Jon Carmack, ran a wildly successful crowdfunding project, raising $2.4 million on Kickstarter, then pulled in a $16 million series A in mid-2013. After selling 40,000 of the headsets to developers, Oculus VR landed a massive $75 million round from Andreessen Horowitz in December. Our interview with Brendan Iribe gives a sense of just how far this company has come — and where it’s going next.
Xiaomi is a Chinese phone maker that most of us hadn’t heard of until 2013. It’s undercutting already cheap Chinese phone makers by only making a few phones and crowdsourcing the design work. But what really put it front and center this year was when it raised a fourth round of funding that valued Xiaomi at $10 billion and, shortly thereafter, lured Android VP Hugo Barra away from Google. Clearly, Xiaomi knows something that we all can learn from.
Health tech startups
“I always wanted to find a way to bring light into the cancers so surgeons could see what they’re doing while operating,” said pediatric neuro-oncologist Jim Olson. So he started a company to do just that. Tumor Paint is the first product from Olson’s Seattle-based company Blaze Bioscience, and it literally “lights up” cancer tissue, making it easier for surgeons to remove. The company has raised $19 million to date, including $9 million in December, 2013.
We called anti-aging startup Calico “the most interesting startup in Silicon Valley.” And we stand by that claim: It is backed by Google cofounder Larry Page, is being funded by Google, and will be led by former Genentech CEO Art Levinson. But more to the point, Calico is aiming at one of humanity’s oldest desires: prolonging life and improving our health and wellbeing as we age. We don’t know much yet about what Calico will do exactly, but it’s attracting a star-studded roster of scientists and biotech experts. We’ll be watching closely to see what this company can do in the coming years.
The health care “marketplace” is a joke — it’s a market in the same sense that putting on a blindfold and reaching into a sack full of random prizes is a market: You have no idea what you’re going to get until you pull it out. Castlight Health aims to fix that with a platform — sold to employers — that helps people evaluate where to get care based on cost and quality data. Castlight is well funded, with its most recent round, for $100 million, coming from Morgan Stanley, T. Rowe Price, Venrock, and others. An IPO seems quite likely for this company in 2014.
VentureBeat’s Christina Farr, Ciara Byrne, Dean Takahashi, Devindra Hardawar, Eric Blattberg, Jolie O’Dell, Jordan Novet, Ricardo Bilton, and Tom Cheredar all contributed to this story.