Being recognized as a Technology Pioneer by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum has its rewards. Just ask John Melo, chief executive of Amyris Biotechnologies, which collected one of the coveted prizes two years ago. Back then, the company had developed technology for creating antimalarial drugs, earning it a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance its work in collaboration with a nonprofit and a university.
But the best was yet to come. As CEO of a Tech Pioneer, Melo was invited to Davos, where he met legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. The financier suggested that Amyris also try using its synthetic biology technology to produce biofuels. Now it has raised $90 million in funding, valuing the company at more than $470 million, and is building a state-of-the-art energy plant.
That kind of thing happens to many of the small companies recognized each year. "You've got to believe that the [Davos] forum and its Tech Pioneer program have a catalytic impact," says author and Davos regular Geoffrey Moore, who wrote the seminal book Crossing the Chasm, about the technology business. He was among the judges this year who picked 39 promising companies for recognition. (The writer of this article was also on the panel.)
The nominated companies come from three sectors: biotech, energy, and information technology. Winners are chosen based on visionary leadership, proof of concept, and their potential for long-term impact on business and society. Since the award program began in 2000 a few trends have emerged, among them more companies focused on clean energy and health care, and more from outside the U.S.
"The tech industry is no longer about computers or selling to enterprises—or about North America," says Moore. This year's winners demonstrate that clearly. They include a Swedish company called Polar Rose that's pushing the boundaries of image recognition on the Web and India's Neurosynaptic Communications, which markets a low-cost portable medical diagnostics kit for rural doctors.
Indeed, says Rodolfo Lara, head of the Technology Pioneer program, the Class of 2008 highlights a number of new directions: "the renewed interest in identity management on the Web, the personalization of genetic information, and remote diagnosis of medical conditions."
Keeping Good Company
Whether or not they have life-changing encounters with well-heeled financiers, this year's winners join an august group of earlier recipients. Previous Tech Pioneers in the info-tech category have included Google (GOOG), PayPal (EBAY), Business Objects (BOBJ), Mozilla, Napster, Symbian, Monster.com (MNST), and Infosys Technologies (INFY).
Some leaders of Tech Pioneer companies also have gone on to greater things. Ray Ozzie, the inventor of Lotus Notes, ran Groove Networks when it was named a Tech Pioneer; now he's the chief software architect at Microsoft (MSFT). Andy Rubin's company Danger won in 2003; now he's leading the Android mobile-phone software project at Google.
One of the most illustrious leaders of a Tech Pioneer company is Bill Gross, an innovation dervish who has launched or seeded numerous startups, including Knowledge Adventure, Idealab, and Overture (YHOO). Gross' latest venture, called Energy Innovations, was recognized in 2006. It's focused on green energy—specifically, trying to bring down the cost of solar electricity.
Although Gross was hardly an unknown, the Pioneer recognition helped. Ten months later, Energy Innovations won a big contract to build a 1.6-megawatt solar system for Google's Mountain View (Calif.) headquarters. It will be among the largest such corporate installations in the world.
Not every Pioneer can expect such success, of course, but the innovation they represent is the seed corn of tomorrow's tech industry. "The head of the U.S. patent office said in 1902 that everything that has already been invented has already been patented," notes Israeli tech guru Yossi Vardi, who has served several years as a judge. "But what we see every year is more companies, with more talented people, and with more ideas. Miraculous things are being unfolded all of the time."
Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show of all 39 Tech Pioneers.