Fortune’s Change the World list focuses on companies that are addressing social challenges through their core business activities. Most of the companies on that list are relatively large, with $1 billion or more in annual revenue, which helps them both pay for and scale their efforts to do well by doing good.
Our “Ones to Watch” list has a slightly different focus. These smaller companies don't have enormous reach yet, but they have made technological breakthroughs that may pave the way for much bigger achievements, and greater revenue, down the road. Just as important, each is already having an outsize influence on its communities, its customers, and the planet, and each is worth keeping an eye on.
San Diego, Calif.
Aira makes life easier to manage for the visually impaired. The four-year-old start-up offers customers a pair of camera-wielding smart glasses and an app that allows users to connect with Aira agents, who offer verbal assistance while they go about their day—navigating errands or tasks at work. With several thousand users, Aira has evidence that it boosts quality of life and reduces the chances that a blind student will drop out of college, and the company says its technology helped more than 250 visually-impaired users get jobs. The National Federation of the Blind has signed on as a partner.
Burberry and Prada both recently launched collections featuring Econyl, a recycled nylon that this Italian yarn manufacturer creates from old fishing nets, fabric scraps, and discarded carpets. The company claims that for every ton of the upcycled material it produces, it saves 7 barrels of crude oil and 5.7 tons of carbon emissions.
BioLite’s ultra-efficient cooking stoves are designed to solve both a health problem and an energy-access problem. The stoves superheat wood and charcoal so those fuels generates less smoke when they burn—a lifesaver, since cooking-smoke exposure contributes to millions of deaths every year from heart and lung diseases, explains CEO Jonathan Cedar. What's more, the heat from the stoves helps generate small amounts of electricity that can power a household light or recharge a smartphone.
BioLite also makes ultra-light “grid in a box” solar-energy systems, designed to power a greater number of lights and smartphones in homes with no access to traditional electric grids. Together, BioLite’s products have reached about 250,000 households in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The company also sells them to recreational users in the U.S. and Europe—and plows the profits from those sales into research for its next generation of devices.
The six-year-old Nairobi start-up makes technology in Africa for Africa. Its connectivity modems and routers—solar-powered, waterproof and designed for rugged environments—deliver internet to the most remote places on the planet. They’re now used to bring classrooms online, to power public wifi, and to connect frontier markets in countries around the world with the global economy.
This energy company takes a creative approach to reducing the world’s carbon footprint—by taking waste gases and converting them into fuel. LanzaTech has cultivated a bacteria that can convert carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into ethanol. It is currently harvesting emissions from a steel mill in China, and is building additional harvesting plants at another mill in Belgium and a refinery in India. LanzaTech reached a milestone in October 2018 when its recycled-carbon jet fuel was used to power a transatlantic Virgin Atlantic flight. It’s now developing partnerships to use LanzaTech ethanol to make consumer products like containers and fabric. CEO Jennifer Holmgren, a Ph.D. chemist, calls recycled emissions “the feedstock of the future.”
San Marcos, Texas
Rare-earth minerals help to power all kinds of electronic gear—items as small as smartphones and as huge as MRI machines—and mining them takes a serious toll on the environment. But there are plenty of these minerals sitting inside discarded gear, in items such as laptops and disc drives. Urban Mining’s Magnet-to-Magnet recycling process grinds up the old magnets and uses the powder to build high-performance new ones; better yet, it does so without using caustic chemicals or water that would generate more waste. The company is currently creating magnets for Department of Defense contractors; its ambition is to scale up to build magnets for electric motors.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Fortune Change the World 2019: See which companies made the list
—Q&A: Walmart CEO Doug McMillon on automation, the tragedy in El Paso, and more
—America’s CEOs seek a new purpose for the corporation
—Someday, Apple may make your new iPhone out of pieces of your old iPhone
—Meet the Change the World Sustainability All Stars
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