For making genetic code as easy to customize as computer code.
Why It's Disruptive
Ginkgo Bioworks describes itself as an "organism design firm." The company creates custom microbes for companies to use in perfumes, sweeteners, and cosmetics. So instead of, say, plucking a rose and extracting its oil to create a rose-scented perfume, a biologist in a lab can recreate the genomic sequence that's responsible for creating a rose scent and insert it into brewer's yeast. Ginkgo Bioworks can then give that genetically modified yeast to a fragrance company, which it can brew itself to create rose oil. Ginkgo's mission is to make genetic code as easy to program as computer code, which would in turn pave the way for increasingly varied uses of bioengineered products.
The team spent the first five years of the company's life building out what co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly describes as a "giant compiler, debugger, and programming language for genetic code." Today, the company has a nearly 50,000-square-foot-facility in Boston, where robots perform the DNA mixing that used to be done by hand. That both lowers the cost of production and frees up biologists to spend their time writing and designing new DNA strands. It also means that Ginkgo can synthesize millions of DNA base pairs in the time it used to take scientists to synthesize thousands. The company is now looking beyond the consumer ingredients space to new markets, such as electronics and pharmaceuticals. Current clients include Cargill and Darpa.
"Fifty percent of your drugs are biotech," he says. "If you're in the fragrance industry, textiles, building materials, electronics, you're going to need to care about biotechnology."
Before Ginkgo can change how consumer products are produced, it's going to have to convince skeptics that bioengineered products are safe to use. Kelly wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last year arguing for the labeling of genetically modified organisms, so that consumers can better understanding the benefits of genetically engineering a product or plant to give it certain qualities. --Anna Hensel
For tackling online, tech-savvy consumer finance for Millennials, with a focus on student loans.
Why It's Disruptive
In the past year, most of the financial startups that set out to upend the highly regulated realm of traditional banking have run into roadblocks. Many would-be disrupters are now working for or with traditional banks, as vendors, rather than competing with them. One standout exception is SoFi, the working name for six-year-old alternative lender Social Finance and the startup that currently has the best prospects for transforming itself into a full-service consumer finance company.
"Doing anything disruptive in financial services is very difficult. It requires a lot of capital, patience, and ability to navigate the regulatory requirements," acknowledges CEO Mike Cagney, a former Wells Fargo trader who co-founded SoFi with three Stanford Business School friends.
His company started life hosting parties for recent graduates of prestigious universities (hence "Social")--and offering to help them repay their student loans at lower rates ("Finance"). Student loan refinancing remains a big business for the company, which claims 300,000 customers and $20 billion in loans extended; but SoFi also has expanded gradually into other types of financial products, including personal loans, mortgages, wealth-management products, and insurance.
Now Cagney is trying to figure out how to get regulators' blessing for SoFi to provide traditional checking accounts. That's the holy grail--for any startup to fully replace a bank, it has to provide a place for its customers to deposit their paychecks. But the government has been very reluctant to grant such depository charters to nonbanks in recent years. --Maria Aspan
For easing the pain of buying and selling homes.
Why It's Disruptive
Opendoor wants to change the way people buy and sell their homes by removing the painful parts, like the hassle of home-showing and paperwork. When customers decide to sell with Opendoor, the company makes an offer, lets the homeowner choose a move-out date (up to 60 days after the offer is accepted), and buys the property. This eliminates the long waiting game owners typically experience when listing their homes and gives Opendoor inventory to sell to prospective buyers.
Opendoor has bought and sold more than 6,000 homes, which totals a transactional value of more than $1.5 billion. The company operates in Dallas, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, and it allows buyers to visit houses throughout the day using the mobile app, removing the hassle of arranging viewings. The company has plans to expand throughout the U.S. by launching services in a handful of other cities this year.
The biggest challenge for Opendoor is getting consumers to change some very entrenched habits. Opendoor publishes reviews on its site, connects customers with a local experience manager for support, and offers comparable home sales data in a seller's neighborhood. Still, buying or selling a home is one of the largest individual transactions a person can make in their lifetime, and the vast majority of people still go to traditional real estate agents. --Emily Canal
For reading and writing DNA faster and more cheaply than ever before.
Why It's Disruptive
Twist Bioscience has radically reduced the cost of working with DNA by retooling the technology used to synthesize it. This innovation could help lead to huge advances across a number of different applications. The research and testing carried out by Twist's customers range from vaccine development to improving agricultural crop yield. There is even the possibility of using DNA as a data-storage medium because of its affordability and durability. Microsoft has purchased millions of DNA strands from Twist in a project with the University of Washington to research the theory.
Co-founder and CEO Emily Leproust says that in 2016 the company shipped about 30,000 genes, a number that's already been eclipsed by the first quarter of 2017. Among Twist's customers is Ginkgo Bioworks (another finalist on Inc.'s Disruptive list), which in 2016 placed the largest order of synthetic DNA in history, according to Twist.
While Twist says that it's currently serving the 100 largest customers in the market, the company will need an efficient way to serve smaller-scale customers, too. Opening up new markets altogether means continuing to push down the cost of synthesis, which relies on first-class research-and-development efforts, and doesn't come with a guaranteed timeline. --Sonya Mann
For making it easier for parents and teachers to track students' progress.
Why It's Disruptive
ClassDojo is a behavior-tracking app that allows teachers to make a schedule of daily activities and share it with parents. Think of it as a virtual classroom: A cartoon avatar represents each student, and parents who log in can see their child's classroom conduct score, feedback on assignments and projects, and direct messages from teachers. Liam Don and Sam Chaudhary co-founded ClassDojo in 2011, when there was an abundance of other edtech businesses creating digital curriculum and testing platforms. But no one made an app allowing teachers to easily communicate with parents about a student's progress.
"The classroom model has always taken a very top-down approach," says Chaudhary, who worked as a teacher for several years after college. "It's standard to have a parent-teacher conference--once every two months or so--to see how a student is doing. That's kind of crazy," he says, likening it to the idea of employees speaking to their bosses only every other month. Now there are a number of similar student-tracking apps, like Remind and Class Messenger. Chaudhary says that more than two-thirds of all U.S. schools have at least one teacher using ClassDojo. When the app first launched, 80 teachers signed up, he says. Five weeks later, another 12,000 hopped on board--all of this by word of mouth.
While people have raised privacy concerns--a common issue for any tracking app--Chaudhary says that ClassDojo does not share or sell any personal information. The company's biggest priority is convincing schools and parents to buy premium features and educational content so that ClassDojo can reach profitability. --Vanna Le