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Top 10 most innovative companies you don't know (but should)

Posting in Technology
Look at a list of innovative companies and you're bound to find a bevy of companies headquartered in Silicon Valley. But, of course, innovation is happening all around the world.

In Fast Company's latest list of the most innovative companies, the top 50 list is, yes, filled with Silicon Valley's usual suspects and other U.S.-based companies that have long been lauded for their culture of innovation  -- Google, Twitter, Apple. You've heard of them. You have a good idea what they're up to. But what about some of those other companies outside of the U.S. doing innovative work? There are plenty of those too.   

Here are 10 of the most innovative companies outside the United States, according to Fast Company's top 50 most innovative companies list. You probably know a handful of them, but I bet you don't know them all:

1. Xiaomi (Beijing, China)

The company: A three-year old consumer electronics company best known for its low-cost smartphones. It sold 19 million last year. In just a short time it has already beat Samsung and Apple to become the biggest smartphone seller in China.

Why it's innovative: The company has found a way to sell smartphones that are low in cost but heavy with features. It's no wonder that its smartphone sales are up 150 percent from 2012. But how does it make money? As Fast Company explains: "[Company founder Lei Jun] sells his phones--in buzz-generating flash sales--at a razor-thin margin and then takes advantage of the longer potential revenue stream from software."

2. Zipdial (Bangalore, India)

The company: Developed a mobile marketing and analytics platform that is used by advertisers and marketers to reach customers in emerging markets.

Why it's innovative: In some developing countries it's not uncommon to call someone, let it ring once and hang up. It can mean a number of things: "Call me back, I'm low on calling credit," "I made it where I'm going," etc. Zipdial is using that practice to the advantage of advertisers. As Fast Company explains it:

[The company] issues the brand a number, which it prints on its ads. Consumers call, hang up, and get a text or call in return--and thus are entered in contests, receive coupons, or place an order.
The company is already responsible for 416 million of these calls. Impressive.

3. Shazam (London, England)

The company: A music-discovery company best known for its app by the same name. 

Why it's innovative: Shazam didn't just create a way for users to identify that song from your favorite commercial, it also found a way to drive sales of digital goods, more than $300 million in the last 12 months. An upcoming innovation, Auto Shazam, could keep a running list of the songs you encounter throughout the day.

4. Water-Gen (Tel Aviv, Israel)

The company: Developing technological solutions in the fields of water supper and air management (think air conditioners, dehumidifiers, etc) for military, civilian, and industrial applications.

Why it's innovative: The company has come up with three incredibly innovative machines:

[O]ne that turns air moisture into drinking water, one that purifies the dribbles of air-conditioning units, and one that purifies any water source (such as a small stream), even if it's been poisoned by an enemy.
Wow. And it's not just some futuristic technology without practical applications they've developed. Militaries from seven countries -- including the United States -- have already purchased the technology.

5. Unique Identification Authority of India (New Delhi)

The company: An Indian government initiative, led by Infosys confounder Nandan Nilekani, to develop a system of identification that will work for more people in India.

Why it's innovative: People are IDed through fingerprints and iris scan and given a 12-digit ID number that can be linked to a bank account. Why does that matter? When people in rural villages are paid a minimum government wage, there is now less fraud, as Fast Company explains:

When receiving payment, they'll get a text message that tells exactly how much money they're owed. Rather than having money skimmed off the top waiting for a payment (almost always in cash in India) to arrive and be picked up, users can head to a UID-friendly business, scan their fingerprint, and be paid in full.

About 450 million of the country's 1.2 billion people have already signed up.

6. Rose Studio (Beijing) 

The company: A high-end Chinese fashion designer.

Why it's innovative: Fast Company calls her "China's first bonafide couture designer." She designs fancy dresses for Chinese celebrities and for important events, like the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Next up for the company: upper-middle-class Chinese brides.

7. Institute Sarita (Beijing)

The company: Provider of etiquette classes for globally-minded entrepreneurs.

Why it's innovative: "Rather than simply teaching Western-style etiquette, [founder Sara Jane] Ho takes an international look at various culture and customs." And the classes are filled with Chinese entrepreneurs who pay $16,345 (!) for a 12-day course.

And we know how important it is for Chinese entrepreneurs to be globally minded

8. Wild China (Beijing)

The company: A tourist company for China's high-end domestic tourists.

Why it's innovative: China is now the world's biggest spender on foreign travel. But domestic travel is also seeing strong growth. Wild China wants to take advantage of that by catering to wealthy Chinese with "highly customized adventures" in "previously inaccessible" areas in China.

9. Mary Ching (Shanghai, China)

The company: A luxury clothing company.

Why it's innovative: By redefining the idea of Chinese manufacturing.

Through her opulent footwear (her first bestseller was cashmere slippers with Chinese motifs) and accessories, [founder Alison Mary Ching] Yeung hopes to redefine "Made in China." Rather than connoting cheap, poorly made knockoffs, the phrase will signal luxury, creativity, and high quality.


The company: A research institute focusing on genome sequencing.

Why it's innovative: "[T]he most prolific sequencer of human genomes" is helping to drop the cost of sequencing entire genomes. Hello, $1,000 genome. Oh yeah, and hundreds of pig clones.

The best of the rest: Johnnie Walker (London, England), iHub (Nairobi, Kenya), Braskem (Sao, Paulo, Brazil), Nice Systems (Ra'anana, Israel), Philips (Amsterdam, Netherlands).

Other than the top 50, Fast Company has a whole bunch of other lists on the most innovative companies, including top 10 lists by sector (big data, energy, retail, etc). Have a look.

And, for the record, Google was named the most innovative company. 

Photo: Flickr/dayjoybuy.com

— By on February 10, 2014, 10:30 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure