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Five companies that will lead in 2011

A few weeks ago, we shared our list of five companies that really surprised us in 2010. At this point, it makes sense to shift our gaze forward and explore organizations that are poised to lead their respective industries in 2011. While you've definitely heard of one, chances are that there are a few surprises among our shortlist. So without further ado:

1. Dropbox
So here's an increasingly common dilemma: you have a smartphone, iPad, home and work computer, and at various times you work on the same file with each. In the past, you would have to carry around a thumb drive or constantly email the document to yourself, but Dropbox has created a much simpler solution. The start-up has given its users a virtual 2-gigabyte hard drive, which can be used to store and access files in a secure folder housed in a Dropbox account. Any web-enabled device can connect to the info, and any time you modify the file, changes are automatically replicated through all devices connected to the Dropbox account. Dropbox is seen as a huge boon to smartphone users, whose devices lack a file storage system. An ancillary benefit to the service is that it provides a handy backup for all your important documents. Dropbox reports having more than 4 million users, and as we all become more connected to the Web with our various devices, this number is certain to grow.

2. NXP Semiconductors
There's a big buzz out there regarding mobile phone payment, and we're not referring to paying your bills using your smartphone browser. Rather, after collecting your groceries at the local supermarket, instead of pulling out your wallet and fumbling for the right credit card, you simply hold your mobile phone close to a wireless terminal and viola! Off you go. The applications are endless--think subway fares, vending machines, gas stations and more. (For a demonstration, go to the video, sixth from the top.) The technology is called "near-field communications", and US mobile payments are expected to increase from $16 billion this year to $214 billion in 2015.

So, who makes the chips that will need to be integrated into millions of devices? For starters, let's go with NXP, an already-established semiconductor company that has recently signed an agreement with Google to produce chips for the Droid. While there's sure to be others, NXP has a leg up on the competition through its partnership with the fastest growing smartphone platform.

3. MiaSolé
MiaSolé  has been long on promise and short on results. As far back as 2006, MiaSolé claimed it would have $100 million in revenue by the end of 2007. But through the third quarter of 2009, MiaSolé produced...wait for it...nothing. Why are things suddenly looking brighter for the Silicon Valley start-up? For one, a recent article in The Economist suggests that more and more people will rely on solar power in the future, especially as its costs continue to decline. Secondly, in the world of solar power, there are two competing types of solar panels: thin film and c-Si.

In the past, c-Si has been more efficient and cheaper to produce. But MiaSolé has recently developed thin film technology that is just as efficient, and cheaper to produce. Businesses like WalMart have seen the promise of solar technology and jumped on board, contracting with MiaSolé to outfit some of their stores with their unique solar technology. We're betting others quickly follow.

4. Apple
If Apple has demonstrated anything over the past decade, it's that it's one of the most innovative companies around. In 2007 Apple released the iPhone, followed by the iPod Touch in 2008. After completely altering the smartphone market, the iPad beat all expectations and was the catalyst for the growth of the tablet market. While many have predicted Apple's slow demise because of the Google Droid, which is slowly eating away at Apple's smartphone market share, in many ways Apple has to earn its way off this list. They have demonstrated, on a yearly basis, a proclivity for releasing market-changing products. So aside from the rumored release of the second-generation iPad in 2011, the company that has been famously close-to-its-vest with its research and development efforts will surprise no one with the release of another game-changer.

When the president of the United States visits and speaks at your start-up, it's a safe bet that you're doing something right. Back in March, OPOWER hosted President Obama, and welcomed the exposure his visit garnered for the three-year-old company. A major part of the challenge with energy efficiency is motivating energy end users (you and me) to be more efficient and conscientious with their energy use, and OPOWER has solved that quandary. Using patented behavioral science and "normative" marketing techniques, OPOWER has found ways to partner with energy providers and achieve between 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent in average energy savings across an energy provider's customer base. OPOWER is a start-up that posted a $35 million dollar profit in 2009, and has a foot up on a developing market, acting as a valuable middleman between energy providers and the consumer.

While our picks aren't all that scientific, each of these companies is well positioned in an industry poised for massive growth. Keep an eye on these, and let us know what companies you're watching and why.

By Joe Frontiera and Dan Leidl  |  January 6, 2011; 7:13 PM ET  | Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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If I am not mistaken, OPower actually generates paper inserts that explain energy use, for their utility partners. Kind of ironic that this company is driving paper waste while "saving energy".

Posted by: schinella | January 9, 2011 3:36 PM

Sugar Sync is a much better choice over Dropbox. They seem to be similar services, but with SS I can back up my entire hard drive and increase my storage as I need. I can create public links to any file, and I can set up how frequently I want synchronization. Available as an app on my iPhone & iPad. Works awesome!

Posted by: humanalyst | January 8, 2011 12:10 PM

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