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The Companies that Defined 2021

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The Companies that Defined 2021

The Companies that Defined 2021

Attention is an increasingly valuable form of currency in the Information Age.

In 2021, a handful of companies stood out from the pack, dominating the conversation and influencing society in both positive and negative ways. After vigorous internal debate, here is Visual Capitalist’s list of companies that defined 2021:

  • Robinhood
  • Pfizer
  • Coinbase
  • Tesla
  • TikTok
  • Facebook/Meta

We looked at a number of metrics to select these companies, including Google search and news volume, performance relative to competitors, industry-specific indicators, and more.

Many of these are digital companies, and all have massive reach, scale, and influence. Interestingly, many of these companies also faced controversies along with their success, and were caught up in movements that were bigger than themselves.

With this context in mind, let’s dive in.

Robinhood

Robinhood’s eventful year reached its peak when the stock trading app was caught in a frenzy involving retail traders, short sellers, and “meme stonks”. It did not take long for Robinhood to go from hero to villain in this story. As the Gamestop stock shot up past $400, trading was halted and position limits were initiated on the app.

As well, Robinhood’s stated goal of democratizing finance came under scrutiny due to their pay-for-order-flow business model, where sensitive user trade activity data is sold to the highest bidder who then gets ahead of the trade, otherwise known as “front-running”.

robinhood account size vs competitors

Despite the controversy, Robinhood’s platform now has over 22 million users, many of whom are younger, first-time investors. While they have key attractions like zero commission trades, they were also accused of gamifying investing with features like confetti shooting across the screen after a trade is made (a feature that was removed after media criticism).

The company frequently made front page financial news in early 2021, and while the often negative press didn’t get in the way of their IPO—which commenced in late July—it has affected investor sentiment. Since their 52-week high of $70 per share in August, the stock has fallen some 70% towards the $18 range.

Furthermore, the SEC is rumored to be launching an investigation into them. With these headwinds, investing on Robinhood has probably fared better so far than investing in Robinhood.

Pfizer

Perhaps there was no bigger story in 2021 than COVID-19 vaccines.

Early in the year, the race to secure vaccines was on. Wealthy countries scrambled to buy stock and roll out widespread vaccination programs ahead of spring.

And the companies that managed to produce efficient vaccines saw the biggest benefits, like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The company’s COVID-19 vaccine, made in partnership with German firm BioNTech, ended up becoming the world’s most-preferred vaccine to fight the pandemic.

The company is forecasting revenue of $36 billion from its vaccine this year.

Competing vaccines from Moderna and AstraZeneca also saw their parent companies rise in both market cap and newsworthiness. All of the involved pharma companies have also faced constant scrutiny, with many countries in the world struggling to secure COVID-19 vaccines, and others dealing with vaccine hesitancy.

As the pandemic continues with the Omicron variant quickly spreading around the globe, Pfizer and its competitors will continue to be impactful into the new year. The company announced a COVID-19 antiviral pill that is planned to be released in the near future, and more effective vaccines and boosters against other variants are still a hot commodity.

Coinbase

2021 was a pivotal year for cryptocurrency. Prices reached new highs, and institutions and retail investors alike poured into the market.

With its user-friendly app and focus on security, Coinbase was well positioned to benefit from this surge in interest. The exchange started off the year by more than doubling its transacting user base as Bitcoin prices shot to new heights.

coinbase transacting users 2021

It’s easy to underestimate the influence of the company’s IPO—especially as its share price slid as the crypto market cooled off—but the exchange’s very entry into the public markets was a huge boost in legitimacy for crypto, paving the way for similar companies to IPO in the future.

Tesla

Nobody captures attention and creates controversy quite like Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk.

Most of Tesla’s actions are tied closely to the famous entrepreneur, who’s known for his brazen online presence. Musk’s social media persona is so strong, one tweet can send Tesla’s stock plummeting, like it did last year after Musk told Twitter that “Tesla’s stock is too high imo.”

While naysayers are quick to criticize Tesla and Musk, the company has some impressive numbers to back up its hype. 2020 was already a ridiculous year for Tesla—its stock surged by nearly 700%, and with a valuation of $630 billion, it became one of the most valuable companies in the world.

This momentum carried over into 2021. This year, revenue rose each quarter, and in October, the company’s market value surpassed $1 trillion.

Tesla was also intertwined within other societal narratives over the course of the year. The automaker’s move from California to Texas was part of a larger conversation about the “Bay Area exodus”, as jurisdictions in Texas and Florida looked to steal Silicon Valley’s thunder.

elon musk twitter poll

Musk’s Tesla stock sales generated a lot of buzz in Q4 as well.

Seemingly in response to criticism over inequality and tax avoidance, Musk ran a Twitter poll to decide whether or not to sell a significant portion of his Tesla holdings. After a majority “yes” vote, the Tesla CEO now appears to have sold off enough stock to hold up his end of the bargain.

TikTok

TikTok was already popular in 2020, but this year truly solidified its status as a cultural phenomenon.

The app topped a billion users in 2021, just five years after its launch in 2016. For context, it took Facebook and Instagram nearly eight years to hit that same milestone.

tiktok user growth

What’s so appealing about TikTok? Experts have many theories, but in an interview with Forbes, John Holdridge, GM of Fullscreen, puts its simply: “TikTok’s success can be attributed to how it flips what we think of as social media on its head, while at the same time returning us all to roots of the original appeal–the ability to go viral.”

TikTok’s short-style video format has become so popular that it’s inspired a slew of copycat apps, especially in regions like India where TikTok is banned.

Even established companies like Meta have tried to mimic TikTok’s success. In 2020, Instagram launched “reels,” its own short-form video feature where users can create and share 30 second videos. But Instagram reels failed to overtake TikTok’s growth—instead, reels has become a place for users to share and promote their TikTok videos.

Facebook/Meta

Facebook frequently finds itself in the news, given its status as the world’s largest social network. In 2021, however, it was for two different reasons.

The first was the U.S. Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021. In the aftermath of this event, many blamed Facebook for not doing enough to mitigate the negative effects of its platform—mainly polarization, conspiracy theories, and hate speech.

The controversy reached its peak in September 2021, when internal files leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen were published. These documents exposed Facebook’s internal struggles with combating misinformation, as well as employee dissent.

Ultimately, Facebook weathered the storm and opted to shed its baggage with a new name. Not only does this help the company disassociate from its previous scandals, it also lines up with Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitions of pioneering the metaverse.

Facebook metaverse

Following the announcement, “metaverse” exploded overnight and became one of the hottest topics of 2021. The word “Meta” has also become incredibly valuable—Meta (the company) recently completed a $60 million deal to acquire the trademark assets of Meta Financial Group, a regional U.S. bank.

Honorable Mentions

While the companies highlighted above were undeniably influential in 2021, any list like this is bound to be subjective and open to debate. Here is a shortlist of other companies that we considered for the Companies that Defined 2021 list:

Reddit

The surge in investment that propelled Robinhood and Coinbase to new heights was partially fueled by communities on Reddit. One of the most fascinating moments of the year came when Reddit user u/deepfuckingvalue appeared before the House Committee on Financial Services proclaiming, “I am not a cat” and “I like the stock”.

On the business front, the “Front Page of the Internet” saw double-digit user growth during the pandemic, and now has a valuation of $10 billion after a hefty round of funding.

OpenSea

NFTs had a Cambrian explosion alongside the crypto bull run, with OpenSea emerging as the dominant marketplace this past year. In the second half of 2021, OpenSea made up 95% of NFT trading volume on major marketplaces, and has transacted $1.42B in volume in December so far.

While it seemed OpenSea was planning an IPO after their CFO Brian Roberts commented how “you’d be foolish not to think about it [OpenSea] going public,” user backlash resulted in Roberts later tweeting that the company is not actively planning an IPO. Whether or not OpenSea does set sail onto the public markets, they’ll soon have some serious competition from Coinbase’s own NFT marketplace currently in the works.

Netflix

Despite intense competition from rival streaming platforms, Netflix will finish the year on top once again. The company has a number of impressive tallies in the win column this year.

First, Squid Game was a cultural phenomenon, quickly becoming the streaming service’s number one show, and also the world’s most Googled TV show of 2021.

Next, Netflix’s Red Notice is likely the most watched new movie of 2021, logging well over 300 million hours of viewing time. Not bad, considering its tepid score of 36% on Rotten Tomatoes. It remains to be seen whether deep-pocketed competitors like Disney+ are able to dethrone Netflix, but for now, the company is as culturally relevant as ever.

SpaceX

The fact that Elon Musk has two companies in this conversation points to why he was named Time’s Most Influential Person for 2021.

SpaceX has made launching rockets drastically cheaper in recent years, which helps explain its massive reported valuation of $200 billion. The company, which is the top commercial launch provider in the U.S., will round out the year with 31 launches.

Which companies would you add to this list?

The following members of the VC editorial staff contributed to this article: Nick Routley, Carmen Ang, Niccolo Conte, Marcus Lu, Aran Ali, and Omri Wallach.
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The Top Downloaded Apps in 2022

Six of the top 10 most downloaded apps in Q1 2022 were social media apps, and four of them are owned by Meta.

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The most popular apps in Q1 2022, by number of downloads

The Top Downloaded Apps in 2022

Whether they’re providing a service like ride-sharing or acting as a mere source of entertainment, mobile apps have become an integral part of many peoples’ day-to-day lives.

But which apps are most popular among users?

This graphic uses data from a recent report by Sensor Tower to show the top 10 most downloaded apps around the world in Q1 2022 from the Google Play and Apple App Store.

Social Reigns Supreme

According to the report, total app downloads reached 36.9 billion in Q1 2022, a 1.4% increase compared to Q1 2021.

A majority of the top 10 most downloaded apps were social media platforms, with Meta and ByteDance owning six of the top 10.

RankAppCategory
1TikTokEntertainment
2InstagramPhoto and video
3FacebookSocial networking
4WhatsAppMessaging
5ShopeeShopping
6TelegramMessaging
7SnapchatPhoto and video
8MessengerMessaging
9CapCutPhoto and video
10SpotifyMusic

Meta’s four platforms on the list are Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Messenger, while ByteDance owns TikTok and video-editing platform CapCut.

Just outside the top 10 are Zoom and WhatsApp Business (yet another Meta-owned app).

TikTok’s Winding Road to the Top

In Q1 2021, TikTok exceeded 3.5 billion all-time downloads, becoming the fifth app (and the first non-Meta app) to reach this milestone. This is impressive considering the app has been banned in India as of June 2020. Prior to the ban, India accounted for 30% of TikTok’s downloads.

India’s not the only country that’s banned the use of TikTok. Pakistan has blocked TikTok multiple times because of concerns over “inappropriate” content. However, it’s worth noting that the bans in Pakistan only lasted a few days before being lifted, and currently, Pakistanis are able to access the platform.

Top 10 Highest Grossing Apps

TikTok isn’t just the most downloaded app in the world—it’s also the highest-grossing non-game app, based on Q1 2022 revenue from the App Store and Google Play:

RankAppCategory
1TikTokEntertainment
2YouTubePhoto and video
3Disney+Entertainment
4Google OneProductivity
5TinderLifestyle
6PiccomaBooks
7Tencent VideoEntertainment
8iQIYIEntertainment
9HBO MaxEntertainment
10LINE MangaEntertainment

TikTok generated an impressive $821 million in consumer spending in the last quarter. The video-sharing platform was the top-grossing app on the App Store, and the second-highest-grossing on Google Play, coming just after Google One.

While none of Meta’s platforms made it onto the top 10 list for gross revenue, these platforms make a ton of money that doesn’t necessarily flow through app stores. In 2021, Meta generated more than $117.9 billion in revenue, with over 97% of that coming from ads.

Growth’s on the Horizon

The pandemic had a massive impact on the app market.

In 2020, app spending on things like premium access, in-app purchases, and subscriptions surged by 30% year-over-year to reach $111 billion.

And while COVID-19 restrictions are easing in most places around the world, app spending isn’t likely to taper off anytime soon. By 2025, spending is expected to grow to $270 billion.

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Synthetic Biology: The $3.6 Trillion Science Changing Life as We Know It

The field of synthetic biology could solve problems in a wide range of industries, from medicine to agriculture—here’s how.

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How Synthetic Biology Could Change Life as we Know it

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a field of science that redesigns organisms in an effort to enhance and support human life. According to one projection, this rapidly growing field of science is expected to reach $28.8 billion in global revenue by 2026.

Although it has the potential to transform many aspects of society, things could go horribly wrong if synbio is used for malicious or unethical reasons. This infographic explores the opportunities and potential risks that this budding field of science has to offer.

What is Synthetic Biology?

We’ve covered the basics of synbio in previous work, but as a refresher, here’s a quick explanation of what synbio is and how it works.

Synbio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning different biological components and systems in various organisms.

It’s like genetic engineering but done at a more granular level—while genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, synbio can build new genetic material from scratch.

The Opportunities of Synbio

This field of science has a plethora of real-world applications that could transform our everyday lives. A study by McKinsey found over 400 potential uses for synbio, which were broken down into four main categories:

  • Human health and performance
  • Agriculture and food
  • Consumer products and services
  • Materials and energy production

If those potential uses become reality in the coming years, they could have a direct economic impact of up to $3.6 trillion per year by 2030-2040.

1. Human Health and Performance

The medical and health sector is predicted to be significantly influenced by synbio, with an economic impact of up to $1.3 trillion each year by 2030-2040.

Synbio has a wide range of medical applications. For instance, it can be used to manipulate biological pathways in yeast to produce an anti-malaria treatment.

It could also enhance gene therapy. Using synbio techniques, the British biotech company Touchlight Genetics is working on a way to build synthetic DNA without the use of bacteria, which would be a game-changer for the field of gene therapy.

2. Agriculture and Food

Synbio has the potential to make a big splash in the agricultural sector as well—up to $1.2 trillion per year by as early as 2030.

One example of this is synbio’s role in cellular agriculture, which is when meat is created from cells directly. The cost of creating lab-grown meat has decreased significantly in recent years, and because of this, various startups around the world are beginning to develop a variety of cell-based meat products.

3. Consumer Products and Services

Using synthetic biology, products could be tailored to suit an individual’s unique needs. This would be useful in fields such as genetic ancestry testing, gene therapy, and age-related skin procedures.

By 2030-2040, synthetic biology could have an economic impact on consumer products and services to the tune of up to $800 billion per year.

4. Materials and Energy Production

Synbio could also be used to boost efficiency in clean energy and biofuel production. For instance, microalgae are currently being “reprogrammed” to produce clean energy in an economically feasible way.

This, along with other material and energy improvements through synbio methods, could have a direct economic impact of up to $300 billion each year.

The Potential Risks of Synbio

While the potential economic and societal benefits of synthetic biology are vast, there are a number of risks to be aware of as well:

  • Unintended biological consequences: Making tweaks to any biological system can have ripple effects across entire ecosystems or species. When any sort of lifeform is manipulated, things don’t always go according to plan.
  • Moral issues: How far we’re comfortable going with synbio depends on our values. Certain synbio applications, such as embryo editing, are controversial. If these types of applications become mainstream, they could have massive societal implications, with the potential to increase polarization within communities.
  • Unequal access: Innovation and progress in synbio is happening faster in wealthier countries than it is in developing ones. If this trend continues, access to these types of technology may not be equal worldwide. We’ve already witnessed this type of access gap during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, where a majority of vaccines have been administered in rich countries.
  • Bioweaponry: Synbio could be used to recreate viruses, or manipulate bacteria to make it more dangerous, if used with ill intent.

According to a group of scientists at the University of Edinburgh, communication between the public, synthetic biologists, and political decision-makers is crucial so that these societal and environmental risks can be mitigated.

Balancing Risk and Reward

Despite the risks involved, innovation in synbio is happening at a rapid pace.

By 2030, most people will have likely eaten, worn, or been treated by a product created by synthetic biology, according to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt.

Our choices today will dictate the future of synbio, and how we navigate through this space will have a massive impact on our future—for better, or for worse.

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