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Some Of The Most Exciting Tech Companies Are The Ones You Never Hear Of

2013 July 31

One of the most interesting aspects of digital technology is its ability to disrupt.  These days, scale is no match for innovation and speed.

Nevertheless, the new technologies that we usually hear about are from giants like Apple and Amazon, Facebook and Google, Microsoft, IBM and the like.  On any given day, it always seems that one of those companies steals the headlines.

That’s a shame, because some of the most interesting companies are ones that rarely get much attention.  They are often located in out of the way places or develop technologies behind the scenes, where their logo isn’t paraded in front of us on a daily basis. Nevertheless, they are important and and do exciting work.  Here are five.

1. Naspers

Most big media companies are located in big places like  New York, London and Los Angeles (and, of course, a few new ones in the Bay Area).  Then there is Cape Town, South Africa, which is home to Naspers, a digital media powerhouse with a market capitalization of about $30 billion, roughly the same as Yahoo! or Viacom.

Naspers is a century old company that was originally a publisher of newspapers and magazines and still derives about a third of its revenues from print. They got into digital in 1997 with the launch of an ISP in their native South Africa and made a smart early investment in China’s Tencent in 2001.

Since then, the company has become a force to be reckoned with in the world’s fast growing emerging markets (when eBay entered the Polish market, Naspers’ Allegro division put them out of business within a year).  From Africa to Asia, Eastern Europe to South America, Naspers holds leading positions in a variety of digital businesses.

While the company doesn’t operate any businesses in North America or Western Europe, it was an early investor in Facebook (through and will most likely make more shrewd investments in the future.  For now, however, they seem content to be the best of the rest.

2. Nuance Communications

On October 4, 2011, Apple caught the world’s attention by launching Siri along with the iPhone 4S.  While voice recognition technology has been around for a while, this marked the first time it was incorporated into a major consumer product.  Already famous for innovative interfaces, it appeared that Apple had done it once again.

Much of the technology that drives Siri, however, is produced by Nuance Communications, widely recognized as the leader in voice recognition systems.  Nuance isn’t a start-up, it’s origins date back to Kurzweil Computer Products in the 1970’s and currently has revenues of over $1 billion and a market cap of $6 billion.

As artificial intelligence becomes integral to technology products, we can expect Nuance to play a central role.  While Microsoft, Google and others have built impressive platforms of their own, Nuance’s has been working on their technology for decades and it remains the gold standard.

If Apple ever decides to use their cash hoard for major acquisitions, Nuance will likely be rank high on the list.

3. Mattersight

As the space program began to gain steam in the 70’s, NASA scientists had to deal with a troubling problem:  How to minimize the risk of conflict between astronauts who have to share close quarters for weeks in space?   Any small incompatibility would likely be magnified and could not only wreak havoc with the mission, it could be dangerous.

Enter Dr. Taibi Kahler, who developed a method to evaluate basic personality types from speech patterns and word choice that outperformed even the most comprehensive personality tests.  The method, now best known as the process communication model (PCM), has become widely accepted to assess compatibility.

Mattersight (formerly eLoyalty) has combined PCM with voice recognition technology to increase the efficiency of call centers by having its algorithms listen in when customers call with a problem.  During that short time, their personalities are assessed so that they can be matched with a compatible operator next time they call in.

The technology has now been deployed to over 50,000 call center seats which field millions of calls every month.  So next time you hear “this call may be monitored for quality and training purposes,” don’t assume its being monitored by a human!

4. Insightera

Anybody who has seen one of the popular Lumascapes around the Internet is aware that an enormous infrastructure has been built up around tracking consumer behavior on the Internet.  From third party data providers to Data Management Platforms to ad networks, hundreds of companies are involved.

However, despite the enormous amount of money and technology devoted to the effort, relatively few companies benefit.  Small and medium size businesses that market to other businesses gain little from the enormous systems that are dedicated to consumer marketing.

Insightera is looking to change that.  Its software pulls IP addresses from inbound traffic and compares them to commercially available databases.  They then evaluate prospects’ geography and industry to determine what content will suit them best.  It will also track their activity on future visits to further optimize the process.

The company is still in startup mode, but has over 60 customers and claims to be able to increase conversions more than 20-fold.

5. Narrative Science

While big data is the current darling of the tech world, ordinary humans still like stories. Given the choice between poring over spreadsheets and leaning back with a nice novel, most people would happily choose the latter.

Narrative Science seeks to bridge that gap by turning structured data (like the kind you find in excel spreadsheets) into stories by using artificial intelligence algorithms to write much like a human would.  So customized reports can be produced in seconds rather than weeks, even from large data sets.

If it all sounds a bit hard to believe, you’ve probably read some of Narrative Science’s stories already and just never realized it.  Forbes uses the service to produce earnings previews and a variety of sports sites deploy the technology to create instant recaps from box scores.

Signs Of Things To Come

While these aren’t companies that steal headlines, they are important because they point to three underlying trends that will drive the future of technology.

The Rise of The Rest: While the United States and Europe make up roughly 10% of the world’s population, they make up half of the world’s economic output.  As digital technology reduces the importance of borders, we’re going to see more companies like Naspers build great businesses in developing markets that can compete as global giants.

Expect reverse innovation to become a growing trend as more technologies developed for poor countries disrupt incumbent models in rich ones.

The Democratization of Tech:  Historically, technology companies have focused on big systems for large enterprises.  However, small and medium sized businesses have very different needs and there is ample room for companies like Insightera to fill the gap.

The Automation of Professional Tasks: Probably the most sweeping change over the next decade will be the increasing use of artificial intelligence to do work once thought to be innately human.

From personality assessments such as Mattersight does or the content that Narrative science produces, we’re entering uncharted territory.  Much like the industrial revolution transformed physical work, the more cerebral tasks of highly skilled professionals will be increasingly automated.  We’ll all have to adapt.

So while we’ll all still follow the exploits of tech giants, we should remember that for every Google or Apple, there are thousands of companies we never hear about working on things that will make our lives easier, more productive and more enjoyable.

– Greg


4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 31, 2013

    Interestingly only one of these companies you mention could be generously labelled as a ‘start-up’. I find the abundant worship of the technology media at the altar of Silicon Valley start-up culture to be rather vacuous and distasteful.

    Real innovation is not confined to start-ups. I would dare say that start-ups are not innovative at all on the whole, but derivative. The whole Silicon Valley revolving door mentality of serial entrepreneurs, coders, and venture capitalists creates precious little of genuine value.

  2. July 31, 2013

    Great point. Thanks Barry!

    Although, I would point out that I made no effort to make the companies in this post a representative sample and there a plenty of start-ups doing great work. However, i think all of these companies offer important lessons.

    Naspers, I think, is particularly interesting. For all of the “big time” media executives who whine about “trading analog dollars for digital dimes for mobile pennies,” why is it that a print media company in South Africa can adapt so effectively?

    – Greg

  3. August 3, 2013

    Great point. Every individual only sees a tiny picture of what’s out there. But Digital Tonto keeps track of not just the ones trying to get attention (press releases, etc.) but delves in deeper to some off the popular radar upstarts. That’s about all you can do. Nobody knows about my company because to let the world know just invites trouble…until you are at a certain stage with alliances and protection.

  4. August 3, 2013

    Thanks for the vote of confidence, Robin!

    – Greg

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