The 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50: How We Chose the List of Companies

Persephone Kavallines
  • With 12 public exits and four pending SPAC mergers, competition for the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50 was as wide open as ever.
  • For the fifth straight year, a record number of nominations were submitted:1,565 start-ups aiming to make the annual list.
  • In addition to quantitative information, companies were asked to include descriptions of their core business model, ideal customers and recent milestones, evaluated by hundreds who read the submissions and provided holistic qualitative assessments of each nominee.

The mission of the Disruptor 50 list has always been to identify fast-growing, innovative start-ups on the path to becoming the next generation of great public companies. But in 2020, things got ridiculous. Twelve of the 50 companies named to the 2020 Disruptor 50 are now public companies. Four more have announced deals to become public via mergers with special purpose acquisition companies.

All those exits meant the competition for the 2021 Disruptor 50 was as wide open as ever, and for the fifth straight year, a record number of start-ups (1,565 to be exact) jumped at the chance to make our annual list.

Choosing the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50

All private, independently owned start-up companies founded after Jan. 1, 2006, were eligible to be nominated for the Disruptor 50 list. Companies nominated were required to submit a detailed analysis, including key quantitative and qualitative information.

Quantitative metrics included company-submitted data on workforce size and diversity, scalability, and sales and user growth. Some of this information has been kept off the record and was used for scoring purposes only. CNBC also brought in data from a pair of outside partners — PitchBook, which provided data on fundraising, implied valuations and investor quality; and IBISWorld, whose database of industry reports we used to compare the companies based on the industries they are attempting to disrupt.

This year, for the first time, we added a separate Board Diversity category to be considered in addition to the existing Workforce Diversity category. We added this category as one of several steps to bring more diversity to the list overall. In addition to adding the Board Diversity category, we expanded our outreach to more companies with female founders and founders of color and their investors during our call for nominations.

CNBC's Disruptor 50 Advisory Council — a group of 47 leading thinkers in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship from around the world (see list of members below) — then ranked the quantitative criteria by importance and ability to disrupt established industries and public companies. This year the council found that scalability and user growth were the most important criteria, along with use of breakthrough technologies (including, most commonly, artificial intelligence and machine learning) and size of the industry being disrupted. These categories received the highest weighting, but the ranking model is designed to ensure that companies must score highly on a wide range of criteria to make the final list.

Companies were also asked to submit important qualitative information, including descriptions of their core business model, ideal customers and recent company milestones. A team of more than 70 CNBC editorial staff, along with members of the Advisory Council, read the submissions and provided holistic qualitative assessments of each company.

The qualitative scores were combined with a weighted quantitative score to determine which 50 companies made the list and in what order.

The 2021 Disruptor 50 includes 24 companies making the list for the first time. They represent innovation in a wide range of sectors, including cybersecurity, fintech, health care, and electric vehicles. Many are driven by social or environmental missions, from democratizing access to financial services to strengthening the global food supply and fighting climate change.

We expect all 50 will continue to grow, innovate and inspire change in their larger, incumbent competitors as we follow them through the rest of this year and into the next. Many, we expect, will become perennial Disruptor 50 companies.

This year, six Disruptors have made the list for the fourth time. The No. 1 Disruptor, Robinhood, has made the list for the fifth and final time, with its public debut expected in just a few weeks. At No. 2, Stripe is a seven-time Disruptor 50 company, only the third company in the history of the list with that distinction.

Special thanks to the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50 Advisory Council, who again offered us their time and insights. As always, we appreciate their contributions.

  • Rob Adams, director emeritus, University of Texas Venture Labs
  • Ron Adner, professor, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business
  • Anita Anantharam, professor, University of Florida
  • Edward Blair, chair in Entrepreneurship, University of Houston
  • Gregory Brown, professor and executive director, University of North Carolina Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise
  • Robert J. Brunner, chief disruption officer, University of Illinois Gies College of Business
  • Candida S. Brush, professor, Babson College
  • John Sibley Butler, chair in Constructive Capitalism, University of Texas
  • Gary Chan, professor, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
  • Jim Chung, VP for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, George Washington University
  • Chris Coleridge, senior faculty in Management Practice, Cambridge University
  • Jeff Cornwall, chair and professor of Entrepreneurship, Belmont University
  • Jason D'Mello, assistant professor, Loyola Marymount University
  • Donna De Carolis, dean, Drexel University Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship
  • Monica Dean, managing director, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies
  • Waverly Deutsch, clinical professor of Entrepreneurship, University of Chicago Booth School of Business
  • Judi Eyles, director, Iowa State University Center for Entrepreneurship
  • Clare Gately, professor of Entrepreneurship, EDHEC Business School (France) and Waterford Institute of Technology (Ireland)
  • Ari Ginsberg, professor of Entrepreneurship and Management, New York University Stern School of Business
  • Michael Goldberg, executive director, Case Western Reserve University Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship
  • Michael Goldsby, distinguished professor of Entrepreneurship, Ball State University
  • Henrich R. Greve, professor of Entrepreneurship, INSEAD
  • Anil Gupta, chair and professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland Smith School of Business
  • J. Michael Haynie, vice chancellor, Syracuse University
  • Lisa Hehenberger, associate professor and director, Universitat Ramon Llull ESADE Business School Entrepreneurship Institute
  • Keith Hmieleski, professor of Entrepreneurship, Texas Christian University
  • Kevin Hoch, managing director, Education, Duke University
  • Jim Jindrick, new venture development consultant, University of Arizona
  • Neil Kane, faculty member, Michigan State University
  • Jerome Katz, chair in Entrepreneurship, Saint Louis University
  • Marie Josee Lamothe, professor and director, McGill University Dobson Center for Entrepreneurship
  • Vincent C. Lewis, director, University of Dayton Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership
  • Rita McGrath, professor, Columbia Business School
  • Alex McKelvie, associate dean and professor of Entrepreneurship, Syracuse University Whitman School of Management
  • Scott Newbert, academic director, Baruch College Lawrence N. Field Programs in Entrepreneurship
  • Dan Olszewski, director, Wisconsin School of Business Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship
  • Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, associate professor of Practice and director, Brown University Venture Capital Inclusion Lab
  • Gerhard Plaschka, professor, DePaul University
  • Jeff Reid, professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship and founding director, Georgetown Entrepreneurship Institute
  • Lyneir Richardson, assistant professor of Professional Practice, Rutgers University
  • Matthew W. Rutherford, professor and chair, Oklahoma State University Spears School of Business School of Entrepreneurship
  • Albert Segars, distinguished professor, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
  • John H. Shannon, professor, Seton Hall University
  • David Touve, senior director, University of Virginia Darden School of Business Batten Institute
  • Ari Wallach, founder and CEO, Longpath Labs
  • Helena Yli-Renko, professor, University of Southern California
  • David Zvilichovsky, senior academic faculty, Tel Aviv University and Global Modular Courses (GMC) professor, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School

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