Most companies aspire to be more innovative. But amidst layoffs, budget freezes, and lockdown orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a brutal year that separated a few forward-looking companies that continued to invest in innovation from the rest of the pack.
We’ve spent the pandemic year covering all kinds of innovation-related initiatives and products, and the people responsible for making them happen — and doing it from our homes, like many others around the world. Now, with 2020 in the rearview, we’re happy to present our first-ever Most Influential Innovators list.
In compiling this list, we looked at an individual’s major accomplishments from 2020, also taking into account prior career highlights, as well as recommendations and background from innovators in our network. We especially looked for leaders who took on projects that sought to address and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, from face masks to telemedicine to mRNA vaccines. (Yes, and also streaming entertainment.) We conducted interviews with some of these innovators, and researched others. One key criteria: since Innovation Leader focuses on innovation inside large organizations, everyone works for an organization with 1000-plus employees. To learn more about some of the innovators on our list, click the links for more background.
Before either the US or the World Health Organization had dubbed COVID-19 a public health emergency, BioNTech co-founders Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin had made the decision to begin focusing their company’s efforts on creating a COVID-19 vaccine. Türeci and Sahin are married, and the decision was made at the breakfast table on the morning of January 24, 2020. At the time, shifting the German company’s resources was a risky move: the pair couldn’t be certain of the virus’ massive global impact, and the first case hadn’t yet been seen in their own country. Also, the prior world speed record for developing a vaccine was four years, for mumps. By April, Türeci and Sahin announced that BioNTech would expand its research and development partnership with the much larger American pharmaceutical company Pfizer. And by November, the two companies revealed that the Phase III clinical trial was extremely successful, and that the vaccine was 95 percent effective at preventing COVID-19. By early December, people were getting the Pfizer-BioNTech shots outside of clinical trial settings. Not bad for a company founded in 2008, which has just 1,400 employees. And the co-founding couple has since been named Financial Times’ “People of the Year.”
In May of 2020, SpaceX became the first private company to launch astronauts to orbit the International Space Station, beating Boeing — which had received almost $2 billion more from NASA. The company continues to vault satellites into space on a regular basis, in part to support its Starlink Internet access business, and it has also been testing its long-distance Starship, which will be capable of ferrying humans to Mars. (The company barely blinks at failure: a recent Starship explosion on the landing pad was described as a “rapid unschedule disassembly.”) But SpaceX is not the only company that Elon Musk runs, of course. Simultaneously, Musk’s team at his automotive venture Tesla has been working to advance its “Autopilot” feature — a totally rewritten software package it says will offer full self-driving capabilities — beginning beta testing in 2020 and promising a wide release in 2021. Last March, the company began shipping its Model Y compact sport utility vehicle. And the Tesla CEO also teased a high-performance vehicle with a “SpaceX package” that would feature “rocket thrusters.” Musk is also trying to get better at boring: his Boring Company venture, which seeks to build underground tunnels for faster car and Hyperloop pod travel, is currently sponsoring an open competition. The “Not-a-Boring Competition” is set up to attract researchers from around the world who want to design speedier tunnel-digging apparatus.
Anyone who binge-watched “The Queen’s Gambit” in 2020 has Ted Sarandos to thank. Sarandos has been responsible for designing the streaming platform’s slate of original content — from a slew of original television shows in different languages to movies directed by Hollywood A-listers like Martin Scorsese. Sarandos wasn’t a techie when he joined the company in 2000, but he knew what made the entertainment industry tick, and he learned to rely on Netflix’s software algorithms to predict what movies and shows would connect with viewers. The approach has paid off at the awards shows, with Netflix originals receiving 35 nominations for the 2021 Academy Awards — topping its former record of 24 nominations set in 2020. Netflix was also beating its own forecasts for subscriber growth through much of the pandemic. Sarandos added “co-CEO” to his title in 2020 after 20 years as Chief Content Officer, paving the way for him to become the potential successor to Netflix co-CEO and founder Reed Hastings.
2020 was the year that Moderna became a household name, scrawled or stickered onto millions of vaccination records. The Cambridge, Mass.–based biotech company was one of a handful to release a highly-effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus using messenger RNA technology. Not only did they create a successful vaccine, but they did it at record speed. The company decided to start working on a vaccine in January 2020, and administered the first dose in a Phase I clinical trial just 63 days later, on March 16. That kind of scientific sprint relied on more than 1,200 employees, but Chief Digital and Operational Excellence Officer Marcello Damiani also credits the company’s technological infrastructure for making it possible. That includes a Drug Design Studio that helps scientists simplify their nucleotide sequences, to make an mRNA molecule easier to produce, as well as extensive automation once a molecule is ready to be cranked out at scale. “If we had to do [a] COVID [vaccine] in 2015, we would have failed maybe once or twice before we were able to produce it, because the sequence has its own complexity,” he said in a recent interview with Innovation Leader. “But with everything that we built and the data that we had…we were able to produce it right the first time, in the right quality.”
Brynn Putnam was one of the winners to emerge from a trying year. In 2016, the former ballerina launched her company Mirror — which sells interactive digital displays that stream workout classes — expecting a gradual shift towards home workouts from customers. But when the pandemic closed gyms in 2020, the demand for at-home fitness equipment skyrocketed. Celebrities like Alicia Keys and Reese Witherspoon lauded the brand, which started as a crude prototype with a screen and a tablet in Putnam’s home, on social media. In June, Mirror was acquired by the apparel brand Lululemon for $500 million, and Putnam stayed on as CEO. Now that Mirror has taken off, Putnam’s next challenge will be differentiating her product from fast-follower rivals, like the Tonal and the Tempo smart home gyms.
For the Silicon Valley company Zoom, 2020 was the year its name became a verb. The video conferencing platform went from being a slow-growing business application with plenty of competition to an essential consumer application used by everybody you knew seemingly overnight. The team behind the tech had to roll with that tidal wave of adoption. At the onset of the pandemic, the main focus of Chief Product Officer Oded Gal and his team was tightening security (remember Zoom-bombing?). But as the year went on, they switched gears to adding features like new expressive reactions, filters, and integration with calendar apps. The platform even built out a HIPAA-compliant offering for telehealth services, and an experience platform called “OnZoom” that allows standup comics, workshop leaders, and yoga instructors to monetize what they do on the platform. As if that wasn’t enough, Zoom also released its API to allow outside developers to build new private or public features into the platform. But a big challenge looms: ensuring that as many workers return to the office, those joining meetings via Zoom feel like full participants, rather than far-off players who mostly listen and nod.
I always ask myself: ‘How can I do something that nobody has done? — Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo
Prat Vemana left his role at Home Depot to join healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente as its first-ever Chief Digital Officer only months before the onset of the pandemic. This meant that one of his first big projects was ramping up the company’s digital infrastructure in order to give its 12 million members access to telehealth. “Prior to COVID-19, we probably had single digits” of patients using telemedicine, he said in an episode of Innovation Leader’s weekly webshow “One Quick Thing.” By April 2020, “almost 80 percent of the care that [Kaiser] provides is through telemedicine and virtual care.” In addition to making virtual visits easier for both patients and docs, Vemana and his team also deployed a chatbot that helped hundreds of thousands of people check for COVID-19 symptoms. By the end of 2020, Kaiser had facilitated 31 million virtual appointments, and had also launched a new, lower cost “virtual first” healthcare plan in Washington state, which focuses on video, chat, or phone consults with doctors and nurses for non-urgent issues, with in-person follow-up visits only as necessary.
2020 was a year filled with challenges for professional sports leagues, many of which landed on the desk of the NBA’s first-ever Chief Innovation Officer, Amy Brooks. Not long after the NBA Bubble was set up in Orlando, Fla., the NBA needed to run its annual Draft Combine, a multi-day pre-draft event that brings invited athletes together with scouts, coaches, and team managers. Typically held in June, the 2020 event was postponed until September for safety reasons — and it got a major digital upgrade. Not only was the entire event held remotely with videoconferencing, but the NBA also partnered with the app HomeCourt, which uses advanced machine learning and computer vision to record and analyze a player’s shooting skills. Brooks also spearheaded the launch of a lucrative jersey patch sponsorship program to boost revenue for the league.
While many towns cancelled their annual fireworks displays for the Fourth of July, and Disney’s theme parks were shuttered, millions of people celebrated the holiday indoors with the new Disney+ streaming service — watching the debut of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” which had been moved up due to the pandemic. It was a breakthrough moment for the streaming service, which launched in November 2019, and now has nearly 95 million subscribers. In 2020, Chief Product Officer Jerrell Jimerson and his team seamlessly expanded the service to Europe — a feat that took competitor Netflix years to accomplish. A Premier Access tier for the service now offers access to new movies, like the live-action “Mulan,” for an additional fee while they are still playing in theaters. And in September, Disney+ added a co-watching feature called “GroupWatch,” rivaling the similar offering “Netflix Party.” The company’s next audacious goal for Disney+? Hitting at least 230 million subscribers by 2024, amidst stiff competition from other streaming services.
Online and contactless commerce became king in 2020, and Carvana’s online car buying platform and Car Vending Machines positioned the company one step ahead of its competition. Throughout much of 2020, used car sales were surging — and Carvana took advantage of that. The company saw big leaps across the board in its 2020 results, boasting a 37 percent year-over-year increase in cars sold, a 42 percent increase in revenue, and a 57 percent increase in gross profit. Daniel Gill, one of the company’s co-founders and its first Chief Product Officer, oversees all of its technology functions — like its app that allows customers to purchase cars from their phones — and its strategic partnerships. In 2020, his team was able to adapt to changing consumer behavior by expanding its next-day delivery service to new locations across the country, and making it easy to get a price for your used car via the company’s mobile app. Not to mention, they brought Car Vending Machines to Atlanta and Las Vegas.
One of the epicenters of caffeine-infused creativity sits on the ground floor of Starbucks HQ in Seattle. The Tryer Center is an R&D lab where Director Janice Waszak leads a team of innovators who help Starbucks develop new offerings that will resonate with customers. Waszak’s team typically works on new beverages and systems, like the Nitro Cold Brew dispensers that are now in stores across the country and the Cloud Macchiato, which blends espresso, vanilla syrup, and milk foam. They also can think about the design and equipment needs of new stores — and they’ve got a working drive-through window to test that increasingly popular option. The Tryer Center’s mandate: to move from ideas into actions in about 100 days. Recently, the team dove into helping Washington state with COVID-19 relief. After spending days researching and observing COVID-19 vaccination sites, the team built a mock site at the Tryer Center and began working on building a model to help with operational efficiency at sites. This partnership with the state and a number of other large companies was announced in late January, and is part of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to triple the amount of vaccinations given in the state per day.
Known as the Captain of Moonshots at X, Astro Teller oversees work on a portfolio of projects too risky for most public companies to take on. (X is the a secretive R&D arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet.) For example, back in 2010, Teller’s team began working on driverless cars. In 2016, the project spun out as an independent company called Waymo, and last October, it began operating a taxi service in Phoenix. Other projects Teller has taken on at X include Wing, a drone delivery company, and Dandelion Energy, which brings geothermal heating to homes in upstate New York. While Wing spun out as its own business in 2018, the pandemic in 2020 opened up a big opportunity for real-world tests. The drone company currently has test sites in Australia, Finland, and in Virginia and its drones have completed over 100,000 flights. Teller is known for his philosophy on pushing limits: In the past, he has said that he tries to tackle the hardest parts of a project first and celebrates when his team fails. This is the approach he took to the shut-down of Loon, an X project that used balloons launched into the stratosphere to provide internet acccess to remote communities — which he announced in a blog post in January 2021.
At a moment when customers suddenly wanted to curtail visits to the bank, “digital was so integrally linked in so many of the ways we helped customers through this difficult year,” Dominic Venturo, Chief Digital Officer at U.S. Bank, said in a recent email interview with Innovation Leader. One of his biggest accomplishments of 2020 was the release of a voice assistant in U.S. Bank’s mobile app; another was launching completely digital applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans. “Necessity truly is the mother of invention (and in our case, innovation), and it was a full team effort as we created new do-it-yourself options and used technology to improve do-it-together experiences as well,” he said.
Automakers everywhere are jockeying to win share in the electric vehicle market, but General Motors made a bold declaration in January 2021: it would convert its entire lineup of vehicles to electric power by 2035. One of the people who has been driving that initiative inside GM is Pamela Fletcher, who oversaw the creation of the Chevrolet Bolt in 2017, an EV with a price point of $37,500. In January, GM also announced a new logistics and delivery business called BrightDrop focused on electric vehicles, under Fletcher’s leadership. Its first product — an electric wheeled pallet to be used in warehouses — will become available early this year, and future plans include a rollout of a clean electric delivery van. FedEx is already lined up as an early customer for the van, which will have a range of 250 miles per charge.
For most people, air travel came to a screeching halt in March 2020, but that didn’t stop Angela Marano and her team from continuing to work on upgrading how we fly. As the Managing Director of Business Transformation at Southwest Airlines, the world’s largest low-cost airline, Marano is responsible for identifying opportunities in data science, automation, and other emerging technologies. A member of the Southwest Airlines team for over 20 years, she has moved up in the ranks from technology leader to her current role. Under Marano’s leadership, Southwest began testing a cloud-based Day of Travel app that aggregates historic data and real-time information to give users information like expected traffic delays or long lines at the airport. She has also sought new efficiencies by automating parts of the supply chain and revenue accounting, through a partnership between Southwest and the enterprise automation startup JIFFY.ai.
Alexa, can you give me a random fact? Gregg Zehr is the President of Amazon Lab126, the R&D and hardware company owned by Amazon, responsible for developing flagship products like the Amazon Echo, Kindle, Fire Stick, and more. Zehr has been at the helm since Lab126’s humble beginnings in 2004, and has built it up from a small team in a shared office space to an operation with 3,000 employees and its own headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. Since the launch of Lab126’s original product, the Kindle e-reader, the company has created multiple lines of products, with the Kindle now in its tenth generation. In 2020, the group added COVID-19 testing to its list of under-the-radar initiatives. Job listings seeking mechanical design engineers to join Lab126 went up in May to help scale Amazon’s lofty bulk-testing goals.
Picture any pizzeria, birthday party, after-school event, or bar, and you’ll likely see an iconic, two-liter bottle of Pepsi. But what if this bottle were easier to hold, used less plastic, and still held the same amount of soda? That was one of the biggest challenges Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s first ever Chief Design Officer, took on. And it took years to accomplish. The redesign — the first to happen in 30 years — was released in 2020. “I always ask myself: ‘How can I do something that nobody has done?'” Porcini said in a recent interview with Innovation Leader.
While all eyes were on the COVID-19 vaccines being brought to market by a handful of pharma companies in 2020, Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals was honing in on using gene-editing technology to target a number of chronic conditions. R&D Head David Altshuler and his team at Vertex have been busy, showing promising responses to trials with a gene-editing therapy known as CTX-001 to treat blood disorders like sickle cell disease — which could eliminate the need for regular transfusions. In 2020, his team also established a new research partnership with Moderna to try to treat cystic fibrosis with gene-editing technology.
Leaders like positive results, and don’t like surprises. — Dominic Venturo, U.S. Bank
As Head of Fidelity Labs, the fintech incubation arm of Fidelity Investments, Mona Vernon oversees projects that tackle challenges like streamlining student debt repayment and demystifying estate planning. And in an unpredictable year like 2020, she had to be extra sensitive to changing customer needs — especially as the pandemic had financial matters front and center for many families. “It’s just an incredible opportunity to think about innovative ways to bring financial wellness to people,” she said at our Charting the Future conference in 2020. As Fidelity’s clients became more interested in investments that advance social causes, her team reacted. In January of 2021, they released Fidelity ESG Pro — a platform that helps financial advisors respond to the demand for more environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-oriented investing, with new tools for creating model portfolios and engaging clients in how their investments are making a difference.
In talking about how to make innovation work inside a large company during a session at our 2020 Impact conference, Vanessa Colella compared it to a sloppy joe sandwich. Just like the top bun of the messy sandwich, leadership support is important, but having innovation embedded throughout the front lines and middle ranks of the organization provides an essential foundation. “There is no way you can eat a sloppy joe with only the top bun, because it will all be in your lap,” she explained. Colella is the Chief Innovation Officer of CitiBank, where she oversees a wide range of initiatives — from corporate venture capital to internal incubators to a division devoted to the future of banking. In 2020, she helped Citi Ventures establish itself as one of the world’s most active corporate venture teams, completing a record 25 investments. She helped incubate and launch more than 10 projects during the year, including the Ensemble Expense Tracking App for Parents to help co-parents share and track expenses; City Builder by Citi to improve economic vitality through impact investing in communities; and the free tool Worthi by Citi, to encourage financial skills development with online courses.
Trying to innovate via Zoom was impossible for companies that make physical products, like Michigan-based Carhartt. As the pandemic descended, Colleen Hau, Director of Global Product Innovation, told her team to grab the machines they needed to continue developing products from home. Prototypes were then made from team members’ respective houses and shipped to their coworkers for feedback, she said in an episode of our “One Quick Thing” webcast. Carhartt also shifted production to make face masks and medical gowns for frontline workers. But rather than rushing, Carhartt sought input from customers, working hard to understand their needs for long hours of usage in outdoor environments like construction sites: “it doesn’t hinder them, and they can focus on their job,” Hau said.
Surround yourself with amazing, talented, smart, and humble people! — Amanda Cashin, Illumina
Hannah Jones is a veteran of Nike, having joined in 1998 and working her way up to founding and leading the Nike Valiant Labs, the company’s new business incubator, in 2018. She champions sustainability in her role, drawing on her 14 years of experience as Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer. For example, at Valiant Labs, Jones and her team helped build out Resku, an ecommerce platform that sells gently-used and refurbished Nike sneakers for a discounted price. In 2020, the company also began repurposing sneaker components to manufacture face shields.
At the onset of the pandemic, Zachary Gipson had to confront the sudden disappearance of face-to-face, high trust interactions between financial advisors and their clients. Gipson, Head of Digital Investor Solutions at Charles Schwab, knew his team would need to figure out how to establish and maintain that trust with clients without the in-person meetings. But he realized that this challenge also opened up an opportunity for growth. “[Before,] you’re looking at three to four meetings [for financial advisors who need to connect with new or existing clients], depending upon the city area,” Gipson said at our 2020 Impact conference. “But now…our advisors are able to see eight to 10 clients a day.” Charles Schwab also gave its app an upgrade during the past year, releasing an AI-powered assistant that allows users to use text or speech to find information and complete tasks within the app. In June, Schwab’s “Stock Slices” were launched as well, giving clients the power to buy “slices” of more expensive stocks from America’s leading companies for as little as $5.
Illumina has been operating at the cutting edge of science for years, reducing the cost of sequencing the human genome from $1 million to only $1,000. Illumina For Startups and the Illumina Accelerator, led by Amanda Cashin, are part of the R&D development team and report directly to the company’s CTO. In 2020, Cashin’s team opened its first global accelerator site in the United Kingdom. Other accomplishments include the first three investments at this site in Cambridge, UK, as well as four new investments in the Silicon Valley — all during a global pandemic. “It takes a village to build a startup, an accelerator, or navigate a career — and it’s key to have a supportive network of family, mentors, colleagues, peers, and friends to help along the way,” she said in a recent interview with Innovation Leader.
With 410,000 employees and $86 billion in annual revenue, Bosch is the world’s largest supplier of auto parts, and the German company also manufactures an array of other products — from air conditioning systems to power saws to coffee makers. And Uwe Kirschner’s department at Bosch is laser-focused on all topics related to future growth, which includes business model innovation and corporate entrepreneurship. In the last year, the team has improved its validation engine, the Bosch Accelerator program, and enabled teams to participate remotely from anywhere around the globe, he told Innovation Leader in a recent interview. “We have learned that it does not make sense to put all your eggs in one basket, tying up too much capital for too long in single projects with a low probability of success,” Kirschner said. “In fact, quite the opposite is the truth — we have to set up a diverse innovation funnel consisting of many small projects and experiments.” (Kirschner’s team was also recognized with an Innovation Leader Impact Award in 2019.)