This year was a mixed bag for startups. Powa Technologies, an e-commerce company that was one of Britain’s so-called unicorns (a startup valued at over $1bn), crashed hard, declaring bankruptcy early in 2016. US wearables company Pebble sold to Fitbit for less than a 10th of its peak valuation. But on the plus side, Europe minted – foaled? – 10 new unicorns, and Finnish gaming company Supercell became the continent’s first “decacorn” (a startup valued at over $10bn).
But for some startups, the year ahead is nothing but hopeful. Here are some of the companies that look set to have a 2017 they will remember for some time.
Banking startup Monzo launched in 2015, but 2017 is set to be a turning point for the fintech darling. For the first 18 months of its public operation, Monzo has been limited in what it can offer customers by British banking regulations, forcing it to operate as little more than a pre-paid debit card with a (very slick) app.
A Monzo beta card. Photograph: Alex Hern for the Guardian
But early next year, Monzo should receive a full banking licence, allowing it to operate as the main bank account for users who want to switch their financial life over to a startup wholesale. Crucially, the license gives it access to the direct debit and faster payments system, allowing users to pay bills from their Monzo accounts – and be paid into their accounts.
The banking licence also means the company can start making money for the first time. Users will be able to request an overdraft facility on their Monzo current accounts, with the fees paid being the first revenue the startup will pull in. In the long term, though, don’t expect it to settle for overdraft fees: Monzo wants to be Facebook for money.
Thread’s trick is a clever mixture of human stylists, AI assistants and tools. Photograph: Thread
Fashion tech startup Thread is trying to solve the problem of styling at scale. It’s a tricky beast: your style is an inherently personal thing, yet for any startup to avoid burning money, it needs to come up with a way to efficiently pick clothes for thousands of customers at the same time.
Thread’s trick is a clever mixture of human stylists, AI assistants and tools that let both work together to deliver a semi-personalised collection of outfit ideas to every customer. It means that each human stylist is able to provide five outfits a week to somewhere in the realm of 80,000 people, with Thread’s sartorial suggestions improving the more data it has on each member. Despite its data-driven back end, though, the stylists’ fashion sense still shines through.
Still to come: womenswear, which has been on the backburner owing to the vast increase in complexity for women’s fashion.
Robotics startup Automata has its background in architecture: the company’s founders spent 10 years working in Zaha Hadid’s studios. There, they learned the value of robots for simple repetitive tasks, but also the prohibitive cost of most of the machines available on the market today.
The fruits of their labour will arrive in 2017: a low cost robotic arm, which the company hopes will give robotics its “iPhone moment”. It can be programmed by simply moving the arm, showing it the movements it needs to carry out. Those motion points are stored, and used to automate the task.
The company has is set on automating low-skilled, repetitive manual labour. Rather than going for scale, however, it’s focusing on smaller companies that would love to automate their business but can’t afford the capital costs.
Open Whisper Systems
Open Whisper Systems is never going to become a unicorn, or make its founders rich, but it could be the startup that has the most effect on the coming year. The non-profit group is in charge of the development of iPhone app Signal, an encrypted messaging service that has Edward Snowden’s seal of approval.
Where Signal differs from most secure chat apps is its ease-of-use. Photograph: Signal
Where Signal differs from most secure chat apps is its ease-of-use: the app feels very similar to everyday services like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. In fact, WhatsApp also offers encryption, and borrowed the basic code wholesale from Signal. That’s fine, because Open Whisper Systems makes everything it does available under open-source licences, which allow others to reuse the code as they see fit. It also lets anyone with the technical knowhow examine the app to make sure it does what it says it does.
Downloads of Signal spiked in the days after Donald Trump’s election, as many realised that a far-right demagogue would soon be in charge of the world’s most advanced surveillance apparatus. Hopefully, that will prove to be an abundance of caution, but if not, the app could be a lifesaver.
Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, in 2015. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hardware is hard. It’s not enough simply to code something and release it to the world. You need to actually build the stuff, too.
So it’s extra impressive that Chinese startup OnePlus has managed to rise to be one of the best smartphone manufacturers in the world in just three years and five phones. And it 2017, it hopes to take third place in the global smartphone market, by units shipped, placing it square behind Samsung and Apple.
It’s a big goal, but the smartphone maker could pull it off. It chases the premium end of the budget market – or the budget end of the premium market – by making phones that compete favourably with the flagships such as Samsung and Google, but with price tags hundreds of pounds lower.
Icelandic games company CCP hardly counts as a startup. Founded in 1997, the company is best known for its first and flagship game, Eve Online, a space-faring massively multiplayer game, which has been running continuously for 13 years. Eve remains a huge business, and recently went free to play in an effort to entice more users to jump into the galaxy of New Eden, but CCP’s big bet is in a different realm.
Two Eve spinoffs, Valkyrie and Gunjack, have led the pack of virtual reality-based games. Gunjack, a turret shooter, is one of the more popular games on simple VR platforms like Google’s Daydream. Eve Valkyrie, meanwhile, is a full-blown multiplayer space combat sim, throwing the player into chaotic dogfights around the rusting hulks of dead spaceships.