Explore the full 2023 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 540 organizations that are reshaping industries and culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact across 54 categories, including agriculture, corporate social responsibility, social good, and more.
The massive scale of the climate crisis—arguably the biggest challenge that humanity faces—has sparked an equally large surge of innovation. Thousands of startups are working on new solutions. More than $70 billion in venture capital went to climate tech companies in 2022, a record total. Many workers are leaving traditional tech jobs to work on climate instead.
There’s no single answer for the crisis, and this year’s most innovative companies in energy and sustainability are working on the challenge from multiple angles. Some are making existing climate tech more sustainable, like Ascend Elements, which recycles used EV batteries into new battery materials that are cheaper and higher quality than those mined from the ground. Other startups are focused on decarbonizing heavy industry, including Brimstone, which developed a way to make affordable carbon-negative cement, and Rondo Energy, which stores renewable energy in a “heat battery” for factories making steel and other high-heat processes.
Other companies on the list are helping accelerate innovation itself. Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy includes a venture arm that funds climate tech pioneers and a policy team that pushed for the successful passage of the largest climate bill in U.S. history, which will help companies in the space grow faster. Vargas, based in Sweden, builds large new climate tech companies from scratch, including Northvolt, a sustainability-focused battery startup that has raised more than $7 billion to date.
1. BREAKTHROUGH ENERGY
For speeding the path to a net-zero economy
Breakthrough Energy is a Bill Gates–founded initiative that strategically works to accelerate a net-zero economy. It includes one of the world’s most active climate tech venture funds, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which has raised $2 billion to date, along with policy advocacy and philanthropic programs. In 2022, its policy team played a key role in advocating for the historic climate legislation that was the centerpiece of what became known as the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as the CHIPS and Science Act. Breakthrough Energy Ventures added 19 companies to its portfolio of more than 100. Several companies in its portfolio reached milestones, such as the biotech startup C16 Biosciences, which launched a new brand called Palmless that will begin supplying a palm oil alternative to the beauty industry in early 2023. Breakthrough’s Catalyst program, a new funding model for the zero-carbon economy, announced its first grant in October, which will support the country’s first ethanol sustainable aviation fuel plant. Its Fellows program, for early-stage innovators, more than doubled in size, and now support 63 Fellows working on 28 projects across 9 countries. In 2022, the Fellows program also launched Explorer Grants, awarding 8 inaugural grants to advance early-stage research within academic settings.
For automating carbon accounting for large businesses
Persefoni’s software platform is designed to help large businesses and financial institutions quickly calculate their carbon footprints, with a level of accuracy that can meet strict accounting standards and regulatory requirements like the SEC’s proposed carbon disclosure rules. Customers include major financial firms such as Bain Capital, TPG, SJF Ventures, and Oak Hill Advisors. Persefoni has calculated more than 8.6 gigatons of CO2 emissions for its customers. In October 2022, the company, which has raised more than $150 million to date, released a new version of its platform designed to streamline the process for users, including tools to automate and track requests for emissions data from customers’ suppliers.
3. ASCEND ELEMENTS
For recycling old lithium batteries directly into new EV battery parts
As EVs and solar panels are adopted more widely, so too are the number of old batteries being discarded. Ascend Elements has developed a new, more efficient way to recycle old batteries into new, high-performance cathode material. The company recovers lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, plastics, aluminum, and copper in a closed-loop process in the U.S. The process is efficient enough that it can recover 98% of materials, and the reclaimed elements can compete with the cost of newly mined metals. Last August, Ascend opened the largest battery recycling plant in the U.S. in Georgia, and it’s now building a new nearly billion-dollar battery materials factory in Kentucky.
4. NATURAL FIBER WELDING
For making better plant-based leather
Natural Fiber Welding makes plant-based leather and natural “performance” material from agricultural waste and fabric scraps in a patented circular process, then sells it wholesale to apparel and fashion brands. Unlike many competitors, the company does not use plastic fiber in its blends. In 2022, Natural Fiber Welding customers brought multiple products to market using its materials, including a new plant-based leather sneaker from Allbirds made with rice hulls, watch straps for IWC, and a Ralph Lauren polo that wicks away sweat without using synthetic material. NFW’s manufacturing facility more than doubled in size in 2022. It recently released two new materials, including Tunera, a plant-based foam that can be used in footwear and yoga mats.
For using satellite images to measure human impact on the Earth
Kayrros is a French geoanalytics company that uses satellite images and machine learning along with public data sources to observe key environmental changes in real time. A CO2 monitor, launched in March 2022, tracks country by country emissions for electricity production, industry, transportation, and homes. A renewable energy monitor, launched in June 2022, tracks new wind and solar projects day by day, so investors can see the best-performing companies and predict energy prices. And a wildfire monitor, launched in September 2022, predicts fire risk for insurers—and tracks fires when they happen. During a pilot this year, the tool identified fires with 88% accuracy, a benchmark for the industry. Kayrros’s customers include countries that need the near real-time data and intel that its tools offer as well as investors and private companies seeking to decarbonize their operations.
For building scalable new energy companies from scratch
Instead of investing in existing startups, Sweden-based Vargas looks for under-explored opportunities in climate tech, and then builds new, scalable companies from scratch. Its portfolio now includes three climate tech “gigacorns,” a term sustainability investors use for startups that have the potential to lower or sequester CO2 emissions at a rate of 1 gigaton annually. Northvolt, an EV battery company that Vargas spun out to provide a local battery supply for European automakers, has raised more than $7 billion, started selling its first batteries in 2022, and has more factories under construction. (In November 2022, the company acknowledged that it might prioritize expansion to the United States to take advantage of the incentives created by the Biden administration.) H2 Green Steel, a company it created to make low-carbon steel and green hydrogen, has presold 1.5 million tons of green steel to large customers and raised funding to build its first factory. Polarium uses lithium-ion batteries as backup power for telecom companies.
For helping wind plants make more energy
At wind power farms, each wind turbine is designed to generate power individually, but that often means that one turbine might block wind from another. WindESCo built “swarm” technology, which debuted in early 2022, that helps all of the turbines in a given installation work together. The company’s software lets the turbines learn from one another, adapt, and ultimately generate more power. Over five years, that could mean that a wind farm makes as much as $10 million more per installed gigawatt. The software was implemented for the first time at a wind farm in Utah, and the company has also expanded to Indonesia and China, which currently produces about 40% of the world’s wind energy.
8. RONDO ENERGY
For bringing zero-carbon heat to the most polluting factories
Rondo Energy turns low-cost solar and wind power into heat for heavy industrial users like cement plants—some of the most polluting companies in the world and considered the hardest to decarbonize. Rondo captures excess energy when renewable sources are overproducing, then it stores the heat in bricks and releases it on demand using artificial intelligence. The company launched two models of the Rondo Heat Batteries (RHBs) in November 2022: A single battery can eliminate emissions equivalent to more than 8,500 electric vehicles, and a cement plant running on the batteries would have a carbon benefit equivalent to all of the electric vehicles currently in use in California. Rondo’s first commercial project will publicly launch later this month, with another to follow in mid-2023.
For making carbon-negative cement
Cement production is one of the most polluting industrial processes in the world. Although several companies are exploring solutions, many only partially reduce emissions or end up with a product that can’t be used as a one-to-one replacement in existing processes. Brimstone, a startup that raised a $55 million Series A in 2022, makes Portland cement, the most common type, and cuts emissions by replacing one ingredient—limestone—with silicate rock, which, unlike limestone, doesn’t produce CO2 when it’s heated as part of the cement-making process. The process also creates silica, a by-product that can be used to replace another ingredient in typical cement, called fly ash, which usually is sourced from coal-fired power plants.
In addition, the silicate processing also creates magnesium rock, which naturally absorbs CO2 from the air. This means that if Brimstone’s cement is made with renewable energy, the process is actually carbon negative, meaning it stores more carbon than it emits. It’s also lower cost than conventional cement. Brimstone has proven that its technique works and is using its recent funding to erect its first plant, which will be operational in 2024.
For going climate positive
The fashion company Reformation plans to become “carbon positive” by 2025, meaning that its operations will be a net benefit to the climate. The retailer intends to do so by cutting its emissions in line with climate science, then using carbon removal projects to cover the rest. This year, it invested heavily in eight new fabrics, including circular denim (fabric that can be reused to make new jeans) and recycled cashmere, and brought to market a pair of closed-loop sneakers that are designed for recycling. Each innovation cuts emissions; the cashmere, for example, has a footprint 87% smaller than new material. For each of the brand’s products, the average carbon footprint (31 pounds of CO2e) is now less than half the industry average, putting it on track to meet its 2025 goal.