The 2023 CNBC Disruptor 50: How we chose the companies

Persephone Kavallines

It’s a strange time to be a venture-backed private startup.

The exits are blocked. The last Disruptor 50 company to go public was Gojek, which debuted on the Indonesia Stock Exchange more than a year ago. The last Disruptor 50 IPO in the U.S. market, Nubank, happened on December 9, 2021. 

Venture capital funding has slowed — VC activity dropped in all stages and sectors in the first quarter of 2023, according to PitchBook’s Venture Monitor. And valuations have collapsed — PitchBook says the median pre-money valuation in Q1 2023 is less than half what it was in the first quarter of 2022.

Silicon Valley Bank, once the beating heart of the venture capital community, beats no more.  

The kind of phrases that were rare in the “grow at all costs,” “move fast and break things” environment of the last decade are now common themes. Disruptor 50 companies now tell us they are “operating to be more lean,” “narrowing focus,” and “prioritizing profitability over growth,” as they manage inflation and the prospect of a recession along with the tighter venture capital environment.   

CNBC's 2023 Disruptor 50 List Unveiled

On the other hand, we may be on the cusp of a true new era – the age of AI. This year’s No. 1 Disruptor has, in just six months, gone from being a Silicon Valley laboratory to — depending on whom you talk to — sparking a revolution that will change every aspect of human life, or bring about the demise of all humanity. At stunning speed.   

Innovation does not stop. In fact, crises, we have found, often serve as the breeding ground for disruptive innovations, as consumers and enterprises look for ways to leverage technology to be more efficient, or to solve new problems. The 2023 Disruptors are identifying these new market opportunities and delivering solutions across a multitude of sectors.

More coverage of the 2023 CNBC Disruptor 50

Here’s how we chose them:  

All private, independently owned startup companies founded after Jan. 1, 2008, 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 use to compare the companies based on the industries they are attempting to disrupt. 

CNBC’s Disruptor 50 Advisory Council — a group of 51 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 again found that scalability and user growth were the most important criteria, followed by sales growth and use of breakthrough technologies (including, most commonly, artificial intelligence and machine learning). 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 CNBC editorial staff, including TV anchors, reporters and producers, and writers and editors, along with many 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. 

It’s our eleventh year, but we still see a number of “firsts” on this year’s list. OpenAI is the first company to reach No. 1 in its first year making the list. The company exemplifies what it means to scale quickly, going from releasing a product to having 100 million users in two months. The 2023 list also features the first founder to have two companies make the Disruptor 50 (Rodney Williams of SoLo Funds).  

And this year’s list brings the first appearance of a company founded in 2020. As an ultra-rapid shift to remote work during the Covid lockdown opened up a need for faster, better, less expensive cyber protection, No. 5 Disruptor Wiz was there to meet the needs of the new market (of course, so were the incumbents it now challenges, but the point remains). Wiz raised $300 million in new venture capital in February. Imagine what that number could have been a year or two ago … 

Special thanks to the 2023 CNBC Disruptor 50 Advisory Council, who again offered us their time and insights. As always, we appreciate their contributions:

  • Rob Adams, Managing Partner Texas Funds, Alumni Ventures  
  • Ron Adner, Professor, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business  
  • Ed Blair, Professor of Entrepreneurship, University of Houston  
  • Robert Brunner, Chief Disruption Officer, University of Illinois Gies College of Business 
  • Howard W. Buffett, Professor, Columbia University   
  • John Sibley Butler, Chair in Constructive Capitalism (Emeritus), The University of Texas  
  • Gary Chan, Professor, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology  
  • Paul Cheek, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management and Executive Director, Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship 
  • Jim Chung, Associate VP for Research, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, George Washington University  
  • Benjamin M. Cole, Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, Fordham University Gabelli School of Business  
  • Chris Coleridge, Management Practice Associate Professor, Cambridge University  
  • Monica Dean, Managing Director, University of Southern California Grief Center for Entrepreneurial Studies  
  • Judi Eyles, Director, Iowa State University Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship 
  • Hayes Ferugson, Associate Professor & Director, Northwestern University Farley Center 
  • Clare Gately, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation, South East Technological University (Ireland) and EDHEC Business School, France   
  • 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, INSEAD  
  • Anil K. Gupta, Chair & Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland  
  • Mike Haynie, Vice Chancellor, Syracuse University  
  • Lisa Hehenberger, Associate Professor, Esade Business School  
  • Michael Hendron, Academic Director, BYU Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology 
  • Keith Hmieleski, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Texas Christian University 
  • Yael V. Hochberg, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Rice University  
  • Lonell Johnson, Entrepreneurship Specialist, Bowie State University  
  • Neil Kane, Assistant Teaching Professor and Director of ESTEEM Curriculum & Capstone Advising, University of Notre Dame  
  • Dr. Donald F. Kuratko, Distinguished Chair & Professor of Entrepreneurship, Indiana University-Bloomington 
  • Rob Lalka, Professor in Business, Tulane University  
  • Debra Lam, Executive Director, Georgia Tech Partnership for Inclusive Innovation 
  • Marie Josee Lamothe, Professor and Director, McGill University Dobson Center  
  • Vincent C. Lewis, Associate VP of Entrepreneurial Initiatives, University of Dayton  
  • II Luscri, Assistant Vice Provost & Managing Director, Washington University Skandalaris Center  
  • Alex McKelvie, Interim Dean, Syracuse University Whitman School of Management  
  • Michael W. Meyer, Professor of Design, University of California, San Diego Rady School of Management  
  • Scott Newbert, Chair in Entrepreneurship and Academic Director, Field Programs in Entrepreneurship, Baruch College  
  • Dan Olszweski, University of Wisconsin-Madison Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship 
  • Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, Professor, Brown University  
  • Gerhard Plaschka, Professor, DePaul University Kellstadt Graduate School of Business  
  • Julia Prats, Academic Director, IESE Business School  
  • Jeff Reid, Professor of the Practice and Founder, Georgetown University Entrepreneurship Initiative  
  • Zachary Russell, Chair & Associate Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship, Xavier University  
  • Matthew W. Rutherford, Professor and Chair, Oklahoma State University 
  • Mark T. Schenkel, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Department Chair, Belmont University  
  • Albert Segars, Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill  
  • John H. Shannon, Professor, Seton Hall University  
  • Lewis Sheats, Director, Saint Louis University Chaifetz Center for Entrepreneurship  
  • Daniel Stewart, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Director, Gonzaga University Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Program 
  • Thales Teixeira, Founder, and Professor, University of California 
  • Dr. Susanne L. Toney, Associate Professor and Department Chair, Hampton University Center for Entrepreneurship, Economics, Finance and Accounting 
  • Mary-Anne Williams, Chair in Innovation, University of New South Wales  
  • David Zvilichovsky, Senior Academic Faculty & Head of MBA Track in Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Tel Aviv University and Global Modular Courses Professor, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School

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