Shares of Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) have increased more than 15-fold in price since they closed at $42.70 on Nov. 1, 2008. As of June 10, 2016, shares of the leading electronic commerce (e-commerce) company closed at $717.91, which makes it one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world, based on its $338.7 billion market capitalization.
This impressive run by Amazon began when the company disrupted the book-selling industry in 1994, and continued over the last two decades as the company disrupted commerce in general. Companies looking to emulate Amazon's success must similarly disrupt traditional industries in unexpected ways. Industries that can use technology to solve everyday problems are ripe for disruption.
Currency and E-commerce
The system that many parties use to complete financial transactions is rooted in antiquity. Individuals need to either deliver notes or coins to one another in person or use a middleman, such as a bank or credit card company. International transactions complicate matters further and may require a government to authenticate the parties involved in the transfer. Blockchains, such as the technology used to develop bitcoin, allow for peer-to-peer exchange of value without the extra step of involving third parties. Blockchains, which are open-source databases encoded through the use of sophisticated cryptography, may ultimately enable several types of private transactions and interactions.
Creating impenetrable databases to store assets may revolutionize the finance industry and society in general. Building these anonymous systems for transacting business may lead to new auction markets, e-commerce platforms and social networks that rival the biggest ones in existence in 2016. The next Amazon, in fact, may be an online retailer built with blockchain technology.
Possibilities exist to disrupt the way people use natural resources, such as plants, animals and minerals. One area that experts tout as the next breakthrough in biotechnology is synthetic biology. This complex field combines advanced techniques in molecular biology, systems biology, biophysics, computer engineering and genetic engineering to solve problems in areas as diverse as human disease, agriculture and energy. An example of an advance in synthetic biology is the development of artemisinin for treating malaria. The Chinese sweet-wormwood plant produces very small doses of the medicine. However, advances in synthetic biology enabled scientists to extract metabolic pathways from the plant and transfer them to yeast. This process allows scientists to produce the drug on demand.
Other possible applications for synthetic biology include the fuel industry, where advances may lead to low-cost biofuels. In addition, the field may lead to the production of bioplastics and synthetic rubbers. There is also potential to disrupt the food industry. Nutritious crops that can thrive with less water, land and energy may revolutionize the industry and drive down the costs of food. Companies that harness those technologies have the potential to achieve enormous growth.
Tech startups and venture capitalists see opportunities for disruption in the $3.7-trillion insurance industry, and money is beginning to flow into new investments. In the first five months of 2015, insurance technology startups raised $831 million in capital. Frank Chen of Andreessen Horowitz believes there are opportunities for crowdsourced platforms to challenge the incumbent companies, which are owned by policyholders or shareholders. Chen sees an analogy between lending platforms, where crowdsourcing has taken off, and insurance. Insurance companies can pool capital more efficiently on such platforms, and investors may flock to the opportunity to diversify their risk away from stocks and bonds.
Other venture capitalists agree that insurance offers opportunities for disruption. Rob Moffat of Balderton Capital notes that relatively few tech entrepreneurs have successfully tackled the industry, while Arjan Schütte and Thomas Smyth of Core Innovation Capital note the opportunities for technology to make the industry more efficient and competitive. They cite, for example, the potential for real-time data to enable usage-based car insurance to compete with traditional monthly premium models. Also, they note, new industries, such as ride-sharing and home rentals, need insurance products that offer pay-per-use as opposed to pay-per-year plans.