Forbes and CircleUp25: The 25 Most Innovative Consumer Brands of 2016

Ryan Caldbeck, Contributor

It’s rare when one of the biggest sectors of our economy experiences massive change. The change is so pervasive, it can sometimes fly under the radar since it’s constantly happening right under our noses. Consumer and retail is seeing tremendous innovation, and it has once-dominant, big industry players stumbling.

CircleUp25 recognizes trailblazers leading this innovation. Previous CircleUp25 winners include runaway successes like Dollar Shave Club, which just sealed its $1 billion price tag; Stumptown, who’s delicious craft coffee has since been acquired by Peet’s; and cult favorites such as SoulCycle, Everlane, Sweetgreen, Barry’s Bootcamp and more.

For the fourth consecutive year, CircleUp scoured the country to identify and celebrate the 25 most innovative brands of the year. The winners are going against the grain, breathing new life into staid consumer categories and creating new categories entirely. They are improving the way we live our lives by improving what we eat, drink, wear and do.

These shifts are largely driven by the personalization of consumer, the notion that people are demanding authentic products that cater to unique tastes. It has led to an explosion of new brands across every consumer category. Since 2011, more than $18 billion in market share shifted to small to mid sized brands, which now accounts for nearly half of all U.S. CPG sales. What’s more, among the top 100 consumer brands in the U.S., 90% have been losing market share and 68% have experienced falling sales.

People are voting with their wallets, making it abundantly clear that authenticity, value and personalization win—and that emerging brands are pioneering this revolution.

The Selection Process

We started with an open call for nominations to capture widespread opinions on which brands people love most. We received thousands of submissions and were blown away by the breadth and depth of innovation in this industry.

Next, we employed a data-driven approach to narrowing down nominations. We trained a version of our Classifier, our machine learning algorithm, to assess brand strength. This specially trained version of our Classifier analyzed customer engagement, product, distribution, growth and more to surface the top 100 finalists.

We had a wide range of experts vote on the finalists to determine our 25 winners. These experts are top C-level executives, investors, bankers and lawyers in the consumer business, including:

Jon Sebastiani, Krave Founder and Sonoma Brands CEO
John Foraker, Annie’s Founder and President
Craig Shapiro, Collaborative Fund Managing Director
Bill Shen, Encore Consumer Capital Director
Mark Rampolla, Founder of ZICO Coconut Water and Partner at Powerplant Ventures
Brian Tockman, General Mills’ 301 INC Principal
Danielle Gould, Food + Tech Connect Founder
Josh Wand, Founder of Force Brands
Nicholas Giannuzzi, Managing Partner of The Giannuzzi Group

Disclaimer: While hundreds of innovative companies have raised capital on CircleUp, we excluded them from eligibility to avoid a conflict of interest.

The Winners

The 2016 winners are an inspiring group. We’re seeing a rise in plant-based foods, non-dairy milk, cheese and yogurt alternatives, and a boom in functional beverages (two kombucha winners this year—time for a head-to-head taste test?).

Without further ado, and in no particular order, I present the 2016 CircleUp25 winners!

Lemonade | Culver City, CA

Why?: For revitalizing the staid cafeteria experience with bright locations serving fresh, California cuisine. Lemonade’s fanatical following has led to growth as sweet as its signature lemonade, with 24 locations to date–including one that opened just this week.

Founder: Alan Jackson

Investors: KKR & Co., Butterfly Enterprises

Peloton | New York, NY

Why? For bringing the spin craze right into your own home. Peloton is the only exercise machine to stream live cycling classes, so you can experience the best spin classes on your own schedule. This innovation is projected to put the brand at $150M in revenue this year.

Founders: John Foley, Graham Stanton, Tom Cortese, Hisao Kushi, Yong Feng

Investors: L Catterton, Tiger Global Management, and True Ventures

Califia Farms | Los Angeles, CA

Why? For taking the dairy out of milk and coffee and replacing it with alternatives even more nutritious and satisfying. Califia is best known for its ever-popular almond milk, but recently introduced its “Nitro Draft Cold Brew”—a new twist on the average coffee. The brand is loved by many, as it doubled revenue in 2015 and increased distribution to 18,000 storefronts.*

Founder: Greg Steltenpohl

Investors: Stripes Group

S’well | New York, NY

Why? For rethinking why a personal accessory we use daily is only fashioned for outdoor gear, then combining style and functionality to built a sustainable, luxury, stainless steel water bottle. What started as a one-woman show has now grown into a water bottle empire with 50+ unique designs and $50M in sales.

Founder: Sarah Kauss

Investors: Sarah Kauss, a self-proclaimed “recovering accountant”, never sought outside financing

Revolve | Cerritos, CA

Why? For creating a blue chip ecommerce experience with a highly curated selection of fashionable brands, ranging from big, small to unique. The impeccable customer service and inventive styles led Revolve to do a cool $400 million in sales in 2015.

Founders: Michael Karanikolas, Michael Mente

Investors: TSG Consumer Partners

Ripple | Emeryville, CA

Why? For creating the first non-dairy milk from yellow pea protein that is creamy, nutritious, and good for the earth too. Ripple has eight times the protein of almond milk, is lower in sugar than other milks, and has a 93% lower water footprint than dairy. The all natural dairy alternative is easily produced sans GMOs, pesticides, and other allergens. Ripple is available nationwide and a featured product in all Target stores as part of the company’s Made to Matter program.

Founders: Neil Renninger, Adam Lowry

Investors: Collaborative Fund, Khosla Ventures, S2G Ventures, GV

Marine Layer | San Francisco, CA

Why? For making “absurdly soft” U.S. manufactured clothing, out of a unique fabric—a blend of cotton and recycled beechwood—that gets even softer with each wash and wear. Marine Layer started in the Bay Area with the goal of making everyone’s favorite tee shirt, but has expanded to new lines of clothing, as well as new locations, with shops all over the East and West Coasts.

Founder: Michael Natenshon

Investors: Finn Capital Partners

Bulletproof | Bellevue, WA

Why? For pioneering ‘biohacking’ in coffee, by subbing out cream and sugar for grass-fed butter and Brain Octane Oil, blended into upgraded coffee to minimize levels of mold toxins. The shift helps burn fat and provide more energy throughout the day, making daily coffee habits healthier. Last year, Bulletproof raised $9 million in funding to open more retail locations through the West Coast.

Founder: Dave Asprey

Investors: Trinity Ventures

Sir Kensington’s | New York, NY

Why? For bringing real, rich flavors to average condiments, many with plant-based products. Sir Kensington’s just introduced “Fabanaise”, the world’s first vegan mayo made from aquafaba, the viscous water in which legume seeds such as chickpeas have been cooked. From 2014 to 2015, Sir Kensington’s grew 170%.

Founders: Mark Ramadan, Scott Norton

Investors: Verlinvest, Mike Kirban, founder of Vita Coco; David Barber, co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns; the co-founders of Sweetgreen through SWTLF Ventures.

Harmless Harvest | San Francisco, CA

Why? Coconut Water is an established category, but no other brand is the first Fair for Life certified, meaning it meets the highest standards for environmental practices, farmer and employee wage and well-being, and commitment to sustainability. The brand recently upped its game by introducing a proprietary multi-step filtration process, so it can use significantly less plastic.

Founders: ‎Justin Guilbert, Douglas Riboud

Investors: Undisclosed

Allbirds | San Francisco, CA

Why? For disrupting the sneaker category by creating “the world’s most comfortable shoe,” as proclaimed by TIME and sneaker fanatics around the country. The sneaker is made out of premium merino wool, a breathable material that magically wicks moisture, minimizes odor and regulates temperature.

Founders: Tim Brown, Joey Zwillinger

Investors: Lerer Hippeau Ventures

Julep | Seattle, WA

Why? For encouraging women to be brave, not “pretty” by having fun with unique and daring skincare, nail and makeup products. Julep is an R&D and innovation machine, launching over 300 products each year. A recent launch is the Maven subscription box, which brings your favorite Julep products straight to your door.

Founder: Jane Park

Investors: Andreessen Horowitz, Maveron, Precedent Investments, including Will and Jada Pinket-Smith and Jay Z’s Roc Nation, Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s manager

Chubbies | San Francisco, CA

Why? For creating a lifestyle brand that is so much more than short-shorts. Chubbies is about radical style and celebrating the weekend. With 50% growth year over year, Chubbies has created some pretty hilarious videos, not unlike those that helped Dollar Shave Club rise to fame.

Founders: Rainer Castillo, Kyle Hency, Tom Montgomery, Preston Rutherford

Investors: IDG Ventures, Burch Creative Capital, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Blair Lambert

Impossible Foods | Redwood City, CA

Why? For showing meat lovers everywhere that that even if it looks, sizzles, smells and tastes like a burger, it’s not. By using a unique recipe with plant-blood, Impossible Foods has created a plant-based product eerily similar to real burger meat. With clean ingredients and sustainable practices, it’s better for you and better for the world.

Founders: Patrick O. Brown, Tal Ronnen

Investors: Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, Horizons Ventures, Viking Global Investors, UBS, GV

Kite Hill | Hayward, CA

Why: Kite Hill, a product by Lyrical Foods, is blending natural, non-dairy ingredients, biochemistry and traditional cheese- and dairy-making techniques to deliver mouth-watering, non-dairy alternatives. Kite Hill primarily works with almonds, but plans to expand to use an assortment of nuts to deliver a variety of healthier products.

Founders: Tal Ronnen, Monte Casino, Matthew Sade (CEO), Pat Brown (Lyrical Foods)

Investors: CAVU Venture Partners, General Mills 301 INC

Umami Burger | Los Angeles, CA

Why? There’s something distinctly recognizable about Umami’s burgers, from the rich flavor to a welcoming, modern brand. Now, you don’t have to be in California to experience the flavors of Umami. The company has expanded to over 20 locations in just three years, and in the last six months, opened two new U.S. locations as well as its first international location in Tokyo.

Founder: Adam Fleischman

Investors: Fortress Investment Group, Nimes Capital, SBE Entertainment Group

Bonobos | New York, NY

Why? For pants that actually fit—sans the belt. Bonobos pants feature unique curved waistbands, ensuring a flattering fit for men. A pioneer in direct-to-consumer sales, Bonobos offers top notch quality at a fair price. The brand is on track to have a total of 30 Guideshops this year–up from 20 in 2015.

Founders: Andy Dunn, Brian Spaly

Investors: Forerunner Ventures, Accel, Lightspeed Venture Partners

Chameleon Cold Brew | Austin, TX

Why? For leading the cold brew trend, where grounds are soaked in water for 12+ hours, then strained to bring out subtle, smooth flavors. Chameleon Cold Brew is delicious, organic, fair-trade, and consciously crafted from Arabica beans. Named the best cold brew coffee in America by Thrillist, the brand boasted 200% growth from 2015 to 2016.

Founder: Chris Campbell

Investors: Fortitude Capital, Boulder Food Group

Health-Ade Kombucha | Los Angeles, CA

Why? Amid a crowded kombucha category, Health-Ade stands out for its vegan, non-GMO kombucha fermented in small batches. It is lower in sugars than other brands, and committed to using the highest quality ingredients. Health-Ade recently raised $7 million and currently has products in over 3,000 stores in 42 states, including in over half of the Whole Foods regions.

Founders: Daina Trout, Vanessa Dew, Justin Trout

Investors: CAVU Venture Partners, First Beverage Group

CrossFit | Washington D.C.

Why? For creating a high intensity workout spanning 10 focuses: cardio, flexibility, coordination, strength, stamina, power, speed, agility, balance and accuracy. Crossfit isn’t just a phenomenal workout, it’s a lifestyle and community—and it’s grown like crazy. Apart from an estimated $4 billion in sales, the number of crossfit gyms in the U.S. grew 1900% in the first 6 years.

Founder: Greg Glassman

Investors: Undisclosed

Hungryroot | New York, NY

Why? For creating vibrant, delicious vegetable-based meals and delivering them right to your door. Hungryroot, on track to do $8M in sales this year, believes you shouldn’t have to compromise comfort foods like pasta and cookies while getting you daily dose of veggies and keeping healthy.

Founders: Ben Mckean, Franklin Becker, Greg Struck

Investors: Lightspeed Venture Partners, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Crosslink Capital and KarpReilly

Navitas Naturals | Novato, CA

Why? For creating an organic superfood company making it easy for anyone to get the best quality superfood ingredients and snacks, like acai, chia, goji, cacao, hemp and more. Every Navitas product is USDA certified organic, non-GMO and contains health benefits that have been celebrated for generations.

Founder: Zach Adelman

Investors: Encore Consumer Capital

Nulo | Austin, TX

Why? For making pet food you feel good about giving your dog. Nulo’s food is made with all natural ingredients, grain-free formulas, high animal-based proteins, low carb-low glycemic ingredients and a patented probiotic. Nulo is about helping pets can stay active and energized throughout the day.

Founder: Michael Landa

Investors: CAVU Venture Partners, Tom Meredith, Robin Sommers

Veggie Grill | Irvine, CA

Why? For making vegetables a mainstream fast casual menu item with over 25 locations. Even with an entirely plant-based menu, everyone can find something delicious at these bright, modern restaurants. Veggie Grill is rumored to be on the move to Middle America so more people across the nation can enjoy its healthful meals.

Founders: T.K. Pillan, Kevin Boylan, Ray White

Investors: Brentwood Associates

GT’s Kombucha | Los Angeles, CA

Why? You’d be hard pressed to go into any natural foods store and not find a full selection of GT’s Kombucha or Synergy drinks. The brand has grown kombucha into a mainstream beverage, enabling people everywhere to load up on probiotics through the tea-based beverage. GT’s Kombucha rang up $346 million in sales in 2014, and has since showed no signs of slowing down.

Founder: GT Dave

Investors: Undisclosed

*Company growth and revenue metrics are either self-reported by brands, or reported elsewhere.

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