• Three-quarters of companies say innovation is a priority, according to new research.
  • But only 20% of businesses are ready and equipped to innovate.
  • Innovative companies, from Apple to Walmart, are recovering more quickly from the pandemic.

Three-quarters of businesses are making innovation a top three priority for 2021 in response to the economic shockwaves of 2020. But in its latest report on corporate innovation, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is warning that priorities are not enough – and a readiness to innovate quickly is key.

The report, Most Innovative Companies 2021: Overcoming the Innovation Readiness Gap, found that 75% of companies making innovation a top three priority in 2021 has risen by 10 percentage points. It’s the largest year-on-year increase since 2005. For many businesses forced by the pandemic to dramatically change the way they operate, innovation is now the number one priority.

The readiness gap

While businesses have been quick to place innovation at the top of their agendas, many lack the systems, processes and capabilities required to make it happen, according to BCG researchers. The chart below from the report shows a range of benchmarks against which companies must score highly to demonstrate a readiness to innovate.

The report finds that only 20% are fully ready to deliver the innovation they see as being critical to their success.

a pie chart showing how innovation is measured
While 75% of companies prioritize innovation, many are not in a position to deliver it.
Image: Boston Consultancy Group

Leaders in innovation

The most innovative companies of 2021, according to the BCG research, are those that marry the desire to innovate with the systems, leadership and processes that work to make it happen. Many of these companies are household names, but some have surged up the rankings after a period of innovation brought about by the emergence of COVID-19.

a chart showing the most innovative companies of 2021
Many of these companies are household names.
Image: Boston Consultancy Group

Global tech giants once again dominate the top 10 in the rankings, with Apple taking first place ahead of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Amazon, Microsoft and Tesla make up the top five.

The pharmaceutical company Pfizer is ranked as the 10th most innovative company in the world. In 2020, in partnership with the German company BioNTech, it revolutionized vaccine development and production when faced with the challenge of helping to control the worst pandemic in living memory.

The BCG report credits Pfizer-BioNTech with “the innovation story of the year” adding, “commitment and readiness helped Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech, not only to cut the innovation time for a COVID-19 vaccine from a decade or more to less than a year but also to ramp up production capacity to deliver much-needed vaccines”. Moderna, another COVID-19 vaccine developer (number 42), gets similar praise.

Pfizer is now committing more resources to vaccine development and is investing more than $120 million in innovation partnerships to develop treatments for cancer, genetic disorders and immunology.

COVID-19 a key driver

In the tech sector, Amazon (number 3) adapted quickly to meet surging demand for safe shopping and quick delivery as lockdowns closed huge swathes of the retail sector.

The early stages of the pandemic were characterized by panic buying. Shoppers stripped supermarket shelves bare in some countries, fearing the collapse of food supply chains. Retail giants Target (number 18) and Walmart (number 23) made large investments in e-commerce to meet a big spike in demand for food and other essentials.

a graph showing the most innovative companies responding to covid
The 50 most innovative companies are recovering more quickly from the effects of the pandemic.
Image: Boston Consultancy Group

A significant benefit of a readiness to innovate, according to the BCG report, was the ability to recover more quickly from the downturn caused by the pandemic. The chart above illustrates how last year’s most innovative companies outperformed other businesses in the MSCI World index.

Inspiring innovators

Among the top 50 innovators are a host of World Economic Forum partners, leading the way in setting clear ambitions, prioritizing performance management, pushing project management and developing talent and culture.

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

The Forum is also working to inspire the next generation of truly innovative companies. The Global Lighthouse Network is a group of organizations leading innovation in advanced manufacturing and production.

As the BCG report demonstrates, embracing innovation is no longer a corporate luxury. The businesses that will thrive once we enter the post-pandemic era are those with a readiness to adapt to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving world.