is disrupting retail. Airbnb is disrupting hotels. Uber is disrupting transportation. Who is going to be disrupted next? A growing number of exchange-traded funds are searching for that answer.

Instead of investing in the traditional companies playing defense, they are buying hefty stakes in the firms shaking up the way business was always done.

Most of the early gains from innovative disruptors went to venture capitalists and private equity.

Now exchange-traded funds such as the iShares Exponential Technologies ETF (XT), ARK Innovation ETF (ARKK) and Knowledge Leaders Developed World ETF (KLDW) are delivering stakes in cutting-edge innovation, but in a relatively low-cost ETF wrapper.

The innovation theme is a particularly timely bet. Just think how many capabilities are contained in a single smartphone, for example, and how that compares to 10 years ago. Indeed, many of the biggest companies in the country, such as Facebook, did not even exist not so long ago.

"We haven't had so many innovative platforms taking shape since the late 1800s," says Tom Staudt, ARK Invest's chief operating officer. "Back then it was things like internal combustion engines, telephones and electricity. These days massive change is being driven by fields like DNA sequencing, robotics and artificial intelligence, battery storage and blockchain."

You can argue about the riskiness or long-term viability of the strategy, but it is hard to argue with recent results. This year, ARK Invest's offerings have consistently ranked in the top handful of non-leveraged products across the entire ETF universe. ARKK's annualized gains from 2014 through Dec. 1 are 23.6 percent, according to fund tracker Morningstar. Its year-to-date return is an eye-popping 86.5 percent.

Take a look under the hood and you understand why the fund has been on such a run. Top holdings include such famed disruptors as Tesla, and Bitcoin Investment Trust, the latter of which now makes up almost 7 percent of the portfolio.

Most of ARK's products are actively managed, relatively rare in the ETF world, which pushes up fees. ARKK, for instance, clocks in at an expense ratio of 0.75 percent, higher than most of its passively-managed brethren.

The firm now has $2.7 billion under management and five ETFs on the market. Another fund launching just this week, the Israel Innovative Technology ETF (IZRL), aims to capitalize on that country's status as an emerging market and tech hotbed.

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