Once upon a time, the term unicorn was used to highlight the scarcity of privately held companies valued at over US$1bn. Much like its mythical namesake, these startups were rare creatures and hard to find. In the fantasy genre, the term has remained unchanged. However, when it comes to business, unicorns heading for an initial public offering (IPO) above $1bn are increasingly common.
In 2020, the birth of new unicorns saw a decline due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but 2021 was a record year, with 228 new tech unicorns created in the first half of the year alone, according to a report by GlobalData. This trend is likely to continue in the next year.
Verdict lists 10 unicorns that are likely going to enjoy headline-making exits in 2022, as forecast by GlobalData’s analysts.
Valued at $18bn, this Indian company is not only the world’s most valuable edtech startup but also the country’s most valuable unicorn. That in itself is reason enough to give Byju’s a spot on this list, but there is more to the company than just head-turning numbers.
The edtech firm is a pioneer when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology in education.
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“We redefine the role of technology in learning, and we’re working with the brightest minds in AI and machine learning to deliver innovative AR [augmented reality], AI, gamification and computer vision capabilities, to do so,” Byju’s Chief Innovation and Learning Officer, Dev Roy, tells Verdict.
The Bangalore-based company was founded in 2011 by Byju’s Raveendran and Divya Gokulnath, its current CEO and Director, respectively. Since then, its focus has been on assessing growth and learning in students. According to Raveendran, it is necessary to understand how individual students interact with the content and pace learning accordingly.
Roy tells Verdict that he founded Digital Aristotle – a company that was acquired by Byju’s – with the ambition to use AI and machine learning (ML) to affect positive change and outcomes across education and healthcare.
“My focus was to improve the efficiencies of the systems that teachers used at school, freeing up their time from admin and other tasks and rather empowering them to spend time doing what they love most – teaching.”
The startup recently opened its brand new edtech innovation hub in London’s St Pancras, aside from its locations in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, with the aim of further building out its AI and ML ambitions into the platform.
Fuelled by the Covid-19 chaos, cyberattacks have become increasingly common. Cyberattacks have made front page news for much of the last year. This has boosted the visibility of cybersecurity firms like Cybereason – a developer of cloud-based endpoint detection and cybersecurity software.
“The next step for Cybereason is to become a public company,” CEO Lior Div told Verdict in November. “We’re not talking about six months. We’re talking about a little bit more. But this is the sort of timeline that we’re talking about.”
Founded in 2012, Cybereason currently has 850 employees globally, with 350 of them based at Cybereason’s Israeli R&D centre. It provides an enterprise software platform for endpoint and extended detection and response (XDR) services.
According to GlobalData intelligence, the company raised $275m in a Series F round in July, valuing the company at around US$3bn. Div declined to share details about the company’s valuation but added that the numbers being reported are “not so wrong”. He also confirmed that Cybereason would be pursuing a normal IPO and not a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).
According to Div, the market has lagged behind and still views cybersecurity companies as specialising in one area, such as firewalls, endpoint or network. He added that in his view, this is incorrect.
“Because when hackers look at the problem, they don’t think like this,” he explains. “They look at the attack surface, they’re thinking about what they need to achieve, and then they do it.”
The company uses AI and ML to detect and prevent suspicious activity before it compromises an organisation’s network.
“Think of what we’re building as a self-driving car for security,” explains Div. “Is it really 100% self-driving yet? No. But if you look at the future and the kind of company that I want to IPO, this is the vision. It’s not an endpoint company. It’s not just a big data analytics company. It’s to exploit the AI capability, machine learning, behavioural analytics to the edge, in order to solve this massive problem that we see in front of us.”
Horizon Robotics is a smart automotive chip startup from China. The company recently completed a series C funding round in which it raised $1.5bn, putting its valuation past $5bn.
The company is only six years old and has already become a significant player making AI chips for autonomous vehicles.
“Self-driving” remains a buzzword in the tech industry, with companies predicting that the technology will hit the roads soon. However, the reality of the matter is far more complicated. As Verdict explained recently, nobody can yet produce fully autonomous vehicles that can act intelligently in any given real-world environment.
In a recent interview with Week in China, Horizon CEO Yu Kai said:
“I predict that vehicles equipped with Level 3 systems will take up a big share of the auto market by 2025. Truly driverless vehicles will first be introduced to business settings, such as in ports, docks and mines, also starting in 2025. But a truly consumer-facing rollout will take much longer.”
Level 3 autonomy indicates that the driver is no longer responsible for driving the car when the specified automated driving features are engaged, but the driver must reassume responsibility for handling the vehicle when the features request it.
There are rumours that Horizon Robotics may go public in the coming year. However, given the political tensions between the US and China – especially in relation to semiconductors – the chip company may find itself in a precarious situation. Indeed, many of its Chinese counterparts, including SenseTime, Cloudwalk and Megvii, have already been placed on US blacklists, and in some cases this is known to have impeded public listing plans.
When asked by Verdict about its IPO plans, Horizon Robotics declined to comment.
Another company that has been riding high with the increased focus on cybersecurity is California-based firm Illumio. The zero-trust unicorn secured $225m in a Series F funding round in June, which places its valuation at $2.75bn.
The company focuses on protecting data centres and cloud networks through a mechanism called microsegmentation, which it says makes it easier to manage and guard against potential breaches. Illumio currently counts ten Fortune 100 companies among its customers, and is proud to work with Morgan Stanley, Salesforce and the Bank of England among others.
In an interview with Verdict, the company’s CTO PJ Kirner explains:
“We were seeing applications becoming more and more connected, and as such, networks needed to be more powerful to support these applications and the accompanying dynamic workloads. The network was becoming flat to accommodate this connectivity, but with that came new security concerns – the core one being attackers moving laterally within the network.
“Illumio was founded to address this concern. Creating Illumio wasn’t a lightbulb moment. It was a process where the puzzle pieces slowly came together.”
With the current boom in the cybersecurity market, GlobalData’s analysts predict that Illumio will seize the opportunity to go public soon.
Another phenomenon that continued to take the world by storm in 2021 was cryptocurrency. Platforms dealing in digital coins are reaping the benefits. One of these is Kraken, a US-based exchange founded in 2011.
In February 2019, the company announced that it had raised $100m in a direct offering to its largest investors at a $4bn valuation. Kraken has now become one of the world’s most popular cryptocurrency exchanges, giving retail traders access to all the major cryptocurrencies while also supporting seven major fiat currencies.
Traders can link their personal bank accounts to their Kraken accounts to facilitate their trading activity. Given the current boom in cryptocurrencies globally, Kraken is likely to grow even further. An IPO, therefore, seems a logical next step for the company.
In an interview with Verdict, Kraken’s chief security officer, Nick Percoco, says he believes cryptocurrency will be “completely ubiquitous” in a “couple of decades”. Unsurprisingly, he invests in cryptocurrency too.
“There are still things that are not defined, there are still things that people are learning how to do,” Percoco added.
Lalamove – known in China as Huolala – is a mobile app-based on-demand delivery service, which now operates in more than 20 markets across Asia and Latin America. Its exponential growth is a reason to keep this company on the watchlist for 2022.
Unlike most delivery options, Lalamove delivers everything from food to small packages to bulky furniture. It also operates on a base-plus-miles pricing model with no commissions, which is in contrast with other delivery platforms that charge restaurants 15% to 30% commissions on the entire order. With Lalamove, the delivery charge for a $10 meal is the same as a $100 meal.
Last year, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the company opened its first service in North America in Chicago.
The company is clearly growing rapidly amid a global boom in ecommerce and the increased need for delivery services. However, Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on the Chinese tech industry has thrown a spanner in the company’s works.
This summer, sources reported that the company had filed confidentially for an IPO in the US through which it planned to raise $1bn. However, following the appearance of new problems for Chinese firms wishing to list in the US – notably very damaging in the case of ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing – Lalamove reportedly decided to halt its US IPO plans and decided to float in Hong Kong instead.
According to Chinese financial news app Tianyancha, the company has completed eight rounds of financing in the past six years, reaching a valuation of $2.46bn. In its latest round in 2021, the company raised $1.5bn in a Series F funding round. The round was led by its old shareholder Sequoia Capital China Fund and Hillhouse Capital, followed by Boyu Capital, Tiger Fund, Vitruvian Partners, D1 capital and other institutions.
German neobank N26 is also growing rapidly and likely aiming for an IPO soon. In its latest Series E funding round, the startup secured $900m, putting its valuation past $9bn, which makes it the highest valued privately owned fintech in Germany.
Shortly after the funding round, co-CEO Maximilian Tayenthal commented, saying that he expects N26 to be “structurally IPO-ready” within the next 12 to 18 months. Although he added that he’s in no rush to go public.
“Our teams are currently focused on laying the foundations for a public listing in the coming years, and we will continue to remain close to our investor community during this journey,” an N26 spokesperson told Verdict in October.
However, issues concerning money laundering have been plaguing the company’s reputation. Germany’s market watchdog has claimed that the challenger bank failed to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) regulations.
Soon after, German financial regulator BaFin slapped N26 with a €4.25m ($4.98m) fine over delayed AML reports on suspicious activities between 2019 and 2020. N26 has paid the fine.
Aside from AML issues, the company also faces fierce competition in the neobank sector. In Europe alone, N26 is up against the likes of Danish Lunar Bank and Britain’s Revolut, which has now joined the elite tridecacorn club after achieving a $33bn valuation in the course of an $800m funding round in July.
Despite these challenges, the challenger bank is confident about the future. “Rather than seeing the future of banking as a winner-take-all game, we believe that clear frontrunners in different regions are emerging,” a spokesperson told Verdict. “With pioneers like us continuing to set new standards for our industry, growing responsibly and sustainably is particularly important to N26.”
From delivery service to fintech app, South-American platform Rappi is another startup worth keeping an eye on. The company was founded in 2015 in Colombia and quickly became a success across 250 cities in nine South American countries. In 2018, it became the second unicorn born in Colombia.
In its latest Series F funding round, the company secured $500m, bringing its valuation up to $5.25bn. In 2019, SoftBank’s Vision Fund invested a whopping $1bn in Rappi.
At the Web Summit conference in Lisbon this year, the company’s co-founder Juan Pablo Ortega was quoted by reporters as saying that Rappi had plans for an IPO in the US in 2022.
However, recently the company issued a statement saying: “Regarding the declaration of Juan Pablo Ortega, we would like to clarify that as of today, no conversations or external actions have been initiated regarding an eventual IPO for Rappi.
“Mr Ortegas’s declarations are personal feelings that do not represent our company goals,” the statement added.
Recently, Rappi said that it had sought regulatory approval to operate as a digital bank in Colombia by early 2022. If authorised, the company plans to extend its financial service to other countries through an app it calls RappiPay.
It is, however, not just rainbows and sunshine for Rappi. As in most jurisdictions around the world, super-apps which seek to provide everything a user might need from banking to delivery to communications are facing increasingly tighter regulations. As such, Rappi has repeatedly clashed with regional antitrust regulators.
Cybersecurity provider Snyk is another company that has profited from the growing business awareness of cyber threats. Following a series of headline-grabbing events such as the Colonial Pipeline hack and the assault on the Irish Health Service Executive, Snyk has enjoyed an increase in attention.
“It provided a significant bump in the market interest for our solutions,” Guy Podjarny, founder and president of Snyk, tells Verdict.
The unicorn is a pioneer of the so-called DevSecOps approach in cybersecurity. As the name suggests, it is similar to DevOps, where developers work closely with the IT operations teams to constantly improve services. With DevSecOps, security is thrown into the mix, meaning it’s not an ad hoc feature but a central focus for the company.
Earlier this year, the company made waves after closing a $300m Series E round, boosting its valuation to $4.7bn. Snyk’s $200m cash injection in September was one of the 10 biggest cybertech deals of 2020.
Founded in 2015 by Podjarny, Israeli cybersecurity expert and IBM and Akamai veteran, Snyk focuses on improving the security of software applications when they are being developed, instead of trying to chase down security vulnerabilities after the apps are in use.
In the past few years, the company has expanded rapidly. Aside from its headquarters in Boston, it now also has offices in Tel Aviv, London, Ottawa and Zürich. To date the company has north of 1,000 customer organisations. Understandably, there are rumours circulating of a potential IPO.
One of the so-called four “AI Dragons” in China, Yitu Technology is the only one of the group without concrete IPO plans (the other three, Cloudwalk, Megvii and SenseTime, have all filed for an IPO or have already gone public). However, according to GlobalData’s report, Yitu is likely not far behind.
The company is apparently mulling a Hong Kong IPO after tighter national regulation in China stalled its earlier attempt to list in Shanghai, Bloomberg reported in August, citing people familiar with the matter.
The company offers an array of AI-related technology, including AI chips and AI algorithm software for smart cities, smart fintech, smart healthtech, and smart retail. It has achieved a valuation of $2.2bn and total funding of $0.4bn from investors like Sequoia Capital, Hillhouse Capital Group, and Gaorong Capital.
Founded in 2012 by Leo Zhu, an MIT fellow, and Lin Chenxi, who previously worked at Alibaba’s cloud unit, Yitu has rapidly become an important player in China’s growing AI scene.
The Shanghai-based company has rapidly expanded from facial recognition technology to AI chip development – an area that is strongly supported by President Xi Jinping’s strategic goal of Chinese technological self-sufficiency.
Yitu was placed on the US Entity List, a trade list that prohibits named businesses from trading with US firms and obtaining US technology, in 2019. The US government alleges that Yitu has used its facial recognition technology to aid the Chinese government in oppressive mass surveillance operations, especially against the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region.
The unicorns that got away
GlobalData’s analysts also predicted earlier this year that a number of other firms would soon go public at valuations above $1bn, ceasing to be unicorns in the process, and indeed they did.
One recent headline-making float came from Singapore-based delivery app Grab, which went public through a SPAC merger. The company was valued at a whopping $40bn, making the deal the largest SPAC merger in history.
Another colossal deal that happened this year concerned Brazilian challenger bank Nubank. The company, which began trading on the New York Stock Exchange on December 8, raised $2.6bn. Shares were priced at the top end of the range, which valued the company at $41bn, making it the most valuable financial institution in Latin America, surpassing the region’s largest incumbent bank, Itaú Unibanco. Perhaps this is justifiable, as Nubank claims to be the bank with the largest number of customers outside China in the world.
Finally, there is SenseTime. Assessed by GlobalData as China’s most valuable AI company, SenseTime is the biggest of China’s four “AI Dragons”. Earlier this month, the Hong Kong-based unicorn said it hoped to raise 5.99bn Hong Kong dollars (US$786m) on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. This was far short of its initial hopes for US$2bn, readjusted following Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on the Chinese tech industry. Then, on the day it was meant to go public, the US said it would add the company to another trade blacklist, which has prompted SenseTime to reconsider its IPO plans altogether. It seems unlikely that it will stay in private hands indefinitely, however, so SenseTime remains one to watch.