Rise of the unicorns: The boom in billion-dollar startups

The next wave of potential unicorns are focused on software for specific industries

Technology startups worth $1 billion, once as rare as unicorns, are now plentiful enough and old enough that there is a new generation behind them – one that looks very different.

Silicon Valley’s current crop of highly valued tech startups, which include now-household names such as Uber and Airbnb, all benefited from the spread of smartphones and cheap cloud computing. Many of these companies built global empires by simply taking existing businesses – such as taxis, food delivery and hotels – and making them mobile. Some of the startups became giants: Uber, for instance, may reach a $120 billion valuation this year.

But as those companies have matured and prepare to go public, the easy opportunities for disrupting old-line industries are drying up. Now, many of the up-and-coming startups that may become the next unicorns have names like Benchling and Blend. And they largely focus on software for specific industries such as farms, banks and life sciences companies.

That is according to an analysis by CB Insights, a firm that tracks venture capital and startups. CB Insights used a variety of data – including financial health and the strength and size of the market a company serves – to identify 50 startups that may be on a path to achieving a $1 billion valuation (though there is no guarantee they will get there).


Software startups may seem boring. But many of them are growing fast because industries such as agriculture require more software tools as they adapt to the tech era, says Jason Green, an investor at Emergence, a venture capital firm that invests in cloud software companies.

"Maybe it's not as sexy as the companies in the first wave," says Kirsten Green, a venture capitalist at Forerunner Ventures. "A lot of those industries are big, giant industries that we need in our lives and in business, and they need to be modernised."

Other potential unicorns, such as Checkr and Earnin, are building businesses off the last generation of unicorns by offering services to them. CB Insights also pinpointed three startups that are popular with millennial women – Glossier, Zola and Faire – as unicorn candidates.

If you are one of those high-momentum companies, investors are going to be beating down your door

Some of these companies may reach the $1 billion threshold quickly, as unicorn startups are created more quickly than ever, says Anand Sanwal, chief executive of CB Insights. Funding rounds of $100 million or more – a once eye-popping sum of capital – have become common. Today, there are 315 unicorns, compared with 131 in 2015.

“If you are one of those high-momentum companies, investors are going to be beating down your door because there is so much interest in investing in the next big winner,” Sanwal says.

Here is a look at some of the up-and-comers.

Growing networks

In 2012, Sajith Wickramasekara founded Benchling. His goal: to solve some of the personal frustrations he had with the outdated technology tools that he used in the molecular biology labs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when he was a student.

Benchling, based in San Francisco, began providing software that allows lab scientists to replace their paper notebooks with searchable records stored in the cloud. That way, scientists could more easily use the records to collaborate with one another, Wickramasekara figured. Younger researchers were also increasingly asking for such tools.

“Software has touched a lot of different sectors of the economy, but it has not kept up in the field of science,” says Kaiser Mulla-Feroze, Benchling’s chief marketing officer.

Today, 140,000 scientists use Benchling's software, including academics at Harvard University and MIT, who use a free version, and paying customers such as Pfizer and Regeneron. Benchling charges smaller companies $15,000 a year, while large customers who use more advanced features pay millions of dollars a year, Mulla-Feroze says.

Benchling has raised nearly $30 million in funding. Last year, the startup tripled its revenue and number of customers, Mulla-Feroze says.

The company is representative of a new class of software startups as different industries adopt more technology. Venture capitalist Kirsten Green says it has become clear that software aimed at niche sectors offers larger opportunities than previously expected.

“Health care, automotive, retail, consumer packaged goods, advanced manufacturing companies – they’re all trying to figure out how technology helps reduce costs or how technology is going to help them build their next business model,” says Sanwal of CB Insights.

Other fast-growing startups that fit this description include Farmers Business Network, which was founded in 2014 by Charles Baron, a former Google programme manager, and Amol Deshpande, a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist. The company charges farmers $700 a year to share and analyse data about their farms, buy supplies and sell crops. Baron says the startup counts 7,700 farms as customers and has raised nearly $200 million in funding.

Agriculture is going through a digital revolution

A company like Farmers Business Network would not have been possible 10 years ago, before the proliferation of cloud computing and the “digitisation” of farming processes, Baron adds. Now, farms produce a lot of data, which Farmers Business Network is helping them to process and use to make decisions.

“Agriculture is going through a digital revolution,” he says.

Serving Millennial Women

In 2013, when Shan-Lyn Ma’s friends began getting married, she noticed that most digital tools for wedding planning were outdated, poorly designed or cost money.

So Ma – who previously worked at a site that held flash sales for designer merchandise, Gilt Groupe – started Zola, which offers a streamlined place to create free wedding registries.

Zola now sells 70,000 gift items in its registry. It has also developed tools such as online guest lists and RSVP tracking, all designed to lure more couples to its registry product. The site has been a hit with millennials, allowing the company to raise $140 million in funding and reach a valuation of $600 million.

Zola is one of three companies on the list of potential next unicorns that have been fuelled by millennials' spending. Glossier, a beauty products company in New York, and Faire, an online marketplace for local boutiques and vendors to buy and sell wholesale items, have also grown by largely catering to a youthful audience.

Max Rhodes, who founded Faire in 2017, says millennial women are driving a resurgence of local boutiques. These shoppers "don't want to drive out to the strip mall and buy the most stuff that's made as cheaply as possible," he says. "They want unique products that have a story behind them."

Next-Generation Gig Economy

The rise of companies such as Uber and Airbnb has created its own mini-economy of startups.

One of those is Checkr, which was founded in 2014 by Daniel Yanisse and Jonathan Perichon, who worked as software engineers at Deliv, a delivery startup. Both had become frustrated at the slow-moving background checks for the delivery drivers they wanted to hire for Deliv, so they created their own business to expedite the process.

Now Checkr works with Uber, Lyft and Instacart. It has also added other types of customers such as the insurance company Allstate.

Checkr is selling "picks and shovels" to the gig economy, says Rich Wong, a partner at Accel Partners, a venture firm that invested in the startup.

Another potential unicorn that serves gig economy workers is Earnin, founded in 2012 and based in Palo Alto, California. Earnin, which makes an app that provides free cash advances to workers, has a partnership with Uber that lets its drivers cash out immediately after a ride.

Ram Palaniappan, Earnin's founder, says the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times and its users open the app 25 times a month on average.

And the Rest

Notably, 17 of the fastest-rising startups are dispersed internationally.

CB Insights identified five companies in India, four in China and three in Latin America as possible candidates to reach $1 billion in valuation. They include CargoX, a Brazilian startup using technology to make trucking companies more efficient, and Deputy, an Australian company that provides tools to businesses to manage their hourly workers.

– New York Times News Service

These 50 startups may be the next ‘unicorns’

CB Insights, a firm that tracks startups, analysed a variety of data to create a list of 50 private companies around the world that are on a path to a $1 billion valuation.

Airwallex (Hong Kong)
Makes a system that lets businesses send and collect money overseas

Alto Pharmacy (San Francisco)
An online pharmacy

Amplitude (San Francisco)
Makes analytics tools that help companies run digital businesses

Beisen (Beijing)
Makes talent management and measurement tools

Benchling (San Francisco)
Makes software for life science researchers and companies

BetterCloud (New York)
Provides cybersecurity for cloud software companies

Blend (San Francisco)
Makes mortgage and consumer loan application software for lenders

Braze (New York)
Makes mobile marketing software

C2FO (Leawood, Kansas)
A financial services platform that provides companies access to working capital

CarDekho Group (Jaipur, India)
Offers online sales, financing and insurance for autos and education services

CargoX (São Paulo, Brazil)
Uses technology to make trucking companies more efficient

Carta (San Francisco)
Provides equity management services for investors, founders and employees

Checkr (San Francisco)
Provides background checks of workers

Citymapper (London)
A map, transit and navigation app for cities

ClearTax (Bangalore, India)
Makes software for filing taxes and managing investments

Contentful (Berlin)
Makes software for digital content

DailyHunt (Bangalore, India)
A news and entertainment app

Datrium (Sunnyvale, California)
A cloud storage provider

DeepMap (Palo Alto, California)
Makes mapping technology for autonomous vehicles

Deputy (Sydney, Australia)
Makes software for companies to manage staff schedules and timesheets

Domino Data Lab (San Francisco)
Makes software for managing data

Earnin (Palo Alto, California)
A short-term loan provider

Embark Trucks (San Francisco)
Makes self-driving semitrucks

Expanse (San Francisco)
Provides large organisations with security for internet-connected devices

Faire (San Francisco)
A wholesale marketplace for boutiques and small vendors

Farmers Business Network (San Carlos, California)
An online platform for farmers to share and analyse data, buy supplies and sell crops

Flywire (Boston)
Makes payments software for global transactions

Front (San Francisco)
Makes email collaboration software

Glossier (New York)
Makes skincare and beauty products

Grow Mobility (Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil)
Dockless bikes and scooter services

HackerOne (San Francisco)
Finds and fixes software vulnerabilities

KRY (Stockholm, Sweden)
Provides services for patients to consult doctors through mobile devices

MapBox (Washington and San Francisco)
Provides mapping technology

Marqeta (Oakland, California)
Provides payments infrastructure for issuing physical, virtual or tokenised payment cards

Medbanks Network Technology (Beijing)
Making oncology systems

Miaoshou Doctor (Guangzhou, China)
Building online communication between doctors and patients

Onshape (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Making cloud-based design tools for manufacturing

Outreach (Seattle)
Provides a sales engagement platform

Practo Technologies (Bangalore, India)
Connecting patients to health care providers using tech

QuintoAndar (São Paulo, Brazil)
A residential real estate rental platform

Razorpay (Bangalore, India)
Provides payments technology to online merchants

RigUp (Austin, Texas)
An online platform for contract workers in the energy industry to find work

SalesLoft (Atlanta)
Provides technology for companies to increase sales

Segment (San Francisco)
Provides a platform for gathering and managing data

SiSense (New York)
Makes software for analysing and visualising data

Sonder (San Francisco)
Provides apartmentlike hotels in cities

Standard Cognition (San Francisco)
Provides artificial-intelligence tools for physical stores

Upgrade (San Francisco)
An online lending platform

Xiangwushuo (Shanghai)
A sharing platform that lets people swap used items

Zola (New York)
Online wedding registries and wedding-planning tools