A ILEEN LEE, a venture capitalist who founded an investment firm called Cowboy Ventures, coined the term “unicorn” in 2013 to refer to what was then a rare, mythical species: privately held startups valued at $1bn or more. Any magical attributes aside, today they are commonplace—and becoming ever more so. Consumers, who stand to benefit from an array of novel, often cheap products and services, can expect to enjoy the ride. Investors betting on the unicorn derby should tread more carefully.
The world’s unicorn herd is multiplying at a clip that is more rabbit-like. The number of such firms has grown from a dozen eight years ago to more than 750, worth a combined $2.4trn. In the first six months of 2021 technology startups raised nearly $300bn globally, almost as much as in the whole of 2020. That money helped add 136 new unicorns between April and June alone, a quarterly record, according to CB Insights, a data provider. Compared with the same period last year the number of funding rounds above $100m tripled, to 390. A lot of this helped fatten older members of the herd: all but four of the 34 that now boast valuations of $10bn or more have received new investments since the start of 2020.
The latest tech darlings are no longer primarily Uber-esque marketplaces for matching services with consumers. Instead, they offer, or are developing, sophisticated products, often in more niche markets. Some 25% of the funding in the second quarter went to financial-technology firms, with lots also flowing into artificial intelligence, digital health and cyber-security (see chart).