The elusive tech unicorn--a startup worth at least $1 billion--had a lackluster year in 2016 but may stage a comeback in 2017. According to CB Insights, only 42 companies joined the ranks of unicorns in 2016, down from 79 the year before. The number of tech IPOs in 2016 also sank to its lowest level since the financial crisis. The year ahead could be different. A number of blockbuster tech IPOs are already predicted. Meanwhile, other tech giants--including Uber, the most valuable privately held company in the world--are poised to make headlines in other ways: namely, through continued growth and innovation. As tech stars prepare for a resurgence, here are 10 of the most exciting unicorns and near-unicorns to watch in 2017.
With paperwork already filed with the SEC, an AppDynamics IPO is as close to a sure thing as possible. The San Francisco-based company sells software that enables businesses to monitor usage of their mobile apps and to detect bugs that cause crashes. The technology is proprietary and has become indispensable to a vast array of companies as mobile apps have proliferated. The company has been valued at $1.9 billion. An IPO will be the first significant opportunity for stock market investors to buy into this growing niche market since competitor New Relic went public in December 2014.
A little known Bay Area startup, Apttus began as a bootstrapped operation seven years ago, took outside money for the first time in 2013, and quietly turned itself into a unicorn worth more than $1 billion. Next up is an IPO in the first half of 2017, Apttus's CEO told Forbes last September. Apttus exists in a B2B space where there's big money to be made but hardly any possibility of generating headlines. Its primary product is a "quote-to-cash" (QTC) tool that works with Salesforce. The QTC product helps salespeople price and close deals, especially when pricing is complicated. GE Aviation, for example, uses Apttus to produce quotes for complex products like jet engines, which can consist of thousands of components. Apttus's next project is an artificially intelligent bot that can make judgment calls about pricing and even suggest the optimal discount to offer a customer, which could bring a new level of automation to complex transactions.
The long-rumored IPO of Kaltura, the creator of a widely used video platform, may finally materialize in 2017. Goldman Sachs injected $50 million into the American-Israeli startup last August in an investment that was seen as a potential precursor to a stock offering. Kaltura's CEO, Ron Yekutiel, added fuel to the speculation when he told TheMarker, an influential Israeli business publication, that Goldman's bankers "want us to be ready to meet the standards of a publicly traded company." Kaltura rose to prominence over the past 10 years by anticipating the widespread adoption of online video and creating a versatile video platform that can meet the needs of organizations ranging from small universities to Fortune 500 multinationals. Today, with 1,000 B2B customers, Kaltura says its software delivers videos to 700 million people a month. So if you've watched videos on the internet, you've probably come in contact with Kaltura's technology.
As tech startups have reimagined almost every facet of corporate life, human resources remains one of the slowest changing corners of the business world. A new generation of tech companies, including LifeWorks (which won a prestigious HR tech award last October), has emerged to modernize the industry. LifeWorks has created an employee assistance program, social network, and perks platform, all in one. With 15 million end-users from 49,000 companies served, LifeWorks is a leader in its market. The service enables bosses to bestow "Recognitions" on high-achieving employees, provides colleagues a platform to welcome new hires, and allows management to dole out and oversee perks from a centralized platform. LifeWorks claims its product helps retain talent and boosts productivity. The company has shown that its customers' employees engage with the network multiple times per day.
Another leader in a lucrative, niche market, Nextiva sells cloud-based phone services to more than 150,000 businesses in the U.S. Since its founding in 2005, the company hasn't raised a cent of funding--all growth has been fueled by revenue. Its technology is cheap enough for small businesses--which make up the bulk of Nextiva's customers--but robust enough for giants, including Target and Allstate. Nextiva's co-founder and boss, Tomas Gorny, a Polish immigrant, was drawn to the U.S. as a kid by the movie Wall Street and the TV show Beverly Hills 90210. As a business executive, he admits he's taken inspiration from another American icon, Apple. He has endeavored to make Nextiva's interface an integrated, human-focused experience like the iPhone's and iPad's iOS--which has won Nextiva a loyal customer base. With $100 million in annual revenue, 600 employees, and an impressive customer churn rate below 1 percent, Nextiva shows no sign of slowdown.
In 2009, as cloud computing became an important part of the workplace, corporations found that they lacked the ability to monitor the various kinds of software they were using, as well as employee usage. As a Wall Street Journal blog reported, there was no existing solution to this seemingly simple problem. With the backing of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, two former Salesforce executives founded Okta to fix the problem. Okta now offers an "identity management" tool that allows companies to grant their employees secure, customized access to cloud computing. Carefully managing access boosts security and can improve operating efficiency. That value proposition has won Okta big-name customers, including LinkedIn and Pitney Bowes. Like some of the other low-profile unicorns on this list, Okta has been moving toward an IPO. No timeline has been set, but a recent job posting sought a candidate who could work in a "pre and post IPO financial reporting environment."
Perhaps no tech company is poised to make more headlines in 2017 than Palantir. Not only is the company reportedly mulling a long-anticipated IPO, it is also backed by Peter Thiel. Many of the details of Palantir's product line and client list are closely held secrets. But what is known is that the Palo Alto, California-based company's technology helps law enforcement agencies, banks, and governments analyze huge troves of data that no team of humans could ever hope to process. Palantir's intelligent algorithms have helped JP Morgan detect cyberfraud and the United States to flag potential terrorists. As Palantir's reported valuation has ballooned to $20 billion, its investors have clamored for an IPO. According to reports late last year, Palantir's boss, Alex Karp, may finally give them what they want in 2017.
One of a handful of companies leading a tech renaissance in Utah, Qualtrics is another unicorn that shows every sign of going public in 2017. The company hired a veteran Microsoft executive as COO last October and Qualtrics's chief executive has said that the startup already runs like a public company. Qualtrics was founded in 2002 by brothers Ryan and Jared Smith. In the beginning, it conducted Web-based surveys for universities. Today, the company's client list includes governments, top business schools, and half of the Fortune 100 companies. These customers use Qualtrics surveys to measure customer satisfaction and employee feedback, among other metrics. They rely on Qualtrics data analysis to turn the results into practical changes in marketing or operations. With deep pockets (Qualtrics has raised $220 million of venture funding), the company is growing quickly, expanding its business in recent years into Latin America and Asia.
In the past decade, there has been a proliferation of companies--whether e-commerce, affiliate, adtech, or otherwise--that need to pay a daunting number of suppliers or publishers every month. At the same time, regulations (especially international ones) have become onerous. Enter Tipalti. Its payment automation software helps businesses make mass payments across the globe with ease and compliance. The software automates payments in almost any currency and manages regulatory requirements, such as withholding payments from people on international "Do Not Pay" blacklists. Tipalti claims its product reduces the time its customers spend on payments by up to 80 percent. And last year, the company rolled out technology that brings automation to the entire accounts payable lifecycle. Tipalti's quickly expanding customer base includes behemoths like Twitter and nimble startups like Visually. Last September, the company closed its most recent fundraising round, pulling in $14 million to drive new customer acquisition.
10. Vice Media
As print journalism slowly goes extinct, Vice has somehow beaten all the odds. It started as an alternative magazine in Canada in the '90s. Now it's one of the fastest growing media companies in the world. The transformation picked up steam in 2006, when Vice started producing short documentaries and video journalism tailored to its online Millennial audience. That enterprise gave way to Viceland, a cable channel and TV production outfit that is rolling out internationally this year. Although it all sounds like a pipe dream, big investors have been convinced by CEO and founder Shane Smith's vision and the company's performance. Media giants including Disney, 21st Century Fox, and A&E Networks have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Vice, pushing its valuation to more than $4 billion. Rumors have swirled about a possible IPO this year.