Unicorn study methodology

The term unicorn was first popularized in 2013 by Aileen Lee, founder of the California-based venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures. She defined it as “US-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by private or public market investors.” Since 2013, the definition of a unicorn has evolved; today, there is no universally accepted definition, although analysts such as PitchBook, CBInsights, and Investopedia, as well as academic institutions such as Harvard University and Stanford University, all agree on the threshold of a US$1 billion valuation. Differences among various sources can be due to a number of reasons:

  • Nuances in exit definitions: Some consider companies that had a $1 billion valuation but then raised funds at a lower valuation (a down round, a completed unicorn round with a valuation lower than the previous completed unicorn round, to less than $1 billion) to still be unicorns, whereas others consider this an exit from unicorn status.
  • Nuances in deal definitions: Some define a unicorn as a company that was initially VC-funded and achieved its $1 billion valuation from any funding source (e.g., also in a PE-funded round or secondary transaction), whereas others define a unicorn as a company with a $1 billion valuation achieved only in VC rounds.
  • Differences in geographic focus: Some reports focus only on US or Chinese unicorns, whereas others focus on unicorns globally.
  • Variations in estimate: Because unicorns are private companies, and not all deal information is publicly available, some deal amounts and valuations need to be estimated. As a result, the same VC round might be estimated slightly differently by two data sources, and a company may therefore be considered a unicorn by one data source but not by another.

For the purposes of our study, we define a unicorn as a privately owned, VC-backed company that has raised its most recent venture capital round with a post-money valuation of at least $1 billion and has never had an exit event. We do not consider a company whose only valuation of more than $1 billion was the value at exit a unicorn.

The data source used for this unicorn report is PitchBook Data Inc., as of June 30, 2021. The report includes companies that were considered a unicorn based on the above definition at any point between January 1, 2016, and June 30, 2021. Privately owned, VC-backed companies that achieved the unicorn status (a valuation of $1 billion or more) prior to 2016 are considered a unicorn herein, as long as they did not have a unicorn exit prior to January 1, 2016. Companies that achieved unicorn status after June 30, 2021, are not included.

Terminology

  • Unicorn round: a completed venture capital round with a valuation of at least $1 billion. This includes unicorn birth rounds and rounds raised while a company is a unicorn, but excludes pre-unicorn rounds, exit rounds, and any post-exit rounds. Announced or rumored rounds are excluded.
  • Mega-round: a unicorn round with a deal size of $100 million or more
  • Unicorn birth: the first completed unicorn round of a privately owned, VC-backed company that has a valuation of $1 billion or more
  • Unicorn exit: a completed funding round that ends the unicorn status of a company, either through a unicorn going public via IPO or reverse merger, a unicorn being acquired or merging with another company, or a unicorn going out of business or a having a down round to a valuation below $1 billion. For the analyses, we have mapped PitchBook’s deal types for unicorn exits as follows:
    • IPO = PitchBook deal type: IPO
    • Reverse merger = PitchBook deal type: reverse merger 
    • Merger/acquisition/LBO = PitchBook deal types: (1) merger/acquisition, (2) merger of equals, (3) buyout/LBO, or (4) investor buyout by management
    • Out of business = PitchBook deal types: (1) bankruptcy or administrative reorganization, (2) bankruptcy or liquidation, or (3) out of business
  • Unicorn age: the age of a unicorn is defined as the number of years since it achieved unicorn status. For example, a unicorn that was born in 2017 and exited in 2020 would have been considered three years old when it exited.
  • Down round: a completed unicorn round with a valuation lower than the previous completed unicorn round. If a down round has a valuation below $1 billion, the down round is considered a unicorn exit. Note that down rounds prior to 2016 are not taken into account for our report.
  • Billions raised: includes all funding while a company is a unicorn, including the unicorn birth round. Any debt amounts, as well as pre-unicorn rounds, exit rounds, and any post-exit rounds, are excluded from billions-raised amounts.
  • Average billions raised: the amount raised in a year, calculated based only on the population of unicorns that raised funding during that year.

Geography

The country designation of a company is based on its recorded headquarters country in PitchBook as of the end date of the report’s timeframe. Countries and regions are categorized into the following four groups for this report:

  • US: The United States of America
  • China: China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan
  • Europe: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom
  • Rest of world: Antigua, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and Vietnam

Industries

  • Fintech
    • Payments: autonomous checkout, mobile payments, peer-to-peer payments, point-of-sale systems, subscription management
    • Proptech: home-selling/-buying/-renting platforms, mortgage lending, home equity lending, office/co-working space rentals, house builders, solar panel design
    • Wealthtech: wealth management, financial advisory, financial trading, portfolio management, online brokerage, investment platforms, personal finance analytics
    • Insurtech: health insurance, car insurance, home insurance, pet insurance, accident and disaster photo analysis, product protection, insurance aggregators
    • Lending: personal loans, credit score tools, payments through installments, expense tracking, alternative lending, commercial lending, cash flow management, vehicle leasing
    • Digital banking: money transfer, platforms to help banks digitize their offerings, debit cards for minors, mobile banking
    • Digital assets: cryptocurrency, crypto exchanges, crypto wallets, crypto mining, blockchain applications
  • Enterprise and consumer technology
    • Consumer and telecom technology: smart home, smartphones, 3D cameras, e-cigarettes/vaporizers, telecom and internet access
    • Enterprise app and cloud: cloud hosting and computing, cloud storage, corporate travel, enterprise apps, productivity apps, HR tech, sales engagement tech, contract and invoice management, customer engagement tech, work chat communication platforms
    • Artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML): facial recognition, speech recognition, natural language processing, computer vision, vertical AI/ML applications, horizontal AI/ML platforms, other machine learning
    • Robotic process automation (RPA) and workflow management: process automation platforms, workflow and approval management tools, project management software, software development life-cycle management, automated testing tools
    • Data analytics and governance: analytics engineering tools, data infrastructure management tools, data lake software, mobile analytics platforms, data intelligence platforms, database management, data governance
    • Cybersecurity: fraud detection and prevention, identity and access management, intrusion detection, endpoint management and security, network security, cyber risk management, threat detection, mobile device security
    • Semiconductors and sensors: semiconductor and chip manufacturers, processor design, printed circuit boards, deep learning chips, Internet of Things (IOT) sensors, IOT machine health platforms
  • Digital commerce
    • Food, groceries, and beverages: agritech, grocery delivery, food delivery, meal kit delivery, online food ordering, pet food delivery, beverage and food manufacturing
    • General online retail: cross-category e-commerce platforms, secondhand marketplaces, consumer online selling platforms, online classifieds, social commerce
    • Specialty retail: apparel, baby and child products, fashion rental, home furnishings, household products, personal care products, pharmacy delivery
    • Auto marketplace: used car marketplaces, pre-owned car marketplaces, wholesale vehicle sales platforms, car auctions, automotive maintenance scheduling
    • E-commerce enablement: cloud e-commerce platforms, omnichannel commerce platforms, merchant management software, patronage platforms, gift card platforms
    • B2B trading: procurement platforms for specific industries, such as textiles, construction materials, industrial products, and raw plastic materials
    • Services marketplace: home repair and improvement platforms, household services, expectant mothers and infant services, photography services, business services
    • Brick-and mortar-stores and cafes: restaurants, tea/coffee shops, food court franchises, convenience stores, supermarkets
  • Entertainment and media
    • Video/music/podcast streaming: Video streaming, music streaming, audio streaming, video broadcasting and sharing, live streaming, live online events, music recognition, video content production
    • Edtech: online education platform, language learning, music instrument instruction app, enterprise learning platform, corporate training platform, coaching platform
    • Gaming, augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR), photo editing: mobile games, gaming equipment, augmented and virtual reality platforms, fantasy sports, photo editing
    • Travel and event tickets: apartment/home management and renting, short-term residential rentals/house sharing, RV rentals, travel tickets and reservations (hotels, flights, trains), event tickets
    • Social networking, news, and reviews: social networking, instant messaging, video chat, content sharing, product discovery platforms, professional networking, online dating, news platforms, sports information, online Q&A platforms, business information services, product review platforms, blogs, comic reading
    • Ad tech: advertising tools, advertising platforms, mobile advertising, advertising management, real-time sale and purchase of digital advertising
  • Industrial tech
    • Electricity, stored energy, and materials: electric vehicles (EVs), vertical electric vehicles, EV charging stations, energy distribution, EV lithium batteries, portable power storage, stationary fuel cells, nuclear power generation, smart windows, bio-fuels, bio-chemicals, environmental packaging, nano-augmented materials
    • Supply chain and logistics tech: supply chain, warehousing, package delivery, inventory management, shipping, trucking, fleet tracking, logistics operations, freight forwarding, multi-carrier shipping, pricing, routing, scheduling, tracking, reverse logistics
    • Autonomous vehicles and parts: autonomous cars, autonomous trucks, autonomous robots, self-driving delivery, self-driving ride sharing, autonomous vehicles components (light detection and ranging [LiDAR], sensors), drones, autonomous driving AI, autonomous driving simulation infrastructure
    • Aviation and rockets: orbital launch vehicles, rockets, spacecraft, supersonic aircraft, satellites
    • Tooling and 3D printing: tool manufacturing, construction equipment sharing, 3D printing
  • Mobility tech
    • Ride sharing: ride hailing, car pooling, vehicle sharing, paratransit
    • Bike sharing: bicycle sharing, micro-mobility, electrical scooter sharing
    • Long-distance mobility: long distance bus, private jet charter, private jet seat sharing
  • Health tech
    • Biotech and drug discovery: biotechnology, biopharmaceutics, drug discovery, drug development and commercialization, cell programming, cell therapy
    • Telehealth and telemedicine services: online emotional health, on-demand mental health support, video therapy, digital health platform, self-care tools, mobile health/nutrition coaching, online diabetes care platform, direct-to-consumer telehealth platform, patient–provider communication
    • Diagnostic/monitoring/surgical equipment: diagnostic lab test kits, ultrasound devices, medical imaging devices, molecular testing equipment, cell analysis, flow cytometry instruments, ingestible sensors, cardiac diagnostic equipment, transcatheters, surgical products, robotic surgical equipment, AR glasses for visually impaired
    • Genomics: consumer genetic testing kits, genetic sequencing, gene editing, genomic testing, gene databases
    • Health and wellness tech: fitness apps, gym club memberships, health system memberships, indoor cycling platforms, weightlifting apps, fitness guides, high-intensity interval training apps, meditation apps, biometric wearables, fitness trackers, step trackers
    • Vaccine development: antibody development for therapeutic and prophylactic treatment, COVID-19 vaccine, vaccine development, antibody and vaccine bank
    • Health analytics platform: health data analytics, healthcare insights platform, care coordination and outcome tracking, healthcare management, electronic medical records management
    • Cannabis: cannabis cultivation, cannabis-based medical products, cannabis marketplace for local dispensaries