Being in control of a startup business with a valuation of more than $1 billion – known as a unicorn – is a dream for most entrepreneurs, but for an increasing number around the world, it is a reality. To become a unicorn startup is an aspiration for many high growth businesses.
The UAE government wants to foster the local business environment to try and create more unicorn startups, which includes its recently announced ‘Entrepreneurial Nation’ initiative, with the goal of hosting 20 unicorn startups in the country by 2031.
To do this, work will be carried out to create public-private alliances and develop funding possibilities to give startups every opportunity to attain unicorn status. As a step in this direction, the UAE has recently founded a Dh1 billion private equity fund to invest in SMEs with high growth prospects in certain sectors over the next five years.
What is a unicorn?
In simple terms, a unicorn is a privately-owned startup business valued at more than $1 billion. The term comes from the venture capital industry – and was coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee in a magazine article back in 2013.
Unicorns are so called because of their scarcity, and they are often highly innovative companies. Due to their value, investors in unicorns are often venture capital firms or private investors. Today, there are nearly 900 unicorn startups in the world, with a combined value of more than $3.5 trillion.
The number of unicorns has exploded in recent years – there were just 39 in 2013. In fact, there are now also decacorns, which have a value in excess of $10 billion; and hectacorns – with a value of more than $100 billion.
Hottest unicorns from around the world
Unicorns are being created across an increasing range of sectors. Here are some of the hottest unicorns in the world now, including one from Dubai that is making waves internationally.
In the UK, Multiverse has just been declared a unicorn, having concluded a $220 million Series D funding round, bringing its valuation up to $1.7 billion. Investors included existing backers such as venture capitalists Lightspeed Venture Partners and General Catalyst.
The company, set up by Euan Blair – son of former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair – works in the edtech sector, and connects businesses with young people seeking an apprenticeship. The apprenticeships on offer cover a wide range of sectors, including digital marketing and software engineering, and last 12–15 months. They also have no tuition costs and apprentices are given a salary.
While the company was founded in 2016, it has grown rapidly in the past 12 months, doubling its value in that time. With the latest investment, Multiverse plans to expand more into the US market. Multiverse entered the US in 2021, where the cost of university education means there is high demand for Multiverse’s services.
To date, Multiverse has run 8000 apprenticeships across the world, and the company says that most of those apprentices stay with the company they did their apprenticeship with once it has finished.
The rise of Aptos, another unicorn, has been meteoric. The company was formed in December 2021 in Palo Alto, California, and achieved unicorn status in March 2022, following a $200 million funding round that valued it at $1 billion.
One of the primary reasons for Aptos’s stellar start is the people who set up the company. They are former employees of Meta (formerly known as Facebook) who built the Diem digital currency, which was abandoned by the company late last year.
Aptos is working on building layer 1 blockchain technology, and, with the amount of expertise available in the company and proven track records in this space, it is little surprise that investors flocked to back the company.
Some of those involved in the investment included the a16z crypto fund as well as other heavyweights such as FTX Ventures and Three Arrows Capital. In all, 17 investors participated in the round.
The company is now developing a high-speed blockchain, which is in its test phase. Access is open to other blockchain developers and a public launch is planned for the third quarter of this year.
Dubai is also home to several unicorn businesses, including Kitopi – a cloud kitchen startup, which provides delivery-only services for restaurants.
Kitopi was established in 2018 by Andres Arenas, Bader Ataya, Mohamad Ballout and Saman Darkan and achieved unicorn status last July – the fastest ever to do so in the MENA region. In four funding rounds it has raised more than $500 million from 20 investors.
One of the key factors in Kitopi’s rise has been its Smart Kitchen Operating System (SKOS), which was developed in-house. The SKOS is a suite of applications that have been designed to make kitchens work as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Kitopi partners with food and beverage brands and restaurants – currently more than 200 have signed up, operating more than 200 kitchens in five countries – with the aim of helping them to expand internationally with minimal capital outlay and expenses.
The SKOS has been designed to be easily implementable so that brands can start growing in less than two weeks. Demand for its services boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses had to find new ways to reach out to customers, with delivery becoming a favoured option for many.
In 2021, Kitopi started to invest in food groups, with the aim of developing a network of local, regional and international brands that use its operating platform and technology to grow quickly while still delivering a high level of customer experience.
This shows the direction Kitopi is heading, looking at an omnichannel future. In addition, Kitopi launched its first food hall concept, Social Distrikt, in The Palm in Dubai.
Creating a unicorn
These examples show that while unicorns are rare, they can be created if the right business or idea is launched at the right time in the right market.
What is needed to be a unicorn is difficult to define, but, as the examples show, it often requires an innovative technological product or concept, which acts as a point of difference to the market and can be easily scalable – domestically and internationally.
A business plan to develop more than just an initial concept can also help to bring in the investors. Having an existing reputation within your chosen sector can be helpful, too.
But what is certain is that entrepreneurs need to be based in a place that supports startups, especially extremely high-growth ones. This is the reason many entrepreneurs are attracted to Dubai, with its business-friendly tax conditions and wealth of potential funds on offer for high-growth startups.
With the backing of the government, as well as the highly developed infrastructure – physical and technological – available in Dubai, there are few better places to foster a potential unicorn. It means that the government’s ambition to host 20 unicorns by 2031 is not only realistic but could be exceeded.