A man walks past a banner displaying Palantir Technologies signage at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the US, September 30 2020. Picture: MICHAEL NAGEL/BLOOMBERG
A man walks past a banner displaying Palantir Technologies signage at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the US, September 30 2020. Picture: MICHAEL NAGEL/BLOOMBERG

New York — Palantir Technologies began trading on Wednesday as a public company, ending a 17-year tradition of secrecy surrounding the software business cofounded by Peter Thiel.

The data analytics company opened at $10 on the New York Stock Exchange, above the reference price of $7.25 that was set for the stock. Palantir listed its shares directly on the exchange, rather than raising capital through an initial public offering.

Palantir rose about 10% to a market value of $17.8bn after the first trades. It failed to capture the $20bn valuation private investors had given Palantir since at least 2015.

Companies are racing to go public in the US where investors are welcoming new stocks ahead of a presidential election likely to drive volatility. Companies raised $61bn from initial public offerings this quarter, the busiest on record, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Software businesses were at the forefront of the listing boom, with Snowflake posting the biggest first-day pop in more than a decade in September when it raised $3.9bn.

Active day

Wednesday was a particularly active day for direct listings, an unconventional mechanism for taking a company public. Asana, another software company backed by Thiel’s venture capital firm Founders Fund, began trading at $27.

Palantir travelled a long and sometimes rough road to its public debut. Thiel helped start the company in 2003 with early funding from an arm of the US Central Intelligence Agency, but Palantir’s darling status among US government agencies did not translate into success with businesses for well over a decade.

Named for the all-seeing stones in the fictional Lord of the Rings trilogy, Palantir combines myriad, ever-changing data streams into one centralised “source of truth”

Customers, including the US defence department and pharmaceutical giant Merck, then mine that information and analyse it to make decisions. The results are presented as a series of spiderweb-like visuals, making information accessible to non-technical users.

For years, Palantir operated much like a consultancy, dispatching its engineers to customer sites to implement the software and build one-off applications. The model was expensive, and Palantir incurred heavy losses for most of its history. The business remains unprofitable.

When Palantir built a new software platform, Foundry, in 2016, the company cut costs by automating much of the grunt work and said it reduced time to set up customers from months to days. Palantir expects to deliver an adjusted profit this year on more than $1bn in revenue.

For Palantir, competition for global customers will be fierce. Palantir only began building a sales team in 2019. The company now has about 125 customers, with the US army being the largest representing 15% of revenue.

Palantir’s chair, Thiel, and its work for government agencies including US immigration have sparked concerns among corporate watchdogs and human rights groups including Amnesty International. The company has also drawn rebukes from governance experts who point out that Thiel will have power with little accountability because of multi-class stock that grants him outsize power in perpetuity.

Palantir followed other tech companies in its decision to bypass a traditional IPO. Slack Technologies and Spotify Technology went public through direct listings in recent years, allowing employees and other shareholders to sell stock without issuing new shares to raise capital. Each company’s stock soared with Slack and Spotify ending the first day of trading at valuations of $19.5bn and $27.8bn, respectively.

Bloomberg

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