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2015 in Review: The Year of the Unicorn

2015 may one day be known as the Year of the Unicorn: 47 new U.S.-based startups reached billion-dollar valuations this year, along with 28 companies based outside the U.S.

Down the road, 2015 may well be remembered as the Year of the Unicorn.

More companies achieved the coveted $1 billion+ valuation in 2015 than any year before, with a new unicorn popping up at a rate of nearly 1.5 per week. It could be a few years until startups hit the milestone at the same or higher rate, as it’s expected that exorbitant venture spending is about to hit last call (or already has). The term “unicorn” was coined in 2013, when joining the club was quite rare—like their namesake suggests; these days, a more prestigious milestone might be companies valued at $10 billion+, with Uber, admittedly a unique beast in the startup landscape, reportedly in the process of raising a multibillion-dollar round at a valuation of over $60 billion.

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2015 saw 47 companies become new unicorns within the U.S., a 38% increase over 2014, which previously stood as the high-water mark. That increase was outdone by companies based outside the U.S., as this year doubled the count of 2014 (see above).

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Throughout the year, criticism arose over the relative ease at which companies were raising rounds at billion-dollar valuations, with many claiming it as an indication of being in a bubble. That fear of a private valuation bubble, along with scarce exit options, may have led investors to turn a more wary eye on companies looking to raise rounds at such lofty valuations.

All totaled, nearly $33 billion was invested in unicorns this year, with the median deal size of $158 million. Six deals of at least $1 billion were raised by unicorns, including a couple by Uber alone. All that capital didn’t just come from traditional VCs either. Mutual funds especially jumped at the chance to add these companies to their portfolios, and in turn helped lead the way for mega-round after mega-round for both new and old unicorns. Fidelity, Wellington Management and T. Rowe Price showed up in deals raised by 23 unicorns in 2015 combined, including those for Airbnb, Snapchat and Pinterest (each of which is valued at $11 billion or more).

In November, Fidelity caused a stir when it marked down several of its tech investments, including unicorns Snapchat and Zenefits. Whether or not this was an actual hit on the companies and their high valuations, or simply an accounting move, the public nature of the markdowns brought up the notion that private companies may not be as willing to take on mutual fund money in the future. If that’s the case, raising those unicorn rounds could be much more difficult.

Here is a list of investors with the most current unicorns in their portfolios, as well as several of each firm’s notable investments:

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So will valuations continue to grow? Or will they come back to earth? 2016 should be a telling year. The popular quip with unicorns has always been that the only important valuation is what comes with an exit, as reminded by former unicorn Gilt Groupe reportedly close to being acquired for just $250 million.

PitchBook users can explore our 2015 unicorns data here. Interested in the data? Click here to contact us and get a free trial of the PitchBook Platform.

For a more detailed breakdown of the current state of unicorns, including a look at financing histories, deal terms highlights, unicorn league tables and more, check out our 2015 VC Unicorn Report and download your free copy here.

  • kyle-headshot-8-667x560.jpg
    Written by Kyle Stanford

    Kyle is an analyst at PitchBook, focusing on venture and carrying a particular interest in the early stage. He graduated from the University of Washington in 2009, earning a degree in history. He joined PitchBook in 2014 as a writer for the VC newsletter and a contributor to the blog.

    Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Kyle enjoys everything outdoors and doesn’t mind rain.

    After spending time working in the daily deal industry after college, he spent a year traveling his way around the world. His passport, which needs to be replaced, holds stamps from 30 countries.

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