A Brief History of Unicorns in Culture and Technology

  5 m, 38 s

The CB Insights Global Unicorn Club (link used to be https://www.cbinsights.com/research-unicorn-companies) includes more than 280 companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more. 18 of those are “decacorns” worth at least $10 billion. But where does this name come from? And why do we use the name of a mythical one-horned horse to refer to a measure of corporate worth? In this article, we’ll answer these questions (and more). Welcome to The History of Unicorns in Culture and Technology.

(Alternate title: From Pliny to Palo Alto – A History of Unicorns)

A Brief History of Unicorns in Culture

The unicorn as it appears in popular culture does not match the creature of myth and legend. Today, we all agree that the unicorn is a fantasy beast (well, most of us agree, anyway). But many ancient peoples actually believed that unicorns were very real (albeit very rare).

In fact, numerous ancient scholars recorded unicorn sightings. As far back as 77 AD, Roman naturalist Pliny described the unicorn in the 8th book of his encyclopedic Natural History.

But Pliny’s description doesn’t quite match today’s images of pearly white horns, silver hair and rainbow accents.

Here’s how Pliny described the unicorn:

“…a very ferocious beast, similar in the rest of its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep bellowing voice, and a single black horn, two cubits [about 36 inches] in length, standing out in the middle of its forehead.”

[Unicorns in History Pliny.png]

NOT how ancient peoples thought unicorns appeared. Source: TeePublic

An elephant’s feet, a bellowing roar, and a the head of a deer? I think I prefer today’s unicorns. Much friendlier.

Now, Pliny didn’t do much fact-checking. His Natural History included any and all creatures he received reports of, regardless of their plausibility. Today, a popular theory is that historical reports of unicorns grew from widely-exaggerated sightings of rhinoceroses or goats.

The unicorn also appears numerous times in the bible, often as a reference point for great strength. For example, Numbers 24:8 includes the passage, “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.”

Magical unicorns? More like “medicinal unicorns”

What’s more, throughout history people have believed the unicorn’s horn to contain magical medicinal properties. Ctesias, a Greek physician in the 5th century BC, believed that drinking from a unicorn horn could neutralize poison and reduce epileptic seizures. Others believed that mixing powdered horn in their drinks would guard them against poisons. Even Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-87) is reported to have brought a piece of unicorn horn back from France to test her food for poison.

So there we have it: if modern scholars are to believed, the unicorn is little more than an exaggerated rhinoceros. But that’s not a very satisfying answer. If you’d like to read more about the unicorn in history and culture, we’ve included a few links to further reading at the bottom of this page.

But now let’s turn our attention to an entirely different type of unicorn.

A New Breed: The Startup Unicorn

So much for the history of unicorns in mythology. But what about unicorns in other culture? Let’s talk about the history of “unicorn” companies.

A “unicorn” in technology refers to a startup company that is valued at $1 billion or more. The term first appeared in a 2013 TechCrunch blog post, at which time there were only 39 such companies registered in the United States: a rare creature to describe a rare breed of company.

“God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8

Today, though, unicorns are everywhere. This database of unicorns, curated by CB Insights and updated in real time, lists 286 such companies as of November 2018. 18 are worth $10 billion or more. And more than a dozen of these unicorns represent ventures in pure Big Data, Computer Vision or Artificial Intelligence, including:

  • Toutiao (news and content platforms, valued at $20 billion)
  • Palantir Technologies (big data analytics, also $20 billion)
  • SenseTime (AI and facial recognition, $4.5 billion)
  • Qualtrics (data analytics for experience management, $2.5 billion)
  • Pony.ai (self-driving cars, $1 billion)

table of unicorn companies

A portion of CB Insight’s list of Unicorn companies – source and full list

Can big data predict future unicorns?

CB Insights thought so. In 2015, they partnered with The New York Times to build a list of 50 companies which they predicted would become unicorns.

So how’d they do? Well, not great. In 3 years, only 7 of those 50 companies have earned their horns. Why this failure?

Sascha Eder, CFO at AI-powered knowledge platform NewtonX, interviewed a partner at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm to find out.

The expert explained that identifying a potential unicorn company is only the start. The really tricky part is bringing that company up to unicorn status. And the number of factors involved in going from seed funding to a $1 billion valuation are virtually impossible to account for.

So, can big data predict future unicorns? As Sasha writes, it’s unlikely. And in the meantime, not everyone is thrilled with this proliferation of a once-rare breed of startup.

The Future of Unicorns (the Companies, not the Animals)

The massive inflow of venture capital investment into the AI and machine learning sector has many fearing a new market bubble. Are they justified?

Theories abound. But the consensus seems to be that the AI bubble probably won’t burst any time soon. In fact, venture funding into U.S.-based AI companies is even starting to slow down.

Source: Crunchbase

Most experts agree that companies should focus on delivering real return on investment by using AI to solve quantified business problems.

Of course, only time will tell if the tech unicorn is to go the way of its fantastical mammal counterpart. And in the meantime, venture capital firms aren’t slowing down.

VC’s first target was the “decacorn”, a startup with the potential to value $10 billion or more. CB Insights lists 18 decacorns as of August 2018.

Now, investors are pursuing the hectocorn: a company valued at over $100 billion. Statista’s list of the world’s most valuable companies includes 90 hectocorns. But these are public companies, such as Apple and Microsoft.

The world’s most valuable private company, according to CB Insights, is worth a paltry $72 billion (that’s Uber, of course). Only time will tell if a private company can reach hectocorn status.

In the meantime, I wonder: how would Pliny describe a hectocorn?

Further Reading

For more reading on unicorns in history and culture:

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