Palantir files for direct listing as tech IPOs surge

PALANTIR Technologies Inc, the data-mining company backed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, broke years of suspense by filing to go public through a direct listing. The Denver-based company applied to list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker PLTR, according to its filing on Tuesday with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Palantir won't raise any proceeds in the listing and doesn't have traditional underwriters. In contrast with previous direct listings, investors will face restrictions on how much of their shares they can sell initially.

Like many tech companies that have headed to the public markets, Palantir has never been profitable. The company lost US$580 million in 2019, though that loss narrowed in the first half of this year to US$165 million, according to the filing. Revenue in the first half climbed 49 per cent from the previous year to hit US$481 million. The company expects to break even this year.

Palantir's founders will control about half of the total voting power. The company currently has two classes of shares and plans to add a third class that carries a variable number of votes. All shares of this new class will be held by a voting trust established by co-founders Alexander Karp, Stephen Cohen and Mr Thiel.

Palantir joins a stampede of companies that have filed to go public this week, including Unity Software, Sumo Logic, JFrog and Snowflake as well as multiple blank-check entities.

Equity issuance has sprung back from an initial pandemic-induced lull with a vengeance. July, with almost US$19 billion in new listings, was the busiest month for US IPOs since September 2014, when 36 companies went public raising US$33 billion, according to Bloomberg's data.

The rush to the public markets comes as the economic downturn caused by Covid-19 has led some companies to rethink their capital needs. Airbnb, which was previously seen as a candidate for a direct listing, said this month that it filed for a traditional initial public offering.

Instead of underwriters, Palantir has tapped investment banks as financial advisers as it won't raise any proceeds in the listing. Morgan Stanley is the sole adviser to the designated market maker, which facilitates the shares' opening trading and helps determine prices. Meanwhile, 11 other banks - including Credit Suisse Group, Goldman Sachs Group Allen & Co and Royal Bank of Canada - will also serve as advisers.

A Facebook Inc board member, Mr Thiel co-founded Palantir in 2003. It quickly won the attention and financial backing of In-Q-Tel, the venture investing arm of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The startup counted the CIA among its first customers, and cultivated an early reputation for secrecy.

Palantir's technology allows users who own data, or have access to it, to aggregate it into a central repository that's easy to search. US government agencies including the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service are customers, as are government agencies in Denmark, the UK and a dozen other countries.

For years, the company's engineers performed extensive data integrations and customisations of its technology at customer sites. This boutique approach kept Palantir private long after many of its peers had gone public, partly because the company didn't want to risk getting valued as a consultancy instead of a software company, sources said.

A few years ago, the company built Foundry, a software that automates once-manual work and laid the groundwork for Palantir to increase its corporate sales and start its first- ever sales team. Some 98 per cent of Palantir clients now use Foundry.

Palantir has been a lightning rod for criticism in recent years, attracting scrutiny from data privacy advocates and sparking protests for how its technology has been used by the Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency and a handful of police agencies. Mr Thiel has also faced protests related to his role as Palantir's chairman and for helping to elect President Donald Trump in 2016. In its filing the company cited negative press coverage as a risk factor. Another risk: the relatively few customers that make up a substantial portion of the company's revenue. Palantir's top three customers together accounted for 28 per cent of its revenue last year, the company said in the filing.

Palantir said it has 125 customers using its software across more than 150 countries, with the average revenue per customer of US$5.6 million. BLOOMBERG