Health and Science

Health-care software firm Castlight soars after IPO

Castlight Health shares more than doubled in health-tech firm's debut on the New York Stock Exchange, making it one the best first-day IPO performances of 2014, in a year when health-care listings have been a stand out.

The San Francisco-based company, which specializes in pricing transparency software, raised $178 million after its initial public offering. The shares, which trade under the symbol CSLT, priced at $16 a share—above the already expected price range of $13 to $15, which had been boosted earlier in the week. With shares opening north of $40 in the first hours of trade, the IPO puts the company's market valuation at more than $3 billion, despite the fact that it has yet to post a profit.

Peter Dazeley | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

"We are focused on solving the biggest problem for the American enterprise, which is health-care cost," said Giovanni Colella, Castlight Co-founder and CEO, deflecting questions about the valuation on CNBC's Squawk on Street. "If we do that well, we create a ton of value for everybody."

(Read more: Castlight, a CNBC Disruptor in health care)

The San Francisco-based software developer helps self-insured companies manage health-care costs through tools that let employees shop for the best prices for medical care. Clients include electric car maker Tesla and large Fortune 500 firms like Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Honeywell.

Michael Cherny, a health IT analyst with ISI Group, calculates there's a $5 billion market opportunity for Castlight's pricing transparency tools and cost management programs. Yet, last year the firm booked only $13 million in revenue, posting a net loss of $62 million, despite doubling its client base.

"In general across the market, we're seeing a broader focus on consumerism in health care," Cherny said. "Castlight is providing it to members."

(Read more: Employer health plan in 2025? Don't count on it)

Still, a valuation of $3 billion for a firm with just $13 million in sales begs the question whether the health-care IPO market is getting overheated.

Castlight Health 'laser focused' on health care costs
Castlight Health 'laser focused' on health care costs

"It could be the best or worst of both worlds," said Rich Peterson, director of global markets intelligence at S&P Capital IQ."In terms of valuation, it could be one thing; in terms of potential, it could be another."

Hot Health-Care IPOs

Well over half of the new companies that have gone public in 2014 have been biotech firms—nearly two dozen, according to analysts at IPO research firm Renaissance Capital.

"This period has been the most active, profitable and highest-volume period we've ever seen for biotech in the last 20 years," said Kathleen Smith, chairwoman and co-founder of Renaissance Capital. "This is quite a wide-open window for biotech."

(Read more: Insurers scope out Obamacare enrollees)

Last year was also a strong period for biotech IPO activity, fueled by positive factors that continue to the drive health-care stocks, including a favorable regulatory environment for firms developing drugs for rare diseases and strong merger activity in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors. As a result, the sector has outperformed the overall market.

"You have the S&P 500 health-care index up about 7.8 percent," said Peterson. "In terms of institutions, there's probably a demand for biotech and health-care offerings."

Strong returns have also helped drive interest. On average, the biotech IPOs have gained over 50 percent from their offering prices.

But Smith cautions that like Castlight, many of the firms going public have no earnings, and many retain large insider ownership after their debuts.

"Most of them are getting done because the venture capitalists and investors are buying their shares at the time of the IPO," she said. "Investors are looking at it as a sign of commitment, but that means that the float is low."

But that's not necessarily a red flag.

Winners and losers

GlycoMimetics was the year's first IPO. Just over half its shares outstanding are held by insiders. Yet shares of the biotech firm with a treatment for sickle cell disease in midstage development have been among the year's best gainers and have more than doubled from the $8 IPO price, on anticipation of upcoming trial results.

Insiders hold just 20 percent of Ultragenyx shares, the year's biggest gainer so far. The rare-disease drug developer saw shares double in its debut, after boosting its IPO, and have since tripled from its $21 offering price.

There also are a number of losers in the group. About a quarter of the new biotech IPOs are now trading below their offering price, including cancer diagnostic firm Biocept, kidney disease treatment developer NephroGenix and gene-therapy company uniQure.

In the pipeline

Castlight Health is just the first deal expected to garner a $1 billion valuation in its debut this year, with two private equity firms with longer track records expected to attract investor interest.

Medical device maker Biomet filed with the SEC last week to raise $100 million but is expected to garner at least $1 billion valuation, according to Renaissance Capital. Biomet was taken private just before the financial crisis for $11.4 billion by private equity investors including Blackstone and KKR.

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IMS Health, taken private for $5.2 billion, also filed for a $100 million IPO as a placeholder earlier this year. The health-care data-consulting firm was acquired in 2010 by TPG Capital, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and Leonard Green.

With the money raised from today's IPO, Castlight CEO Colella said the firm hopes to break even in the near future.

—By CNBC's Bertha Coombs. Follow her on Twitter @berthacoombs.