Nasdaq CEO: We’ve got our eye on unicorns with private market exchange

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Nasdaq has always targeted the tech sector for new listings, but it's also aiming for trade in companies that don't want to go public, the trading platform's CEO Robert Greifeld told CNBC.

"Certain companies need to gestate longer or want to stay private longer so we launched what's known as Nasdaq Private Markets (NPM). It allows companies to provide liquidity to their employees, to allow early stage investors to enter or exit without having to go public," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box." The client portfolio includes names such as Pinterest, Motley Fool and Tango.

"We want to be positioned wherever a company is in their lifecycle," Greifeld said.

NPM was launched in 2013 after legislation in the U.S. raised the number of shareholders allowed in a private company to 2,000 from 500, excluding employees. Last year, NPM acquired rival SecondMarket Solutions. Nasdaq is focusing on merging the two companies.

The Nasdaq in Times Square, New York.
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"We have to put those two things together. The technology has to get merged, management teams have to get merged," Greifeld said. "We're proceeding apace. "

In 2015, Nasdaq's private company platform had secondary transaction volume of $1.6 billion, with a median transaction size of $24 million, it said in a press release published in February. The average company profile on the platform was a nine-year-old firm with 440 employees and an average valuation of $1.8 billion, Nasdaq said.

At the end of 2015, 67 percent of the parties eligible to sell on the exchange were current employees of the companies traded on NPM, 22 percent were former employees and 11 percent were investors, it said.

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Nasdaq is keeping a "balanced approach" to its capital deployment, Greifeld said.

"We've increased our dividend -- we've doubled it in the last two years. We've bought back shares on a consistent basis. We're also funding internal competitive efforts, organic growth. And then we do acquisitions," he said, noting Nasdaq has made five acquisitions, including SecondMarkets.

"It's important to recognize these acquisitions are all in our chosen path of business, it's all in our strategic direction so we feel very good about it," he said.

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1