10 start-ups that reached $1 billion in record time


CNBC Disruptor 50

10 start-ups that reached $1 billion in record time

Corey Ford | Getty Images

Everyone loves a unicorn, especially venture capitalists and Wall Street.

Those rare start-ups with valuations of $1 billion or more are the dream of every investor and entrepreneur, but achieving that status is hard to do under any circumstances, much less accelerated ones.

Every now and then, though, a thoroughbred unicorn emerges from the pack — a start-up who reaches that vaulted status at an accelerated pace. So far, four of those have gone public: Facebook, which took 396 days to earn the unicorn label; Leaf Group, which took 512 days; Zynga, which took 672 days and Snap, which took 673.

So which start-ups are leading the charge these days after experiencing meteoric growth? Our partners at PitchBook have dug through their funding information to come up with a list of privately held unicorns that reached that status in the shortest amount of time.

  • Denali Therapeutics

    It took just over a year — 390 days — for this biotech company to hit a $1 billion valuation. Its first VC round, whose investors included Fidelity Biosciences, ARCH Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures and the Alaska Permanent Fund, closed on May 8, 2015, and it was dubbed a unicorn on June 1 the following year. That's faster than any company in history, including Facebook. Denali, made up of former Genentech employees, is dedicated to treating neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's, ALS and Parkinson's. Last fall it applied for Phase 1 clinical testing of its first drug in Europe, which the company believes could slow the progression of memory loss.

    Founders: Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Ryan Watts, Alex Schuth
    Market valuation: $1.1 billion
    Selected active investors: Alaska Permanent Fund, ARCH Venture Partners, Bezos Expeditions, Biomatics Capital, Partners HealthCare Innovation

  • A lab worker at Spark Therapeutics in Philadelphia, PA.
    Brad Quick | CNBC
  • Letgo

    Craigslist disrupted newspaper classifieds like nothing ever had. But it's a site that's linked to desktop computers — and this is the mobile age. Letgo is an app that lets people sell their belongings (or buy other people's) without having to worry about emails or calls. All communication is done through the app's proprietary chat program. It's fast becoming a go-to option for people looking to clear out their closets and garages, since it doesn't take a cut of the sale. It reached unicorn status on Jan. 17 of this year, 502 days after its first funding round.

    Founders: Alec Oxenford, Enrique Linares, Jordi Castello
    Market valuation: $1 billion
    Selected active investors: Accel, Eight Roads Ventures, Insight Venture Partners, Mangrove Capital Partners, New Enterprise Associates

  • LetGo app displayed on smartphone.
    Source: LetGo
  • Pluralsight

    The increased interest in online learning has helped Pluralsight grow at a rapid pace. The company offers more than 5,000 online courses for software developers and IT pros to gain new skills. It's in the process of adjusting its focus from individuals to business subscriptions and has its eyes on an IPO. It has been a unicorn since Aug. 2014, taking 602 days to reach that plateau.

    Founders: Aaron Skonnard, Fritz Onion, Keith Brown, Bill Williams
    Market valuation: N/A (Reached unicorn status Aug. 2014; no new valuations reported since)
    Selected active investors: Assis Antunes, ICONIQ Capital, Insight Venture Partners, Rethink Education, Sorenson Capital

  • PluralSight
    Source: PluralSight
  • Zoox

    Of all the unicorns on the market, Zoox might be the most mysterious. It hit unicorn status on July 1 of last year, 603 days after its first round, but since its launch, it steadily has flown under the radar. (In other words, it's not only a unicorn thoroughbred, it's a stealth unicorn thoroughbred.) What's known is that it's attempting to create completely driverless cars, and there are reports that it might be getting close to testing those soon. A 2015 patent implied the company was working on a four-seat driverless car, but that design, of course, could have since changed.

    Founders: Tim Kentley-Klay, Jesse Levinson
    Market valuation: $1.6 billion
    Selected active investors: Blackbird Ventures, Composite Capital Partners, Lux Capital, Mistletoe Technologies, Raptor Group

  • Source: Zoox
  • Oscar

    Oscar launched in 2013 with a plan to use the Affordable Care Act to sell insurance through exchanges. The goal was to provide quality affordable health care in an uncomplicated way. It became a unicorn on April 20, 2015, in just 641 days. Founded by Joshua Kushner, the younger brother of President Donald Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, it has hit a few roadblocks along the way, withdrawing from two of the seven markets it served and now feeling the strain with the GOP plan to repeal many Obamacare policies. Recent reports that the company lost nearly $205 million last year have many wondering about the long-term health of this unicorn.

    Founders: Joshua Kushner, Mario Schlosser, Kevin Nazemi
    Market valuation: $2.7 billion
    Selected active investors: Fidelity Investments, Founders Fund, Horizons Ventures, Peter Thiel, The Goldman Sachs Group

  • Signage is displayed on a glass door inside the Oscar Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The Oscar Center runs in partnership with Mount Sinai Health Systems providing primary care services and health and wellness programs.
    Kholood Eid | Bloomberg | Getty Images
  • Apttus

    This cloud software company that helps businesses manage the sales process topped the $1 billion valuation in September 2015, just 714 days after closing its first round. It picked up another $88 million last September. Now it's looking at an IPO, say company executives. Apttus, which works closely with Salesforce, automates common sales tasks, like assembling proposals, managing contacts and generating invoices and currently boasts more than 600 corporate customers.

    Founder: Kirk Krappe
    Market valuation: $1.6 billion
    Selected active investors: Gulf Islamic Investments, ICONIQ Capital, Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), Salesforce Ventures

  • Cloud computing servers tech
    Buchachon | Getty Images
  • Planet Labs

    On Feb. 15 of this year, this start-up sent a whopping 88 satellites into orbit around Earth, each about the size of a brick. With those (and the 56 it already had circling the planet), it's now within its goal of being able to photograph the world's surface every day. Those pictures can then be used to show changes over long and short periods, with Planet selling the data to customers. The miniaturized satellites will offer mid-resolution images (so you can't, for instance, read a license plate with them), but Planet earlier this year also bought Google's satellite-imaging business, which will offer crisper images to different clients. The company became a unicorn in July 2015, just 747 days after its first VC round.

    Founders: Robbie Schingler, Will Marshall, Chris Boshuizen
    Market valuation: $1.1 billion
    Selected active investors: AME Cloud Ventures, Founders Fund, Frontier Tech Ventures, Lux Capital, Space Angels Network

  • Planet Labs doves.
    Source: NASA
  • Human Longevity

    Based in La Jolla, California, this start-up has the lofty goal of helping us all live longer, by assembling a comprehensive database on human genotypes to help tackle diseases tied to aging. It took just over two years to hit a $1 billion valuation, reaching that mark in April 2016 after 762 days. Founder J. Craig Venter was the first person to sequence the human genome with private funding. Earlier this year, though, Venter surprised investors when he stepped down as CEO one month after he underwent surgery for prostate cancer (discovered by his own genomic testing service). A spokesperson said his health was not a factor in the decision and he will remain with the company as a scientific strategy advisor and executive chairman of the board.

    Founders: Peter Diamandis, J. Craig Venter, Robert Hariri
    Market valuation: $1.9 billion
    Selected active investors: Amino Capital, GE Ventures, NKM Capital, Peter Diamandis, Steven Kaplan

  • J. Craig Venter, Co-Founder, CEO, and Chairman, Human Logevity, Inc.
    Adam Jeffery | CNBC
  • Illumio

    It took this enterprise security company 795 days from its first seed round to achieve unicorn status. Founded in 2013, it approaches the protection of information in a different way, essentially encircling data in a protective bubble that will stay with the information regardless of where it's moved or run. That could stop hackers even after they've stolen information. The system is also automatic, meaning if it senses that the network surrounding it has changed, it will adapt as necessary, ostensibly stopping hackers before they can even approach the data.

    Founders: Andrew Rubin, PJ Kirner
    Market valuation: $1 billion
    Selected active investors: Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, BlackRock Holdings, General Catalyst Partners, Jerry Yang

  • Andrew Rubin CEO and founder, Illumio.
    Source: Illumio
  • Instacart

    Getting pizza and Chinese food delivered to your door is standard these days. Instacart wants to do the same thing with groceries. The San Francisco start-up closed its first VC round in 2012. Just 795 days later it saw its valuation top $1 billion. (Today it's valued at anywhere from $2 billion to $3.4 billion.) The idea's simple: The service strikes deals with large grocers, including Whole Foods, Target and Costco. Customers order their weekly staples through the company's app, and an Instacart driver will bring them their food within an hour (or whenever users schedule the delivery). By the end of the year, it hopes to service 70 markets throughout the country. Among the cities currently being served are Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and Boston.

    Founders: Apoorva Mehta, Brandon Leonardo, Max Mullen
    Market valuation: $3.4 billion
    Selected active investors: American Express Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Comcast Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sequoia Capital

  • A shopper for Instacart studies her smart phone as she shops for a customer at Whole Foods in Denver.
    Cyrus McCrimmon | Denver Post | Getty Images