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Investors have become a lot more skeptical about billion-dollar start-ups, data shows

  • According to new data from PitchBook, investors are making fewer investments into unicorn companies these days.
  • So far only 17 companies have newly achieved unicorn status, i.e. a valuation of $1 billion or more, in 2017 in the U.S.
Unicorn
Mike Blake | Reuters

Investors are slowing their roll around so-called unicorns, or privately held companies with a valuation of $1 billion or more on paper.

According to a new report from PitchBook, only 17 U.S. companies have clicked over to unicorn status so far this year. In both 2014 and 2015 -- the peak unicorn years -- more than 40 companies newly hit or surpassed the $1 billion valuation mark.

Deals that inject cash into both existing and new unicorns have also slowed, the report says. In both 2014 and 2015, investors struck more than 110 deals with unicorns. So far this year, investors have done just 43 deals with unicorns, meaning 2017 looks likely to miss the 100-unicorn mark.

This slowdown won't surprise venture investors who have been questioning whether $1 billion and higher valuations remain desirable or even reasonable.

Venture investors in traditional funds are managing wealth for others, and not investing from their own coffers primarily. They tend to resist paying high prices in the first place. Yet, they also don't want to miss out on the next Google or Amazon.

The higher a company's valuation, the harder it becomes to sell it. Few large companies can afford to acquire companies for more than a $1 billion whether they're consumer apps like Instagram or enterprise tech like AppDynamics.

As the PitchBook report notes, "When non-traditional investors entered into venture capital several years ago, it was thought that many of the companies receiving billion-dollar-plus valuations were likely to exit in the near future. Those exits haven't happened."

Many U.S. unicorns like Uber, WeWork and Airbnb, have opted to stay private in part by raising capital from a wide swath of corporate investors, sovereign or family funds and other non-traditional investors for growth (alongside venture funds).

It's also harder for billion-dollar start-ups to go public with an impressive stock pop and continued valuation growth. Both Snap and Blue Apron went public at valuations lower than their final, post-money valuations and then have not performed as hoped.