Whether they are the market equivalent of a blazing-fast racehorse or a steady long-distance champion, these unicorns are making waves in the global economy. Some have wowed investors right out of the gate, while others have needed more time to strut their stuff. From ultra-connected educational companies to sleek, contemporary coffee chains, these companies have found success and topped $1 billion in value.
As many states around the U.S. inch closer to cannabis legalization, one Culver City-based startup is casting its net for high-end customers. Adam Bierman and Andrew Modlin founded their company in 2010 when it looked like California was about to legalize cannabis. Although legalization in the state didn’t happen until 2016, the company was able to build up a chain of exclusive marijuana retailers supported by strictly-controlled agronomic growth plants. Despite the federally hazy status of cannabis production and distribution, MedMen has attracted firms like New York’s Cap-Meridian Ventures. In 2018, MedMen received a fresh influx of $30 million from Captor Capital and received a $1 billion valuation, making it the world’s first cannabis unicorn. The startup now operates in three states and has more than 12 stores.
Dun Xiao earned degrees at MIT and Cambridge University; however, instead of resting on his laurels, Xiao elected to return to China to found an educational startup with colleague Liu Chang. Together, the two entrepreneurs crafted one of the country’s most successful educational platforms. Catering to both schoolchildren and teachers, 17zuoye helps students improve their grades and provides instructors with the resources for crafting new lesson plans. By 2015, the company had accrued over 7 million users and attracted more than $130 million in investments from firms like DST Global and Shunwei Capital. In March 2018, 17zuoye celebrated a $1 billion valuation and announced that it had surpassed 60 million users.
Tiantian Li was a medical student at China’s Harbin Medical University when he decided to found an online portal for doctors in 2000. Designed to help physicians share advice, ideas, and research, DXY has grown into a hub for Chinese doctors and now features online classes, job postings and telemedicine opportunities. By 2012, the company’s user base had grown to 3 million doctors. The same year, it attracted its first big investment when Shunwei Capital led a $10 million Series B funding round. In April 2018, DXY was valued at $1 billion and completed a Series D funding round worth $100 million.
Stanford graduate Kevyan Mohajer was working on an education startup when he decided to veer into the field of natural language processing with James Hom and Majid Emami. The three men launched Soundhound in 2005. Using advances in voice recognition technology, the team developed the Soundhound app to help users identify unknown and fragmented songs by humming or singing a portion of the melody. In addition to their flagship app, Soundhound also provides AI language services to various companies like Hyundai and Rand McNally. In May 2018, the company achieved unicorn status and snagged $100 million from China’s Tencent Holdings.
5. Uniquedu Corporation
This Beijing-based startup has been lurking in the Chinese sector since 2010. In 2013, the company launched Kaikeba, a website that allows Chinese students to take online IT and business tutorials. The same year, Uniquedu partnered with IBM and received its first big funding round: a $16.5 million Series A round led by Fosun Group. In May 2018, the company was valued at $1 billion, making it the latest member of China’s exclusive unicorn club.
When many Chinese e-commerce companies were focusing on the Asian market, Dahai Li turned his eye to the largely untapped markets of the Middle East. Li started Jolly in 2012 to develop an online shopping destination for smartphone-wielding Middle Eastern shoppers. He launched Jolly Chic in 2014, catering to hip, young consumers living in Gulf countries. Originally, Jolly Chic sold only apparel and accessories but later branched out into electronics, home décor, and skincare products. Within two years, Jolly Chic had launched operations in countries like Poland and Jordan. In 2018, Jolly achieved unicorn status shortly after they reached 35 million users.
While Uber and Lyft warred over the ridesharing sector and Ofo and Mobike battled to grab the biggest slice of China’s bike-sharing pie, one ridesharing startup quietly debuted a simple transportation solution that none of them had considered: electric scooters. Former Lyft and Uber executive Travis VanderZanden got the jump on his old employers in 2017 when he launched the scooter startup. By May 2018, Bird’s distinctive black and red scooters were gracing sidewalks from California to North Carolina. Investors have flocked to the startup, injecting $415 million into Bird in the first half of 2018. In May 2018, the company was valued at $1 billion, achieving unicorn status before its first birthday.
Frustrated with long waits for taxis, a trio of Estonian entrepreneurs decided to start their own web-based taxi-hailing startup in 2013. From innocuous beginnings in Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn, the company has spread throughout Europe, Africa, and Australia to connect busy passengers with nearby taxi drivers. Taxify’s meteoric rise has turned heads in the startup community. China’s ridesharing behemoth Didi Chuxing even became an investor in 2017 when they led a massive funding round for Taxify. The European firm finally became a unicorn in May 2018 shortly before receiving $175 million from Germany’s Daimler corporation.
9. New Dada
Launched in 2013 by MIT graduate Phillip Kuai, New Dada provides an app-based delivery service for users who need products in a hurry. The Shanghai-based firm’s approach to food and medicine delivery was a big hit with Chinese consumers. By 2016, New Dada had over 25 million users in more than 250 cities across China. The also company inked a lucrative deal with Walmart to deliver groceries to homes and offices. New Dada has received over $450 million in investments from firms like Sequoia Capital and DST Global.
10. Luckin Coffee
In 2017, UCAR executive Jenny Qian Zhiya decided to leave the carsharing market and set her sights on the beverage industry. She unveiled Luckin Coffee in November, and it proved to be a fierce competitor to Starbucks in the Chinese sector. Unlike other coffee chains, Luckin Coffee shops are designed for digital consumers. All purchases are made through a mobile app and pick up and delivery orders are the coffee chain’s main focus. Within the first half of 2018, the company opened 500 locations across China. Their lightning-fast growth has attracted $200 million in investment and has helped push Luckin into unicorn status in less than a year.
These companies are among the lucky few in the startup sector that has managed to clear a $1 billion valuation. As they continue to grow, these startups are revolutionizing their respective fields. By combining targeted marketing, innovative technology, and business acumen, these firms have achieved the ultimate goal of going unicorn.
The Top 10 Unicorns to Watch