UK Unicorn Companies

10 Minutes

A unicorn is a rare and beautiful thing – just like the world’s biggest business success stories. Discover more here.

A unicorn is a rare and beautiful thing – just like the world’s biggest business success stories.

First coined in 2013 by Aileen Lee1, a unicorn is the name given to a privately held business valued at more than a billion US dollars. In the past, a company would have built decades of customer goodwill and operational prowess before hitting the $1bn mark. But technology-assisted scalability and a seemingly bottomless well of private venture capital have accelerated the number of unicorns.

There are more than 3002 unicorn companies worldwide – 2018 saw 323 new unicorns born in the United States’ Silicon Valley region alone. No two companies are the same when it comes to strategy, operations or even the size of its workforce.

As of February 2019, there are 14 unicorn companies in the UK. This billion-dollar baker’s dozen covers everything from FinTech to food delivery, bio-pharma research to beer. With investment from private firms all over the world, each of our unicorns has demonstrated innovation and agility in creating a service or product and demonstrating its high value.

Investment is a big gamble for these companies, especially when hundreds of millions of pounds change hands. Some unicorns have grown steadily over decades, while others have quickly turned a tiny idea into a game-changing tech concept with big backing to boot. But who are these unicorn companies and what makes them special?



The 14 UK Unicorns

(Year in brackets indicates year founded)

Radius Payment Solutions (1990)

The longest-established company on the list by a full 15 years. Radius made its mark on the tech scene in 2016 with a new variable cost fuel card service and rapid expansion across the world.

The Hut Group (2004)

The Hut Group paired a pioneering proprietary platform with a series of savvy acquisitions to build an e-commerce powerhouse. Worth £2.5bn, they’re the UK’s highest-valued private company – and overall winners at the 2017 Northern Tech Awards.


Oxford Nanopore Technologies (2005)

A spin off from Oxford University in 2005, Oxford Nanopore raised huge sums of capital to develop technology that can analyse single molecules of matter.


BrewDog (2006)

Following years of successful crowdfunding rounds with a private investment of over £200m in 2017, BrewDog is expanding their reach Down Under, opening a $30m brewing facility and taproom in Brisbane.


OVO Energy (2009)

OVO shook up the Big Six energy companies when it emerged in 2009, offering a personable and more affordable alternative in a highly competitive market.


TransferWise (2010)

TransferWise transformed the process of sending money abroad by introducing the borderless payment. Within months of FCA approval, the London-based firm had traded millions of pounds from accounts across the world.


Deliveroo (2012)

The food service industry was disrupted with Deliveroo’s slick delivery system and partnerships with leading chains. In just six years, it’s become the darling of the ‘sharing economy’.


Improbable (2012)

Improbable’s pursuit of the ‘Multiversal Self’ landed it $502m in Series B funding in 2017. Their cloud-based platform, SpatialOS, is designed to solve the logistical and technical issues developers face when creating huge online multiplayer games.


ACORN OakNorth Holdings (2013)

OakNorth is one of the UK’s ‘challenger’ banks. Its ACORN AI platform is designed to beat the big banks to the punch in analysing and underwriting loans to SMEs.


BenevolentAI (2013)

Valued at £1.4bn, the BenevolentAI platform has been taught to read and study decades of journals and clinical trials, to help experts come up with new medical solutions.4


Darktrace (2013)

Using a constant influx of data to determine what ‘normal’ is for all the IT systems it protects, Darktrace can alert clients when it detects unusual or suspicious activity, like a hack.


Revolut (2014)

Another of the ‘challengers’ forcing the big banks into action, Revolut offers all the services of a normal bank without paying the overheads of a brick-and-mortar. Just four years into its existence5, the bank broke even.


Monzo (2015)

It once took just 96 seconds6 for Monzo to raise £1m in a crowdfunding campaign – their brand of on-demand banking services clearly struck a nerve with a new breed of customer.


Graphcore (2016)

Bristol-based Graphcore is in the business of making AI faster through some serious innovations in microchip production. With backers including BMW and Microsoft, and customers like Dell and Samsung, there’s real belief they can get the job done.7

All these companies have already seriously shaken up their industries, with major technology developments occurring during the last decade. But it’s only within the past four years that we’ve seen this sudden influx of investment that gave each of these unicorns their horns.


A Decade in Unicorns



In 2009, only five of the 14 UK unicorns existed. Radius started in 1990 in Crewe, while BrewDog was entering its third year of trading.

By 2014, there were 12 of the 14 UK unicorns in action. Revolut formed the same year and three others were incorporated the year before.

The picture in 2019 is remarkably different, with the 12 companies from 2014 joined by Monzo and Graphcore. The latter is one of the most interesting cases – taking the least time from inception to $1bn value.

This is in spite of the signalled slowdown in new unicorns – the FT reports8 that in 2015 a new unicorn was born every 1.7 months, but only every 2.5 months in 2016.

Nonetheless, the UK was part of a huge boom in private investment from firms around the world, which has seen a baker’s dozen companies shatter the $1bn valuation since 2015.


Doing Things Differently

BrewDog’s fiercely independent business style may seem at odds with the university set. The company’s first modest brewing setup was founded in Fraserburgh, before expanding operations in a new state-of-the-art brewery in Ellon, a 40-minute drive apart in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Their brand of rebel marketing is more than a PR stunt – for those who invested through crowdfunding, it’s part of the passion they share.

TransferWise also found its success by doing things differently. Like other unicorn tech businesses, they teamed unique customer insights with the agility to develop around the kind of red tape that typically prevents big banks from getting there first. TransferWise pools user funds in each individual country it trades, and pays out to the recipient in one country the equivalent of what it receives from the sender in another. This simple redefinition of a typical transaction saves users a lot of money in fees.


Where Do We Find These Unicorns?

While London seems the hottest commodity in terms of investment, it isn’t the be-all and end-all of big business. The rest of the UK – and further afield - throws up some interesting alternatives.


University Towns

At the heart of the UK’s burgeoning business strength is its world-famous education institutes - Oxford and Cambridge.

Oxford Nanopore was spun off from Oxford University in the mid-2000s, while Darktrace is based close to Cambridge – its founders were mathematicians from the University. Oxford has prior form when it comes to unicorns – LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman read Philosophy at Wolfson College9.

A predecessor of Bristol’s Graphcore also spun off from the local university – XMOS was founded in 2005 using finances from the University of Bristol’s enterprise fund. With a steady stream of talent making its way through universities to the workforce, you’ll often find startup companies appearing close to the country’s biggest hitters.




North West of England - Ripe for Expansion

Several UK unicorns have opened additional offices and facilities both here and around the world, to cope with increasing demand and workload. Oxford Nanopore crossed the Oxbridge divide to open an office in Cambridge, while Monzo set up a new customer operations centre in Cardiff10, creating around 300 new jobs over the next four years.

North West England has welcomed three of these expansions – more than anywhere else in the UK. Along with Radius Payment Solutions opening a Cheshire facility in 2018, OakNorth expanded its presence in Manchester, adding11 a dedicated lending team to assist SMEs based in the North.

Cyber security firm Darktrace also added premises in Manchester to its 30-strong global presence, joining Cambridge and London on the UK map. But what makes the North West of England such a strong proposition for expansion?

For one, it’s the prospect of funding. The North West Fund12 is a private scheme designed to bolster business in the region. To date it’s supported more than 440 businesses with over £150m of investment, creating and keeping more than 5,500 jobs in the North West. The fund brings together a group of venture capital firms to invest in a variety of sectors. Results are already promising, with an estimated one-tenth of the national gross value added (GVA) output coming from the North West Fund alone.

Between Manchester and Liverpool, the North West is one of the most industrious regions in the world. Home of the Industrial Revolution and a significant contributor to science, culture and the arts ever since, these two cities count a swelling student base and significant levels of development among their living advantages.

Manchester tech firms attracted more than £200m in funding in 201813, while Liverpool ONE has grown to become the largest open air retail experience14 in the whole of the UK. Between them, they’ve put the North West firmly on the map.


Going Global

Like TransferWise, many UK operations grow their reach around the world by opening new offices overseas. Seven of the 14 UK unicorns are based in the capital – though most on our list also have offices in far-flung locations, like Shanghai and San Francisco. There are others on the map, however, which indicate a breakthrough can happen anywhere.

Graphcore’s pioneering work in AI hardware caught the eye of several major technology companies like Microsoft. In a bid to get close to the heart of the tech action, the company opened an office in Palo Alto, California – home of Stanford University and part of Silicon Valley.

BrewDog is getting in on global expansion too – aside from the Australian investment, plans are afoot to open breweries in the USA and China15.


Learning from Unicorns

Just like their mythical namesake, unicorn companies are hard to define. From out of nowhere, they deliver an idea or product the market finds irresistible. Some are potential lifesavers, while others just make life easier.

So, what can we learn from unicorn companies? That real leaders can take hard work, determination and a brilliant concept and turn an idea into huge success – whether or not it comes with large financial backing.

The Northern Tech Awards is a huge opportunity for companies looking to make their mark on the UK stage – and for some of the winners it could be another plaudit on the path towards reaching unicorn status. 

Pareto are established market leaders in nurturing talent, and strong leadership, to unlock market growth for a variety of businesses and sectors. 


Having built our own business on the power of talent and determination over the past 25 years, and as a judge at the Northern Tech awards , I am continually inspired by the calibre of businesses, leaders and entrepreneurs the region has to offer.

- Jonathan Fitchew: CEO, Pareto


Yes, I want to unlock business growth 

Contact us on 0808 271 2687


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