Seventeen years after it was born with the help of CIA seed money, the data-mining outfit Palantir Technologies is finally going public in the biggest Wall Street tech offering since last year’s debut of Slack and Uber.
Never profitable and dogged by ethical objections for assisting in the Trump administration’s deportation crackdown, Palantir forged ahead Wednesday with a direct listing of its stock, gaining 31% in its first trading day.
Rather than selling newly minted shares to raise money; Palantir listed existed shares for public trading. After a delay, trading began after noon and the stock closed at $9.50 after reaching a peak of $11.42.
The low-key stock strategy was in character for a secretive company long reliant on spies, cops and the military as customers — and whose founders are keeping voting control of the company.
The big question for both investors and company management: Can Palantir successfully transition from a business built on the costly handholding of government customers to serving corporate customers at scale? The company is a hybrid provider of software and consulting services that often embeds its own engineers with clients.
Analysts say its future depends on selling multinationals on its tools for gathering disparate data from an ever-expanding data universe and using artificial-intelligence technology to find previously undetectable patterns. Those can theoretically guide strategic decisions and identify new markets much as they have aided in tracking terrorists and sorting military intelligence.
The company sets itself apart from most U.S. technology providers, and just moved its headquarters to Denver from Silicon Valley. Palantir colors itself patriotic and belittles other tech firms that won’t unquestionably support U.S. dominance in war-fighting and intelligence.
“Our software is used to target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe,” CEO Alex Karp wrote in a letter accompanying Palantir’s offering prospectus. While Karp acknowledged the ethical challenge of building software that “enables more effective surveillance by the state,” Palantir’s prospectus touts its work helping U.S. soldiers counter roadside bombings and fight the Islamic State group.
But investors also have to reckon with the Peter Thiel factor.
The iconoclastic entrepreneur and PayPal co-founder endorsed President Donald Trump in 2016, worked on his transition team and holds the largest chunk of Palantir stock. Thiel already exerts tremendous power from the board of Facebook, which dominates global media and seeks to create a digital currency.