Secretive, never profitable Palantir makes its market debut

BOSTON (AP) — 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 Slack and Uber last year.

Never profitable and dogged by ethical objections for assisting in the Trump administration’s deportation crackdown, Palantir has forged ahead with a direct listing of its stock, which began trading yesterday morning. In its stock offering, the company isn’t selling newly minted shares to raise money; it’s simply listing existing shares for public trading.

The low-key strategy may not generate the enthusiasm many technology offerings do. But it’s in character for a secretive company long reliant on spies, cops and the military as customers — and whose founders are holding onto 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 said 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 United States (US) technology providers, and just moved its headquarters to Denver from Silicon Valley. Palantir colours itself patriotic and belittles other tech firms that won’t unquestionably support US dominance in war-fighting and intelligence.

Palantir CEO Alex Karp arrives for the Tech for Good summit in Paris. on May 15, 2019. PHOTO: AP

“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 US 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 US 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.

In its IPO prospectus, Palantir paints a dark picture of faltering government agencies and institutions in danger of collapse and ripe for rescue by a “central operating system” forged under Thiel’s auspices. As the offering is structured, Thiel will be the dominant voice among the Palantir co-founders who will retain voting control.

“Is that someone who you want deciding how a component of the (national) security apparatus is designed?” asked New York University business professor Scott Galloway. “If you believe that power corrupts and checks and balances are a good idea, this is just from the get-go a really bad idea.”

Earlier in September, BuzzFeed reported that Thiel hosted a known white nationalist, Kevin DeAnna, at a 2016 dinner party, citing emails it obtained and published whose authors refused to talk to the online news outlet. Thiel declined through a spokesman to discuss the report with The Associated Press. Critics said he shares the blame for Facebook’s incomplete removal of toxic disinformation disseminated by the pro-Trump far-right fringe.

Then there are Palantir’s fundamentals, which Galloway considers lousy. The company has just 125 customers in 150 countries, including Airbus, Merck, Credit Suisse and the Danish National Police. Slightly less than half its 2019 revenues were from government agencies, and three clients — which Palantir did not name — accounted for almost a third of revenues.

“They’re massively unprofitable and they’ve never been able to figure it out,” Galloway said, noting that it took Google three years to earn a profit, and Amazon seven. Over a much longer span, Palantir has accumulated USD3.8 billion in losses, raised about USD3 billion and listed USD200 million in outstanding debt as of July 31.

Palantir, named for the mystical all-seeing stones from Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, has recently been deepening its relationship with Uncle Sam, including winning a modest contract early in the COVID-19 pandemic for helping the White House gather data on the virus’ impact.

Senior emerging technology analyst Brendan Burke of Pitchbook is bullish, saying he isn’t worried that Thiel’s association with Trump will hurt the company if Trump loses the election.

“The political connections don’t appear to be the main driver of their recent substantial contract wins,” he said, although he noted that government contracts can be more volatile than corporate ones, where Palantir’s foothold is less firm.