Table of contents

UK Unicorn Companies

John McCrea, 
Last updated: 14 March 2024


The top 10 UK unicorn companies

Meet the UK’s top unicorn companies. Here, we’ve ranked the top 10 according to total equity raised prior to achieving unicorn status.

You can download the complete list of UK unicorns below.

Discover UK unicorns

Follow the herd. Get the latest data on every unicorn company in the UK.

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What is a unicorn?

First things first, what is a unicorn company?

Unicorn startups are private companies with a valuation of at least $1b (currently about £780m). Aileen Lee, Founder of Cowboy Ventures, first coined the term back in 2013, in her article ‘Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion-Dollar Startups.’ 

Such businesses were classified as unicorns due to the scarcity of privately-held startups achieving this billion-dollar valuation — but unicorn companies are no longer so rare. Revisiting the topic in 2023, Lee noted that there are now 532 unicorns in the United States, up from just 39 in 2013.

Closer to home, the UK alone is home to 43 active unicorns, with eight having exited in recent years just under 4% of the global herd.

What about 'papercorns' and 'zirpcorns'?

With over 1,200 companies worldwide thought to be unicorns, startup vocabulary is expanding accordingly.

For example, companies worth over $10b are known as ‘decacorns’, while those worth over $100b (such as SpaceX in the United States and China’s Bytedance) are named ‘hectocorns’ or, affectionately, ‘super unicorns’.

More recently, terms like papercorn and zirpcorn have entered modern parlance within equity circles. Papercorns are private companies given valuations without being tested on the public market, whilst zirpcorns refer to the halcyon days of 2021 with close to zero interest and a bullish investment market, unicorns were popping up with far greater regularity.

How many unicorn companies are there in the UK?

There are currently 43 active unicorns headquartered in the UK, whilst a further eight have exited the private market since achieving unicorn status.

UK startups are reaching unicorn status at a faster rate than ever before, largely driven by the maturing venture capital industry. Early access to large amounts of funding, plus mentoring and business networks, allow a startup company to accelerate their growth, demonstrate its potential, and reach colossal valuations at a very young age. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and the initial decline in investment activity that came with it, a total of seven companies joined the UK unicorn club in 2020, and 25 companies in 2021 alone—the largest concentration of companies joining the herd to date.

Since then, the minting of unicorns has slowed, which is to be expected, given the wider equity market as addressed in the latest version of our flagship report, The Deal. 2022 saw eleven unicorns crowned, whilst 2023 welcomed five more. Will we see 2021 topped? That remains to be seen.

Active Unicorns
Exited Unicorns

Why are unicorn companies so interesting to look at?

A unicorn company has the potential to scale quickly, find (or create) an established market, and exit via either an acquisition, merger, or a lucrative IPO. 

Fund managers run a diverse portfolio with multiple businesses that may fail to make any return on investment. With this in mind, just one multi-billion dollar exit could mean the portfolio still makes a significant return. This was the rationale behind Softbank’s first Vision Fund, which famously lost $16b on WeWork, betting that the office space company would IPO for as much as $47b. 

This is primarily why so many early-stage angel investors are on the hunt for future unicorn companies to put their money behind. And what better way to spot the tell-tale signs of a unicorn startup than by examining the herd as it currently stands?


Mapping the herd:
The UK’s active unicorns in 2024

The herd is beginning to thin, with unicorns becoming rarer in comparison to the year of the unicorn in 2021 when, at one point, 40% of active global unicorns were minted in the first eight months of the year. This is a symptom of the wider investment market, with equity deals down 25% between 2022 and 2023 across UK investment, according to recent research.

Here, we’ve mapped out the UK’s active unicorn companies, including those that have exited. This illustrates which regions produce the most unicorns, the sectors they operate in, how long it takes to reach that fabled billion-dollar valuation, and the types of founders who are leading them there.

Where in the UK are unicorns based?

London dominates the UK’s high-growth ecosystem as a whole, but this is especially true of unicorn companies. 76% of UK unicorns call the capital their home, benefitting from their proximity to nearly 70% of the country’s private equity and venture capital investors, and access to a world-class talent pool. Hailed as the ‘fintech capital of Europe’, London also claims every single one of the UK’s fintech unicorns.

The remaining 12 unicorns are spread across the country. Renewable energy supplier OVO is based in Bristol, for instance, alongside chips and processors firm Graphcore. The City of Bristol, part of the Silicon Gorge tech cluster, is a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in the South West and, with its strong roster of university spinouts and accelerator programmes, could soon be home to more unicorn companies.

Meanwhile, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, Graphcore, Synthesia and Darktrace — the only four UK unicorn companies to have spun out from academic institutions —all set up shop in their hometowns (Oxford, Bristol, Cambridge, and London respectively). And as a result, this has generated massive economic impact to local and national economies. Setting up locally benefits the businesses too – enabling each unicorn to make full use of their parent universities’ resources and state-of-the-art research centres, plus the large supply of graduate talent in each city. 

Further North, fitness brand and online retailer Gymshark hails from Solihull in the West Midlands, whilst acquisition aficionado The Hut Group (THG) controls its empire of e-commerce brands from Manchester, which is also home to Matillion. In 2023, Manchester scored a hat-trick of unicorns as sports outfitter Castore joined the herd. 

Skyscanner remains headquartered in Edinburgh, despite being acquired by Chinese online travel company Ctrip back in 2016. It was the first private company to reach a billion-dollar valuation in Scotland, but has since been joined by Aberdeen-based BrewDog.

Whilst these companies are prime examples of how ambitious startups can flourish outside of the capital, we suspect future unicorns will continue to be concentrated between London and the research clusters of Oxford and Cambridge. These trio of cities — dubbed ‘The Golden Triangle’ — claim the vast majority of equity investment in the UK, and also remain the most attractive locations for foreign investors to deploy large-scale capital.

Map of UK unicorns

What sectors do UK unicorns operate in?

In the UK, unicorn companies are spread across a fairly broad range of sectors, from cleantech and eHealth, to gaming and proptech. And these billion-dollar businesses are applying all sorts of disruptive technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI)

Fintech is by far the most common industry for UK tech unicorns, however, with 18 currently operating in the space. These include six of the country’s leading challenger banks, including OakNorth Bank, Revolut, Starling Bank, and Monzo.

Fintech’s dominance in the unicorn club comes as no surprise, given that it consistently ranks as the UK’s top-performing high-growth industry, attracting more equity investment than any other startup sector. Yet the first UK fintech company to become a unicorn, Funding Circle, didn’t reach its billion-dollar valuation until January 2017, with the remainder of the fintech herd amassing over the past few years.

More widely, artificial intelligence companies became the biggest recipient of equity investment in 2023, even knocking fintech off the top of the tree. Though given the success of OpenAI’s ChatGPT following its November 2022 launch, this is unsurprising. Nine of the companies listed in the 2024 unicorn report feature artificial intelligence in their products.

Besides fintech and AI, other popular sectors for UK unicorns include healthtech (four companies), insurtech (also four companies), and SaaS (three companies).

Fintech Unicorns

How old are UK unicorns?

The average age of UK companies at unicorn status is now eight and a half years old, up from seven years old when we last revised this report in 2022. 

However, there is considerable variation amongst the unicorns, which does skew this average. Hotelier Rocco Forte took 28 years before it hit unicorn status in early 2024, whilst Causeway, Octopus Group, and Howden Group all took over 20 years to reach the billion-dollar valuation.

At the other end of the scale, some UK businesses reached their unicorn status at lightning speed. Cazoo, Teya (trading as SaltPay), and Bristol-based Graphcore all hit unicorn status within two years. Meanwhile, challenger bank Monzo and consumer loan-lender Zilch both took only three years to be minted as unicorns.

And whilst unicorns undeniably became rarer in the inflation-rich world of 2023 (with just four companies joining the herd), UK unicorns are still hitting billion-dollar valuations in greater numbers than before. For context, only two UK businesses became unicorns in 2014 compared to the peak of 25 in 2021.

Years to unicorn status

Who are the UK’s unicorn founders?

With unicorn companies regarded as the high-growth economy’s leading lights, one can assume their founders have fairly enviable CVs. And in many cases, this is true — in fact, many of the UK’s unicorn founders are serial entrepreneurs.

Even for those that lacked previous startup experience, many of the UK’s unicorn founders held senior positions at big name corporates, and already had years of experience, connections, and business know-how under their belt. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the average age of founders at the time of reaching unicorn status is 45.

Alex Chesterman for instance, Founder of Zoopla, was already a well-established entrepreneur by the time he started the unicorn property site. In 2001, during the dotcom boom, he started the (now rather retro) DVD rental company Lovefilm. The venture was acquired by Amazon in 2011, after pivoting to an online streaming service, whilst Zoopla listed on the London Stock Exchange back in 2014. 

Chesterman remains the Founder and CEO at his second unicorn company, Cazoo — an online marketplace that allows customers to buy and rent used cars, which exited in 2021.

Meanwhile, Taavet Hinrikus, Chairman and Co-Founder of Wise (the exited fintech unicorn formerly known as TransferWise), is an active angel investor who has backed several European tech startups, and is on the board of unicorn insurtech company Zego.

There are of course exceptions. And there are wide variations in the age of UK unicorn founders. 

CMR Surgical’s Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer, Mark Slack, was 56 at the time the company started, and 62 at unicorn status. Similarly, Anne Boden was 61 when Starling Bank became a unicorn. Boden, Starling’s Founder and CEO, is a well-known success story, having launched the company off the back of a 30-year career in finance.  In 2018, she was awarded an MBE for services to financial technology and more recently headed up the UK’s Women-led high-growth enterprise taskforce.

Boden is also one of just six female entrepreneurs to have founded a UK unicorn — the others being Addy Loudiadis (Rothesay), Poppy Gustaffson (Darktrace), Victoria van Lennep (Lendable), Catherine Wines (Zepz) and Sophie Adelman (Multiverse). This equates to just 10% of unicorn companies being founded by women.

At the other end of the scale, James Watt, co-founder of Aberdeen-based Brewdog, started selling beer out the back of a van at age 24. In 2017, the company’s 10th year of operating, Brewdog hit that prestigious unicorn valuation via a US-based private equity fund and the rest was history.

The youngest founder to hit unicorn status is Johnny Boufarhat, aged 26 years old, when Hopin became the fastest growing European startup ever. However, the ill-fated virtual events firm, which hit a $5b valuation within 21 months (notably during the global COVID lockdowns), liquidated its UK business in early 2024 as part of a move to the US market.

Gender of unicorn founders

Nationality of unicorn founders (where known)

According to a 2023 report by The Entrepreneurs Network (TEN), just under 15% of UK residents are foreign-born, yet 39% of the UK’s 100 fastest-growing businesses have foreign nationals in their founding teams. It’s also worth noting that this is down from 49% in the 2019 study.

From our own data, we’ve also seen a drop in foreign-born unicorn founders, with around 16% of the UK’s active unicorns founded by a foreign national compared to 40% in 2022*. But of the individual founders for whom nationality is known, 86% are from the UK*. Meanwhile, only 3% of unicorn founders hail from outside of Europe.

*The methodology for the 2024 iteration of the unicorn report no longer includes unicorns that have received subsequent valuations below $1b. Nor does it include dead unicorns, or companies that liquidated their UK businesses and moved to a different territory.

Nationality of unicorn founders (where known)


How are unicorns reaching their billion-dollar valuations?

Equity investment

Over the past few decades, the UK’s equity funding landscape has matured considerably. It now offers a more diverse range of growth finance than ever before, from Silicon Valley-style venture capital investment to comprehensive government grants and crowdfunding. 

We’ve also seen a huge increase in the amount of capital available to high-growth startups. The effects of this are most pronounced at the extreme end of the scale, with 112 megadeals (funding rounds worth £50m or more) announced in 2021, including 51 gigadeals (£100m+). It’s worth noting that since the height of 2021, deals of this size have dropped, with just 26 megadeals and 11 gigadeals in 2023, as investors become more cautious due to market conditions. Still, the fact remains that these significant investments are allowing companies to reach larger valuations, in fewer rounds than before.

R&D-intensive tech companies, which many of our unicorns are, have a big appetite for capital to accelerate innovation, and achieve and maintain a market-leading position. Prior to reaching unicorn status, the average unicorn has raised £138.8m in equity investment, across five funding rounds. Of all the UK unicorns, Deliveroo had raised the most before joining the herd, with £341m of equity funding already under its belt. Whereas, several companies (including, OneTrust, and Gymshark) had never raised equity before securing the rounds that saw them enter the unicorn club.

In 2023, more than 65% of equity deals were not announced to the public, yet these unannounced rounds (also known as ‘stealth rounds’) are an important part of many high-growth companies’ growth journeys. This is equally true for unicorn companies, with 63% of UK unicorns having secured at least one unannounced funding round so far.

The increasing involvement of international funds in UK equity deals has further stimulated the market. These funds will often have deeper pockets and more freedom to deploy greater amounts of capital in one go. Indeed, 98% of the UK’s unicorn companies have an international investor on their cap table.

Investors play a significant and multifaceted role in the growth trajectory of ambitious businesses, not only providing capital, but also mentoring and access to their expansive business networks. And whilst there are hundreds of investors in the UK, only a handful have been successful in identifying high-potential startups and guiding them to a billion-dollar valuation.

Latitude Ventures has been the most active UK investor in UK unicorns, having backed eight companies prior to their unicorn fundraisings so far. As well as holding shares in Oxford Nanopore, the firm has also guided the likes of Monzo, Graphcore, and Cazoo through to their exits. Meanwhile, fellow venture capitalist Index Ventures has backed seven unicorns, and Accel six, whilst Baillie Gifford has backed five companies prior to their unicorn fundraisings.

Alongside these private equity and venture capital firms, however, crowdfunding platform Crowdcube has also facilitated funding rounds for BrewDog, Revolut, and Monzo. Crowdfunding has been a popular method of raising capital for these unicorns, as they can leverage their consumer-facing brands to build successful campaigns on the site, and mobilise their loyal customer bases to take their own stake in the business.

Equity raised prior to unicorn status

Accelerating towards unicorn status

Startup accelerators are programmes designed to help entrepreneurs grow their ideas into fast-growing businesses, through mentoring, financial investment, business advice, office space, and access to investor networks. 

First conceived in 2005, with Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, there are now over 750 incubator and accelerator programmes operating in the UK, which have fast become one of the most important ways to nurture young companies from seed to scaleup and beyond. This is evident in the fact that 58% of UK unicorns attended an accelerator prior to reaching their billion-dollar valuations.

Between them, UK unicorn companies have attended 7 different accelerator programmes. The most popular of these is by far Tech Nation’s Future Fifty, a two-year programme focused on developing late-stage technology businesses. Future Fifty has accelerated an impressive 22 unicorns towards reaching their billion-dollar valuations, including Skyscanner, Just Eat, Darktrace, and Depop. 

Meanwhile, Tech Nation also manages the Upscale accelerator programme, which counts Monzo, Improbable, Many Pets, and Zego amongst its alumni.

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Growth by acquisition

One quick way to assert your dominance in the market is by subsuming your competitors and peers. By acquiring other startups, a business can expand its customer base, IP, and product range and value, whilst reducing competition in the landscape. It’s no wonder, therefore, that 45% of UK unicorns made at least one acquisition prior to reaching their billion-dollar valuations. 

Most notably, however, THG (The Hut Group) made six acquisitions prior to becoming a unicorn company, and has gone on to acquire an additional 16 more businesses since then. As an operator of e-commerce websites, purchasing e-commerce sites and bringing them into the suite that they own and manage is a critical part of their business model. It’s a very direct example of how acquisition can fuel the growth of startups.

One quick way to assert your dominance in the market is by subsuming your competitors and peers. By acquiring other startups, a business can expand its customer base, IP, and product range and value, whilst reducing competition in the landscape. It’s no wonder, therefore, that 45% of UK unicorns made at least one acquisition prior to reaching their billion-dollar valuations. 

Most notably, however, THG (The Hut Group) made six acquisitions prior to becoming a unicorn company, and has gone on to acquire an additional 16 more businesses since then. As an operator of e-commerce websites, purchasing e-commerce sites and bringing them into the suite that they own and manage is a critical part of their business model. It’s a very direct example of how acquisition can fuel the growth of startups.


Inside unicorn companies: stories of growth

When we launched the first iteration of the unicorn report back in 2019, we conducted a number of exclusive interviews with UK unicorns including Tractable, Starling Bank, OneTrust, OVO, and OakNorth.

These interviews offer unique insight into the growth behind some of the UK’s unicorn companies.


Adrien Cohen,
Co-Founder & President at Tractable

Tractable is an AI software company that develops tools for accident and disaster recovery. It uses artificial intelligence to analyse photos of accidents, significantly speeding up damage assessments. The company is headquartered in London, but also has offices in New York and Tokyo. One of the UK’s more recent unicorns, Tractable secured its billion-dollar valuation in June 2021.

What’s the story behind Tractable?
Tractable was inspired by the prospect of being able to take computer vision technology from the lab, and apply it to complex problems facing the real world, in a way that is commercially viable. What artificial intelligence can do, which humans can’t, is to run thousands of visual photo checks across different events or instances, all in real time. And in 2014, when the company was founded, computer vision (i.e. how a computer understands what’s in an image) had reached the same level as human performance.

What that means is that, with the right training, you could accelerate any industry that relies on visual assessments. So we looked around for the right problem to solve, and focused on accidents and disasters—as these affect hundreds of millions of people every year, and the financial impact is over $1 trillion.

When did you realise you had product-market fit?
We made sure to work with customers from an early stage—as a VC-backed company, we needed our products to be commercially applicable and to fit into users’ workflows. We were lucky in that our first partners—companies such as Ageas in the UK, and Covéa in France—were open to the possibilities our solutions provided, and were happy to collaborate with us to work on how best we could apply AI to improve their processes for them, and their customers.

One real light bulb moment was when we deployed our AI Estimating product live for the first time, so it was helping real customers in the UK accelerate their claims at the first notice of loss (i.e. on the initial phone call). Seeing our tech being used live, ‘in the wild’, really brought home that we had created something that would help people across the world.

What has been your approach to growth so far?
We’ve always made sure to build our solutions alongside a client, rather than in a research silo, and this has meant that we’ve had commercial fit from early on in the lifespan of the company. This approach hasn’t changed—indeed, it’s even more important to keep consistent as we begin to expand into new areas.

Today, we’re working with a major Japanese insurer to apply our AI to understanding property damage, with the goal of helping people recover faster in 2021 from typhoons. Similarly, we’re working now with LKQ, one of the world’s leading car parts recycling companies, to use our technology to understand how to reclaim parts from salvaged cars more quickly and accurately.

How do you think the artificial intelligence industry has changed since you first started out?
One difference is that there is greater global awareness that AI is at a point where it can actually have an impact on people’s lives. Still, there’s the threat of an ‘AI winter’—when investment dries up, because progress is too slow—and companies like ours must ensure that our work has a clear commercial application and returns. We are excited to see more and more AI company founders focusing on solving problems in the real world, actual pain points, rather than building cool theoretical tech, as used to be a few years ago.

Why do you think Tractable has been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
We’ve always had a laser focus on commercial success, making sure to target the biggest possible companies in our target markets and, once we signed those partnerships, to do everything we could to make them a success.

An important factor also has been international development—our solutions are used by over 20 of the world’s top insurers, in 12 countries. That gave our business resilience—when things weren’t going quickly in country X, we could still achieve growth in country Y, which meant we could overcome any speed bumps that might have derailed companies with a focus on a single market. That’s been particularly useful during the current COVID crisis—as when Europe was heavily affected by the pandemic, East Asia was relatively unaffected, and we were able to concentrate on growth there.

What have been some of the biggest opportunities and challenges of COVID-19 for the company?
We moved to a WFH pattern of work before it was mandated by the UK Government, although we plan to return in September as soon as people are fully vaccinated. Before that decision, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to continue developing a complex AI solution remotely, but how the team has risen to the challenge has been remarkable, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.

One benefit of our solution is that it facilitates remote assessment of auto damage. We obviously didn’t design it with COVID in mind, but because they reduce the number of touchpoints along the claims journey, insurers have been increasingly interested in applying them at the present time.


Anne Boden,
Founder & CEO at Starling Bank

Starling Bank is a fully-licensed and regulated bank, headquartered in London, with offices in Southampton, Cardiff, and Dublin. In addition to current accounts, Starling provides B2B banking and payments services through its Banking-as-a-Service model, based on the proprietary tech platform it uses to power its own bank. It became a unicorn company in March 2021.

How did Starling Bank get started?
I’ve worked in banking nearly all of my adult life, holding a number of senior roles. During this time, I saw the growing appeal of digital banking among consumers and businesses. People’s lives had moved online, yet banking had not. I knew there was room for a new kind of bank—a digital one that uses technology to meet the real problems of consumers, rather than merely to support the banks’ operations.

Throughout my career, I had been consistently told that current accounts were loss leaders. Banking folklore as I put it. But I challenged this notion. I believed that forgoing the branch network and creating more efficient technological processes would deliver a lean enough cost base to make current accounts profitable. Once this core product was running smoothly, we would have a firm foundation from which to offer other products, such as lending. So I launched Starling Bank in 2014, with the aim of delivering a fairer, smarter, and more human bank.

When did you realise you had product-market fit?
I always knew we had product relevance, but the proof point came in May 2017, when we launched our app. We were out of beta by October and receiving glowing reviews. Our small business account was launched in March 2018. We’ve now opened 2.4m accounts and are at the top of Which?’s rankings for bank customer service—one of only two banks that is a Which? recommended provider. We’ve also won the Best British Bank accolade at the British Bank Awards four years on the trot.

What has been your approach to growth? And how has this changed with every new round of funding secured?

Starling has been focused on its path to profitability from day one. We became monthly profitable in October 2020, and have recorded a profit every month since then. Of course, in the very early days, fundraising is needed to keep the lights on. But as you mature as a company and become less of a risk to investors, you can secure greater sums and begin to scale up and deliver on your business plan.

So more recent rounds of funding have allowed us to evolve the product, hire new colleagues and build our brand. But the focus on steady and responsible growth hasn’t gone away. Our most recent funding round is supporting a targeted expansion of Starling’s lending in the UK, as well as to launch Starling in Europe and for anticipated M&A.

How do you think the fintech industry has changed since you first started out?
There’s more focus from regulators and investors on profitability and responsible governance. The sector has moved on from growth at any cost, and we’ve seen the emergence of a handful of companies that have achieved success at scale. Fintech was very much about failing fast and growing quickly a decade ago, and while that might still be true for some startups, there’s a focus on the culture and mission of financial services brands, now more than ever.

That goes for consumers too. They want to know the bank they’re choosing is both responsible and ethical. It’s one reason we’ve recently begun making our bank cards from recycled materials and campaigning for better representation of women when it comes to money in the media.

What do you see as emerging trends in the sector?
The big shift has been toward products and services that are relevant and useful, and away from those that are not driven by need. That’s what’s really going to differentiate companies now. Furthermore, the companies that produce the very best technology can not only use this to service their customers, but offer that technology to other companies across the globe, by white-labelling their offering. No doubt automation will continue to bring with it cost-savings and new technological opportunities, but for Starling, we still believe a human at the heart of the service is key.

Why do you think Starling has been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
We’re known for our execution ability; this is what really makes us stand out. We embraced technology and delivered a truly smart bank, but with humans at the core—in our call centres, interacting by email, webchat, phone or app. It’s been about serving customers in the ways they prefer. We’ve married this with a culture of transparency and plain-speaking. You won’t hear jargon from our colleagues, be it during an in-app conversation or a digital billboard ad.

What have been some of the biggest opportunities and challenges of COVID-19 for Starling?
We’ve supported tens of thousands of small businesses through government-backed lending schemes. That was both an opportunity and a challenge—to ensure those businesses were supported before, during, and after accessing funds. It’s been interesting to note that some companies which accessed capital actually found business busier than ever during the crisis, and so instead used funds to invest and grow, rather than simply survive.

With the pandemic boosting uptake of digital banking, it puts us in the drivers’ seat to take a greater share of the market. This will, as ever, be fueled by building more products that are relevant and useful to the changing needs of businesses and consumers.


Valentina Kristensen,
Director of Growth & Communications at OakNorth

Launched in 2015, OakNorth is on a mission to empower the ‘Missing Middle’—businesses that are the most significant contributors to economic and employment growth, yet still struggle to access fast, flexible debt finance. OakNorth is addressing this funding gap with its commercial lending software, which it also leverages within its own bank. It became a unicorn company in October 2017.

How did OakNorth get started?
In 2005, our co-founders, Rishi Khosla and Joel Perlman, were looking for a working capital facility to support their growing business, Copal Partners, a financial research firm they’d founded three years previously. They approached numerous high-street banks and kept getting variations of the same response—“the computer says ‘no’”. Despite being a profitable business with strong cash flow and retained clients, none of the commercial banks were willing to lend to them. It was too small a ticket to offset the costs the bank would incur in doing a fundamental assessment of their business and structuring a finance facility for their needs.

A few months later, through one of their institutional client’s special situations desk, they managed to secure 100x the amount of debt for a dividend recap. So, an institutional division of a bank was able to support them, but the commercial lending part of the bank was not. This experience stuck with them. After they’d scaled Copal Partners to a 3k-employee business and sold it to Moody’s Corporation (NYSE: MCO) in 2014, they then set out to address the funding gap they had experienced first-hand and help growth businesses achieve their potential.

When did you realise you had product-market fit?
If you look at the SME lending market today, a pattern emerges. For loans of several hundred thousand dollars or less, big banks and platforms such as: Ant Financial, Kabbage, Funding Circle, Lending Club, etc. offer several debt options, including general-purpose business loans, asset finance, and invoice finance, typically based on automated credit models which allow lenders to process loans quickly and efficiently. When it comes to loans of $70m or more, banks can justify allocating significant amounts of time and resources to underwriting because the potential returns are greater.

But loans that fall outside these parameters are either too large to be subject to the automated credit process (from a risk perspective) or too small to be underwritten in the way that big banks do with large loans (because the potential returns don’t make it commercially viable). As a result, this segment of the market has been overlooked and underserved for decades.

What was your approach to securing initial investment? And what do you look for in an investor?
Rishi and Joel had a very successful exit from their first business, so that helped attract investors for their second. We look for investors who share our long-term vision, believe in the mission, can help us get there, and are willing to back our founders and management team. Rishi and Joel believe you should run your business like you’ll be running it forever, so building a sustainable, profitable business for the long-term has always been very important to them.

Do you think there are enough resources to support high-growth companies these days?

The UK is one of the best places to start a business, but we languish in comparison when it comes to supporting scaleups. This was a key highlight in Ron Kalifa’s Fintech Review, published earlier this year, which said there needed to be greater emphasis on making the UK a great place to scale a tech business. If we support scaleups, we can close the productivity gap, the housing gap, generate more GDP for the economy, and ensure that the country’s fastest growing, and most successful businesses are being supported.

What do you see as emerging trends in the fintech sector?
I think we’ll see a lot more focus on building sustainable, profitable business models. I believe the fintechs that develop solutions that help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of existing institutions—i.e. making incumbent banks their customers, rather than their competitors.

Why has OakNorth been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?

I think it comes down to a number of things:

  • A clear mission and vision on how to achieve it
  • Strong product-market fit
  • A unique understanding of our customers and their pain points
  • Incredibly high talent density within our team
  • Loyal customers and committed investors
  • A forward-thinking and innovation-friendly regulator


We have only just started. The first five years of OakNorth’s journey have seen it secure one of the first new UK banking licences in 150 years, lend over £5.5b to the Missing Middle in the UK since inception, achieve performance metrics which rank it in the top 1% of banks in the developed world, and bring the benefits of the ON Credit Intelligence Suite to other commercial banks. If this is ‘Season One’ of the OakNorth story, the title would be ‘Build’. Season Two has now started.


What's next for UK unicorns?

Here, we take a closer look at the unicorn companies that have chosen to exit the private market, plus potential newcomers to the herd, so-called ‘soonicorns’.

Unicorn exits

An exit  —  whereby a business is acquired or listed on a public stock exchange — can provide significant financial reward to shareholders, particularly those with a large stake in the company. For many entrepreneurs, it is the prospect of this sizeable payout which incentivises them to undertake the high-risk venture of starting a company in the first place. 

For others, an exit can be a method of growth, through nestling under larger companies of similar interest, or a means of securing additional funding to support ambitious growth plans into new markets or regions.

However, exits are not without their risks. Subjecting to the volatility of the stock market can magnify and scrutinise a company’s (previously private) mistakes or weaknesses, with potentially disastrous consequences to its share price, whilst being acquired risks businesses losing the culture upon which they’ve so far thrived. Equally troublesome can be the additional bureaucracy associated with becoming a public company — red tape, in the form of additional corporate governance requirements, and the challenge of dealing with an increased pool of investors and potentially competing interests.

To date, eight of the UK’s unicorn companies have decided to exit the private market, five via an initial public offering (IPO), one via an acquisition, and one through Special Purpose Acquisition Company (or SPAC) mergers, whilst Wise underwent a rare direct listing (DPO). 

Proving to be a record year for unicorn exits, 10 of the UK’s billion-dollar companies went public in 2021. Wise’s direct listing — when existing shares are sold to the public instead of issuing new ones — was the first of its kind for a tech company on the LSE. 

But despite the large number of exits in the 2021, the year of the unicorn, not all were deemed to have been successful. Deliveroo’s £1b float on the LSE was described by many as “London’s worst IPO in history” or (more colloquially) “Floperoo”. Following claims that the company was overvalued at £7.6b, Deliveroo’s share price fell 26% on its first day of trading.

The market has cooled since 2021, and in spite of the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) amending Listing Rules to make the UK market more attractive to float on, no UK unicorns have elected to exit the market.

The UK's "soonicorns"

With the growing hype around unicorn companies in recent years, industry eyes have inevitably turned to companies that seem close to securing their much sought-after billion-dollar valuations. 

These high-potential companies have become known as ‘soonicorns’. Looking ahead to 2024/25, potential unicorns include fintech companies such as Clearscore, Tide, and Curve.

Watch this space the soonicorns are coming.

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