The family offices that backed last year’s unicorns


So-called unicorns, startups with valuations of $1 billion and more, had a good 2017 with 57 created, according to Pitchbook. That’s up from 43 in 2016, although down from the record of 81 in 2015. Most unicorns are backed by a long list of the usual-suspect venture capital groups, but a few family offices are also behind them – here are those ones behind last year’s unicorns.

Unsurprisingly, a few tech titans and their family offices are behind last year’s unicorns. Most notably is Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment and Jeff Bezos’ investment office.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based biotech startup, was backed by Cascade, along with five other investors, in a Series C funding round in 2016. That looks like a good decision – Ginkgo had an end-year valuation of $1.4 billion, according to Pitchbook.

“The only startup in the Middle East to reach the coveted unicorn status last year was backed by a family office”

Gates also backed Grail, another US biotech startup. But this appears to be in his personal capacity, rather through Cascade. The Microsoft founder often invests in startups outside of his family office. Also backing Grail was Bezos Expeditions, which manages part of Jeff Bezos’ personal assets. That looks like a good decision by both tech titans – Grail has been valued at $2.4 billion.

Staying in the US, another medical startup called Outcome Health was valued at $5.5 billion by Pitchbook, putting it in the top three valuations of unicorns in 2017. And one family investment group should be pretty happy with its decision to do so – the venture arm of the Pritzker Group, the investment group owned by brothers Tony and JB Pritzker, is one of only four backers of the Chicago unicorn.

Non-US family offices were thin on the ground on the unicorn investors’ list in 2017. The Clermont Group, a Singapore-based private investment group, is one of the backers of OakNorth, a UK financial startup, which has been valued at $1.3 billion. Clermont was one of three investors in OakNorth in a Series B funding round worth £160 million last October.

Kingdom Holdings, the investment office linked to Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, backed the only startup in the Middle East to reach the coveted unicorn status last year, the Dubai-based group, Careem. Kingdom backed the transport startup in a Series E funding round back in June last year. Of course, Prince Alwaleed has since been arrested by the Saudi authorities in an anti-corruption drive.