What impact has the increase in unicorn businesses had on the UK tech sector?


The UK has seen an increase in the number and value of ‘unicorns’ (start-ups valued at more than $1bn) in recent years. As a result, Business Leader has broken down what these fast-growing companies mean for the tech sector, both in the UK and around the world. To do this, Business Leader received some expert analysis from Dealroom.co and the Digital Economy Council about the impact on the UK tech scene.

The UK tech industry has expanded 10-fold in the last 10 years, enabling the creation of hundreds of fast-growing tech companies that are set to challenge Silicon Valley in the coming decade.

Since 2010, the UK has experienced a sustained increase in the venture capital flowing into the tech sector, which has resulted in a huge expansion in the number of start-ups that are scaling rapidly in sectors as diverse as fintech, food delivery, e-commerce and healthtech.

10 years of unicorns and futurecorns

Over the course of 10 years, the total number of unicorns the UK has had has increased from eight in 2010 to 81 in 2020. Unicorns from 2010 including Betfair, Admiral Group and Ocado are now household names. Meanwhile the number of futurecorns – companies capable of growing into a unicorn – has accelerated from 10 to 126 in 2020. Over the same period, venture capital investment into the UK has increased from £1.2bn in 2010 to £11.3bn 10 years later.

These numbers demonstrate the extent to which the UK is catching up with the US and China in tech, with London now fourth behind the Bay Area, Beijing and New York, when it comes to the number of start-ups and unicorns created. No other European country has been able to grow at such a speed.

While France has invested millions of euros in its start-up ecosystem, in 2020 it had only 17 unicorns, up from zero in 2010. Germany had one unicorn 10 years ago and 31 in 2020 – including companies such as insurtech platform Wefox, neobank N26 and travel e-commerce platform Omio.

Digital secretary Oliver Dowden said: “UK tech has seen record levels of growth over the last decade, turning a nation of start-ups into one of scale-ups. Investors are interested in backing UK start-ups because of a combination of cutting edge research, skilled engineering and tech talent and operators who understand how to build a strong, sustainable business.”

Growth continues in 2021

During 2021, the total number of unicorns and futurecorns has continued to grow. The UK has now created 91. A further 132 companies are now regarded as ‘futurecorns’ – companies with a value of between $250m (c.£179m) and $1bn (c.£718m) – which are on a path to unicorn status.

Though the majority of the futurecorns are based in London (83), the remaining firms can be found all across the UK.

Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire have 10 and 11 respectively. The North West has five futurecorns and in Scotland there are currently four fast-growing futurecorns. Wales has one futurecorn.

The Global Perspective

Recent years have also witnessed an impressive increase in the number of unicorn companies across the world, with these financial giants emerging across different industries and countries. However, 2021 might set a new record, as the number of these billion-dollar start-ups surged since the beginning of the year.

According to data presented by Trading Platforms, 168 companies joined the unicorn club in the first five months of 2021 – 40% more than in the entire 2020.


When the term unicorn emerged back in 2013, there were no more than forty private companies with a market valuation of $1bn in the world. By the end of 2018, this figure surged to 279. The CBInsights data showed another 125 companies joined the unicorn club in 2019, with a total number rising to 404 that year.

This figure continued growing in 2020, despite the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. In 2020, the number of unicorns worldwide rose to 524, a 120 increase in a year.

However, 2021 has witnessed the biggest increase of these financial giants, with another 168 companies joining the unicorn club between January and May. Statistics show the total number of unicorns hit close to 700 in May, while their cumulative valuation amounts to over $2.2tn.

Ant Financial, the Chinese fintech company, spun off from mobile and online payment platform Alipay, still grips the top of the highest-valued unicorn companies globally, with a valuation of $200bn. Another Chinese financial giant, ByteDance, follows with a $140bn value.

However, there have been some significant changes in the third place of the list. After raising $600m in funding in March, Stripe increased its valuation to $95bn, nearly triple its last reported valuation of $36bn from April 2020.

That way, the online payments technology provider pushed the highest-valued US unicorn, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to fourth place.


The United States represents the leading unicorn market with around 300 companies valued at $1bn or more. That is more than China and Europe combined.

Almost 25% of them work in the technology and communications industry. Finance and insurance and health and pharma markets ranked as the second and third most popular sectors for the US unicorns, with a 14% and 10% share, respectively.

China follows the United States with 133 billion-dollar start-ups as of May. Still, the country is home to some of the most-valued unicorns globally. Statistics show the combined valuation of Ant Financial and ByteDance, as the two largest unicorns in China and globally, hit $345bn in May, almost 20% more than five largest unicorns in the United States.

With a total of 70 unicorns, Europe ranked as the third largest region for these financial giants. Most of them, or 25%, are active in the finance and insurance market. Transportation and logistics and technology and communications sectors follow, with a 13% share each. Also, the CBInsights data revealed that Klarna is the highest-valued unicorn in Europe. The valuation of the Swedish financial technology company hit $31bn this year.

Who will be the UK’s next unicorns?

As part of the data acquired by Dealroom.co and the Digital Economy Council, they have listed the top 15 most valuable futurecorns in the UK today. These are start-ups that are currently valued between $250m-$1bn. Could one of these firms become the next unicorn in the UK?

Zopa – digital bank (London)

Moonbug – global kids entertainment company (London)

Atom Bank – neobank (Durham)

Wejo – global leader in connected car data (Manchester)

Vashi – ethically-sourced fine jewellery (London)

Gigaclear – rural broadband provider (Abingdon)

Bloom & Wild – direct to consumer letterbox flowers (London)

Truphone – global leader in digital connectivity software (London)

Zilch – buy now pay later fintech provider (London)

Tripledot Studios – mobile gaming company (London)

Gryphon Group Holdings – family insurtech firm (London)

Pollinate – fintech toolkit provider for small businesses (London)

Agriprotein – creates insect-based protein (Guildford)

Bulb – renewable energy provider (London)

Thought Machine – next-generation core banking platforms (London)