Who are the British ‘unicorns’ of 2021 so far?


As part of Memery Crystal Scale-Up Month, Business Leader have profiled the three UK companies that have hit unicorn status so far this year. This describes a start-up business that has reached a valuation of more than $1bn (c.£760m), often within the tech sector.

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In total, there are currently 24 businesses that have reached unicorn status in the UK according to Beauhurst, with dozens more than have gone on to become household names.

But, who are the three businesses that have joined the esteemed list this year?

Starling Bank

Starling Bank is a fully-licensed and regulated bank offering an alternative to the traditional high street bank. It offers a wide range of lending products and digital tools. Starling also provides B2B banking and payments services through its Banking-as-a-Service model based on the proprietary technology platform that it uses to power its own bank.

The Starling Marketplace offers customers in-app access to a selection of third party financial services.

Headquartered in London, it has offices in Southampton, Cardiff and Dublin.

The company was founded in 2014 by Anne Boden MBE and in March it achieved unicorn status.

Following the achievement, Starling spoke to Business Leader.

What does it mean to Starling to reach unicorn status?

We achieved unicorn status with our latest, series D, funding round. What was really important about this round is that it diversified Starling’s  investor base to bring on board some of the world’s biggest financial heavyweights and institutional investors.

These new investors will bring a wealth of experience as we enter the next stage of growth, while the continued support of our existing backers represents a huge vote of confidence.

What have been the main challenges to achieving this growth?

We’ve aimed to achieve sustainable growth, rather than go for growth at any cost. To build a profitable digital bank from scratch, you must first lay firm foundations, with a proper regulatory framework, a strong technology architecture and a clear product roadmap. And you must learn to control costs. This takes time, effort and resources. It may seem to slow down growth, but it puts you on a clear path to profitability and it means you are better placed to adapt to changing market conditions.

What does it take to exponentially grow a business in your sector?

The speed in which you grow is not important. What is important is being relevant and exceeding customer expectations. At Starling we haven’t rushed anything and we constantly check what we are doing to ensure it is the best it can possibly be. Once this is all in place you can focus on brand awareness.

What are the company’s future plans?

We continue to have a strategic goal of taking the Starling brand into Europe; we’re building out our lending and are already on record as saying that we are looking for acquisition targets in this space; we’re catering for larger and more complex SME customers and we continue to grow and improve our retail bank in the UK.


Founded in 2016, London-based Zego is a commercial motor insurance provider that powers opportunities for businesses, from entire fleets of vehicles to self-employed drivers and riders. It combines best-in-class technology with sophisticated data sources to offer insurance products that save businesses time and money.

Since its inception, Zego has believed that the problem with traditional insurance is that it holds businesses back. It’s too expensive and time consuming, and it no longer suits businesses who use vehicles to earn money. Zego’s products represent a solution to this problem for businesses based across the UK, Europe and beyond.

So far, Zego has raised over $200m in funding and was the first UK insurtech to be valued at over $1bn. This happened in March this year.


Founded in 2007, PatSnap is the company behind the world’s leading innovation intelligence platform.

PatSnap is used by more than 10,000 customers in over 50 countries around the world to access market, technology, and competitive intelligence as well as patent insights needed to take products from ideation to commercialization.

Customers are innovators across multiple industry sectors, including agriculture and chemicals, consumer goods, food and beverage, life sciences, automotive, oil and gas, professional services, aviation and aerospace, and education.

The company also achieved unicorn status in March 2021.

The Tech Sector Perspective

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, according to analysis by Dealroom.co and the Digital Economy Council.

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 startups 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 startups into one of scaleups. 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. This Government will do all it can to support the entrepreneurs who have created this vibrant new part of our economy and which now employs almost three million people right across the country in both our world-renowned tech centres like London and Cambridge to our cities, suburbs and rural areas.”

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 (£179m) and $1bn (£718m) – which are on a path to unicorn status.

The UK’s top 15 futurecorns by valuation in 2021: 

  1. Zopa – digital bank (London)
  2. Moonbug – global kids entertainment company (London)
  3. Atom Bank – the UK’s first neobank (Durham)
  4. Wejo – global leader in connected car data (Manchester)
  5. Vashi – ethically-sourced engagement rings and fine jewellery (London)
  6. Gigaclear – rural broadband provider (Abingdon)
  7. Bloom & Wild – direct to consumer letterbox flowers (London)
  8. Truphone – global leader in digital connectivity software (London)
  9. Zilch – buy now pay later fintech provider (London)
  10. Tripledot Studios – mobile gaming company (London)
  11. Gryphon Group Holdings – insurtech revolutionising family insurance (London)
  12. Pollinate – fintech giving banks a modern toolkit for small businesses (London)
  13. Agriprotein – creates insect-based protein to replace fishmeal (Guildford)
  14. Bulb – renewable energy provider (London)
  15. Thought Machine – next-generation core banking platforms (London)

Though the majority of the futurecorns are based in London (83), high-growth scale-ups can be found all across the UK. Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire have 10 scale-ups and 11 scale-ups respectively, including Oxbotica, which is building autonomous vehicle technology and Cambridge Quantum Computing, which develops quantum solutions to tackle some of the industry’s most pressing challenges like cybersecurity.

The North West has five futurecorns, most recently Matillion which allows businesses to harness the power of data and raised $100m (£70.7m) in funding in February. In Scotland there are four fast-growing scale-ups including Amphista Therapeutics in Motherwell, a biopharmaceutical company creating therapeutics that harness the body’s natural processes to remove disease-causing proteins, and Roslin Technologies in Edinburgh which is developing pioneering innovations to make the agriculture and animal health sectors more sustainable. The fintech company Sonovate is Wales’ only futurecorn. An invoice finance and back-office recruitment platform for agencies and consultancies, Sonovate raised £110m in its latest Series C funding round.

The Global Perspective

With businesses across the world aspiring to reach the valuation of £1bn, Business Leader have analysed what has been happening across the world.

Recent years have witnessed an impressive increase in the number of unicorn companies, 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.

Total number of unicorns close to 700

When the term unicorn emerged back in 2013, there were no more than forty private companies with a market valuation of one billion dollars 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 grasps 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.

US vs Europe vs China

The United States represents the leading unicorn market with around 300 companies valued at one billion dollars 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 larges 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.

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