September 27, 2022

Market Spotlight: Spotting new members of Asia’s ‘unicorn’ club

When the term ‘unicorn’, used to describe privately held startups valued at more than US$1bn, was first adopted around a decade ago, the choice of word seemed apt—startups of that value were mythically rare.

North America and Asia Pacific accounted for nearly 90% of all unicorn companies worldwide as of 2021, based on research from Statista. About 40% are based in APAC, including 300+ companies in China alone.

ZDNet reported that the number of APAC unicorns grew more than 25% in 2021, when the region attracted US$193bn in private investments, almost a third of the total global value based on numbers from a recent study by KPMG and HSBC.

Unicorns from China and India dominate in APAC

According to analysts CB Insights, at the end of 2013 there were 43 unicorns. At the time of writing, there are more than 1,192 unicorns globally, a 27-fold increase in less than 10 years, with a cumulative worth approaching US$4tn.

The largest and third largest hail from APAC, with both based in China, those being technology giant ByteDance (with a valuation of around US$140bn) and e-commerce specialist Shein (US$100bn). For context, sandwiched between them is Elon Musk’s California-based rocket company SpaceX (US$127bn).

Overall, around two-thirds of APAC’s unicorns are Chinese, and it is these that win the lion’s share of attention. But investors would be wrong to overlook the rapid development of similarly innovative and groundbreaking companies in other markets.

Currently, two startups from emerging APAC economies feature among CB Insights’ top-20 unicorns. Coming in at number 14 is Indian edtech company Byju, and close behind at 16 is J&T Express, the logistics company founded in 2015 in Indonesia.

These two companies are illustrative of the remarkable growth potential that investors might be able to capitalize on in sometimes-overlooked parts of APAC. Seeking out these sorts of opportunities may prove especially valuable for investors who are contending with stricter regulatory scrutiny and declining valuations in more traditional markets.

Huge opportunity for more unicorns to emerge in APAC

Looking one or two rungs below the unicorn club, the scale of the opportunities at hand becomes clear. The study published by KPMG and HSBC also showed that there are around 6,500 technology startups in APAC with valuations up to US$500m. Of those just under a third are based in China, but almost as many (30.1%) can be found in India.

With fields of expertise ranging from decentralized finance and neurotechnology to electric vehicles and sustainable packaging, the opportunities to spot new APAC unicorns appear practically endless.


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