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Unraveling the Rise of Unicorns: The Billion-Dollar Innovators

October 31, 2023

By Matthew Rados and Aaron Winkler (CBInsights), Davide Bonaglia and Sacha Wunsch-Vincent (WIPO)

Every year, the Global Innovation Index (GII) stretches its boundaries to provide deeper insights into the world of innovation. And the 2023 edition is no different. This year, with data provided by CBInsights, the GII shines a spotlight on the remarkable world of unicorns.

Unicorn is a term used to describe a private company with a valuation over USD 1 billion. Reaching the unicorn status is a title of prestige, which recognizes the ability of startups to offer groundbreaking technologies, have a clear vision, as well as a viable way to get their message to venture capitalists and private investors. Unicorns are crucial for innovation as they disrupt traditional industries and leverage technology to create new solutions that go beyond the conventional offered by the market.

The number of unicorns has surged drastically in recent years, with an exceptional peak in 2021. Before 2021, on average, about 5 companies per month were crowned with this prestigious title. 2021 witnessed a staggering surge with an average of 43 companies each month joining the unicorn club. The post-2021 average, while lower than the peak, is still significantly higher at 17 companies per month. The unprecedented peak in 2021 might be influenced by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which accelerated digital transformation, prompting increased investment in tech-based solutions and innovative startups.

Specific sectors within the Tech industry are emerging as particularly prominent in this unicorn boom. Tech and Software, along with AI and Data Driven startups, are taking center stage. Consider Anthropic, for example. Launched in San Francisco, this start-up gained the unicorn status in February 2023 and is already worth over 4 billion USD, attracting investments and capital by major companies, including Amazon. Anthropic specializes in developing generative A.I., a technology that mimics human-like abilities in creating texts and images by learning from extensive datasets. This innovation holds the promise of automating a variety of tasks, potentially transforming the global economy.

Certain startups that achieved unicorn status over the past decade have evolved into industry leaders. For instance, ByteDance, the powerhouse behind TikTok, boasts a staggering valuation of 225 billion USD. Similarly, SpaceX stands at 137 billion USD, while OpenAI has reached a valuation of 20 billion. These companies are not only leading in their respective fields but are also pushing the boundaries of science and technology, consistently innovating and offering new technological breakthroughs.

In absolute terms, the United States tops the charts with 653 unicorns, with China and India following. Europe is not far behind with the United Kingdom and Germany leading the charge.

The GII 2023 has looked at the relationship between the combined valuation of a country’s unicorns and its GDP. Estonia stands out in this ranking, with two companies, Bolt (a ride-hailing and micro-mobility rental company) and Veriff (a company offering online businesses a protection against fraud) having a combined valuation that compares to more than 23% of the total Estonian GDP

Estonia shares the top ranking with Israel, Lithuania, the United States and Senegal. Senegal is the only African country on the list with Wave, which compares to a solid 8% of Senegal’s GPD. In a continent where over half the population lacks a bank account, Wave steps in, offering a fee-free financial network. Thanks to this solution, Waves empowers millions across Africa with affordable access to savings, transfers, and credit solutions.



The Global Innovation Index includes a pillar on Knowledge and Technology Outputs, with threes subpillars on knowledge creation (6.1), knowledge impact (6.2) and knowledge diffusion (6.2). The subpillar 6.2 includes one indicator, Unicorns valuation, % GDP (6.2.2) that measures the total valuation of all unicorns in a country as percentage of GDP. A unicorn company is a private company with a valuation over USD 1 billion. Unicorn companies worldwide number 1,207 as of April 7, 2023.

Data is taken from CBInsights, Tracker – The Complete List of Unicorn Companies; and International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook Database, October 2022.