5 European Tech Soonicorns to Watch
Back in 2013, venture capitalist Aileen Lee wrote a watershed article for TechCrunch which introduced one of the most popular terms in the tech lexicon: unicorn.
A decade on, the term is one of the most-used in the tech world. It’s even spawned related words like decacorn (a company valued at over $10 billion) and the yet-to-exist superunicorn (a company that breaks the $1 trillion barrier).
It stands to reason that there’s always such heated interest in unicorns among tech journalists and investors alike. As Aileen Lee wrote in that piece, “historically, top venture funds have driven returns from their ownership in just a few companies in a given fund of many companies.”
Although the birth rate of unicorns has recent slowed in line with the general tech downturn, we’re still seeing numerous companies ascend to this level. Last year, 11 unicorns emerged in the UK alone – a higher number than in any other nation in Europe.
It’s natural to wonder which other companies will soon enter this elite club: the so-called “soonicorns” that are making waves in their respective sectors. Here are just a handful that have been on our radar.
Some companies join the unicorn herd at a very fast gallop – Slack, famously, achieved the feat in just eight months. Others take a more scenic route to these hallowed pastures, and GWI may well turn out to be one of these.
Based in the UK, the market research disruptor was founded back in 2009 with the aim of bringing the formerly cumbersome, time-consuming process of gathering consumer data into the digital realm. It landed Microsoft as its very first client, and since then the likes of Spotify, Twitter and Red Bull have been utilising its SaaS solution for providing in-depth insights into consumer demographics and behavioural attitudes.
Bootstrapped for years by its founder, the company enjoyed a $180 million funding round last year, bringing its valuation to more than $850 million.
Finnish ecommerce company Swappie was inspired by a scam. Its co-founder, Sami Marttinen, had bought a second-hand iPhone from an online marketplace, but it never arrived in the mail. This led him to research the refurbished tech market, noting both how common such scams were, and the potential to tap into growing consumer interest in sustainability.
Launched in 2016, Swappie is an online platform that refurbishes and sells used iPhones with a 12-month warranty. Its vivid branding and irreverent slogan “expiry dates are for vegetables, not iPhones” are well suited to younger millennials and Gen Z-ers. And it’s set to flourish still further with the market for refurbed smartphones anticipated to grow at an annual rate of 10.23% between now and 2028.
Occupying the top spot in last year’s FT-Statista ranking of the fastest-growing European companies, Swappie has landed large fundraises and has been valued at up to $744 million.
UK soonicorn YuLife has found success by doing something remarkable: making insurance fun and exciting. Founded in 2016 and valued at $800 million following a large funding round last year, the company provides businesses with group insurance services for their employees – everything from life insurance to critical illness cover to dental insurance.
What makes its special is that the insurance policies are part of a holistic platform which cleverly gamifies wellness. Employees are incentivised to, say, walk, cycle and meditate, with such life-enhancing activities being tracked by the YuLife app. By doing so, employees can earn virtual currency called YuCoins, which can be used to make purchases through sites like Asos and Amazon.
Not surprisingly, YuLife has veterans of the video game industry in its team, and its model is just one example of how gamification has become one of the key ways in which many startups are distinguishing themselves from more staid legacy companies.
Taking mealtime insulin shots can be a hassle for people living with diabetes, and Swiss healthtech firm has developed a simple, seamless solution. Its compact, lightwight, wearable patches deliver units of fast-acting insulin through a small, flexible cannula. Activated by a click and with no exposed tubing, they provide a discreet and easy way to take insulin which reduces or removes the need to take multiple daily injections.
It’s been estimated that the global market for such streamlined insulin-delivery systems is more than $15 billion, so it’s understandable that investors have taken a keen interest in this soonicorn. In 2021, it received the largest ever fundraise for a privately-held European medtech company: a cool $115 million, which it has ploughed into market development activities and the scaling up of manufacturing. The firm has been valued at an impressive $690 million.
Ask most people to imagine solar cells, and images of giant, rigid panels on rooftops will probably come to mind. But solar technology has moved on in leaps and bounds, with one company leading the charge being Sweden’s Exeger. It’s one of the oldest soonicorns, having been founded way back in 2008, and it’s reaped tens of millions in investment since 2019, leading to a valuation of around $605 million.
Its “Powerfoyle” solar cells are highly flexible and versatile, with the ability to turn both indoor and natural light into electrical power. The fact that the cells can bent to adapt to so many forms has opened the doors to some rather innovative partnerships. A few years ago, it collaborated with Swedish audio brand Urbanista to create the world’s first self-charging headphones – an eye-catching milestone in the Nordic tech world.