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What's a Palantir? The tech industry's next big IPO

A tech start-up named for objects in 'The Lord of the Rings' has become a major government contractor. But what exactly does this influential but little-known company do?

By Cade Metz, Erin Griffith and Kate Conger
Published: Aug 27, 2020

What's a Palantir? The tech industry's next big IPOPalantir engineers at the company offices in Palo Alto, Calif., March 13, 2014. Palantir, which offers software, teams of engineers that customize the software, and helps organizations make sense of vast amounts of data, is preparing to go public. Image: Peter DaSilva/The New York Times

About a month before he became president, Donald Trump met with the leaders of the country’s top technology companies at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

The meeting included the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other household names like Tesla and Oracle. And then there was Alex Karp, chief executive of a company, called Palantir Technologies, that few outside Silicon Valley and government circles had heard of.

Palantir, the only privately held company represented in the room, had become a major player among government contractors. And, indicative of its growing prominence, one of its founders, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, had supported Trump during the 2016 election and had helped set up the meeting.

Now, as Palantir prepares to go public in what could be the largest stock market listing of a tech startup since Uber last year, many are wondering: What exactly does this influential but little-known company do?

Offering software — and, crucially, teams of engineers that customize the software — Palantir helps organizations make sense of vast amounts of data. It helps gather information from various sources like internet traffic and cellphone records and analyzes that information. It puts those disparate pieces together into something that makes sense to its users, like a visual display.

But it can take plenty of engineers and plenty of time to make Palantir’s technology work the way customers need it to. And that mix of technology and human muscle may lead to some confusion on Wall Street about how to value the company. Is Palantir a software company, which is traditionally a very profitable business, or is it a less-profitable consulting firm? Or is it both?

“For investors, it is a bit of a Rubik’s Cube,” said Daniel Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities.

Palantir, which was founded in 2003, has long described its technology as ideal for tracking terrorists, often embracing an unconfirmed rumor that it helped locate Osama bin Laden. The name Palantir is a nod to spherical objects used in the “Lord of the Rings” books to see other parts of fictional Middle-earth.

Funded in part by In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, the company built its flagship software technology, Gotham, with an eye toward use inside the CIA.

Palantir’s technologies can also help track the spread of the coronavirus, as it is now doing for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And they can help find immigrants living in the country without legal permission, which is how Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under orders from the White House, is using these technologies, according to recently released federal documents.

In recent years, Palantir has tried to expand its work in the private sector, serving big-name businesses like JPMorgan Chase, Airbus and Ferrari and offering new software tools that businesses can use on their own. A little more than half of Palantir’s revenue comes from commercial businesses, according to the SEC filing.

The 2,500-employee company holds about a 3% share of what has become a $25 billion “data analytics” market, according to PitchBook, a firm that tracks the performance of private companies. “That is a small but significant share,” said a PitchBook analyst, Brendan Burke.

Palantir has raised more than $3 billion in funding and is valued by private market investors at $20 billion, but it has not turned a profit since it was founded in 2003. In 2019, Palantir’s revenues topped $742.5 million, a nearly 25% increase over the previous year. But it lost more than $579 million, about the same as it lost in 2018, according to the financial documents made public Tuesday.

The company recently announced that it was moving its headquarters to Denver, which could cut expenses.

A Palantir spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.

Although the company has won an impressive array of federal contracts — in the last four years, it landed at least $741 million in guaranteed money and potentially as much as $2.9 billion, according to the documents — it has also stoked controversy among competitors and federal employees.

In 2016, the company sued the Army over the procurement process for a new version of an intelligence analysis system, claiming the process was unlawful and wasteful. Palantir ended up winning the contract, which accounts for $1.7 billion of the $2.9 billion in potential federal contract money it has won since 2016.

In April, an anonymous government official sent a lengthy memo to Joseph D. Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, describing the inner workings of a flagship Pentagon operation, Project Maven.

An effort to remake U.S. military technology through artificial intelligence, Project Maven has drawn on the expertise of more than 20 U.S. companies, including Palantir.

The project points to how Palantir works with customers. It often deploys specialists, called “forward deployed engineers,” who spend weeks, months or years customizing and expanding its software for the task at hand. The company builds whatever data software that needs building — databases and software connections and on-screen visual displays that help people get their work done.

The details of Palantir projects can vary. It usually connects different sources of data and provides a way for everyday employees to search through it. But in Project Maven, it is offering tools that help seasoned, AI specialists build complex mathematical systems, called deep neural networks, that can recognize objects in images.

Inside Project Maven, Palantir provides software that holds enormous amounts of video footage captured by flying drones operated by the Army and the Air Force. AI specialists then use this software to build systems that can automatically identify buildings, vehicles and people in the footage.

The memo, obtained by The New York Times, said that although Palantir had come late to Maven, the company had grown to “touch almost every aspect” of the project through contracts worth about $40 million a year. The document accused Maven leadership of skirting Pentagon rules and ethics in giving preferential treatment to the startup, whose employees had developed unusually close relationships with their partners inside the military.

The memo and related emails showed the company’s considerable influence inside the government.

Among other complaints, the memo to Kernan claimed that a Palantir employee had sat in on a meeting where government officials — some of whom did not know the Palantir employee was in the room — discussed future contracts and their dollar amounts, which could give the company an “astounding” advantage when bidding for new work.

After the memo, the Defense Department began a formal inquiry into Project Maven, according to two people familiar with the matter who were not allowed to speak about it publicly. The outcome is not yet known. A Defense Department spokesman for Project Maven declined to comment.

Palantir’s unusual business model is not always a perfect fit for military contracts. Although Palantir sells a combination of software and consulting services, all costs are folded into a single software license negotiated with the customer. In other words, the consulting work done by its engineers is layered into the software licensing fees, according to company financial documents. Typically, the government pays for consulting work separately from software licenses.

This means customers often pay for technology that is not yet built. “It is very unusual,” said Jeff Peters, head of global business development at Esri, a longtime government contractor that competes with Palantir. “The business model is different from almost any other technology company.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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