Secretive, never profitable Palantir makes market debut

BOSTON (AP) — Seventeen years after it was born with the help of CIA seed money, the data-mining outfit Palantir Technologies is finally going public in the biggest Wall Street tech offering since last year’s debut of Slack and Uber.

Never profitable and dogged by ethical objections for assisting in the Trump administration’s deportation crackdown, Palantir forged ahead Wednesday with a direct listing of its stock, gaining 31% in its first trading day.

Rather than selling newly minted shares to raise money; Palantir listed existed shares for public trading. After a delay, trading began after noon and the stock closed at $9.50 after reaching a peak of $11.42.


The low-key stock strategy was in character for a secretive company long reliant on spies, cops and the military as customers — and whose founders are keeping voting control of the company.

The big question for both investors and company management: Can Palantir successfully transition from a business built on the costly handholding of government customers to serving corporate customers at scale? The company is a hybrid provider of software and consulting services that often embeds its own engineers with clients.

Analysts say its future depends on selling multinationals on its tools for gathering disparate data from an ever-expanding data universe and using artificial-intelligence technology to find previously undetectable patterns. Those can theoretically guide strategic decisions and identify new markets much as they have aided in tracking terrorists and sorting military intelligence.

The company sets itself apart from most U.S. technology providers, and just moved its headquarters to Denver from Silicon Valley. Palantir colors itself patriotic and belittles other tech firms that won’t unquestionably support U.S. dominance in war-fighting and intelligence.

“Our software is used to target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe,” CEO Alex Karp wrote in a letter accompanying Palantir’s

Inside Palantir, Silicon Valley’s Most Secretive Unicorn

Palantir co-founders Peter Thiel and Alex Karp.

Palantir co-founders Peter Thiel and Alex Karp.
Photo: Getty Images

Back in 2003, John Poindexter got a call from Richard Perle, an old friend from their days serving together in the Reagan administration. Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq War, which started that year, wanted to introduce Poindexter to a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who were starting a software company. The firm, Palantir Technologies, was hoping to pull together data collected by a wide range of spy agencies — everything from human intelligence and cell-phone calls to travel records and financial transactions — to help identify and stop terrorists planning attacks on the United States.

Poindexter, a retired rear admiral who had been forced to resign as Reagan’s national-security adviser over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, wasn’t exactly the kind of starry-eyed idealist who usually appeals to Silicon Valley visionaries. Returning to the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, he had begun researching ways to develop a data-mining program that was as spooky as its name: Total Information Awareness. His work — dubbed a “super-snoop’s dream” by conservative columnist William Safire — was a precursor to the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance programs that were exposed a decade later by Edward Snowden.

Yet Poindexter was precisely the person Peter Thiel and Alex Karp, the co-founders of Palantir, wanted to meet. Their new company was similar in ambition to what Poindexter had tried to create at the Pentagon, and they wanted to pick the brain of the man now widely viewed as the godfather of modern surveillance.

“When I talked to Peter Thiel early on, I was impressed with the design and the ideas they had for the user interface,” Poindexter told me recently. “But I could see they didn’t have — well, as you call it, the