Corporate Q&A

A $435 billion list

A pioneering unicorn ranking is launched


Nina Xiang

Nina Xiang founded online media outlet China Money Network in 2011 to cover China’s growing internet and tech sector, as well as the private equity and venture capital groups investing in it. Here Xiang (pictured right), who is also China Money Network’s editor-in-chief, discusses her latest initiative: the first comprehensive ranking of China’s unicorns (defined as unlisted start-ups with a valuation in excess of $1 billion).

How long did it take to compile?

We first had the idea to create a China unicorn ranking about six months ago, as we felt that there wasn’t a complete and decent list out there to capture what’s going on in this interesting space. After that, we have been tracking and monitoring anything related to unicorns on a daily basis as we cover China’s smart investments and tech innovations. Finally, we aggregated and analysed the ranking during the past month.

How many unicorns are on your list?

In the end, we had 102 unicorns in our ranking. The number was initially bigger (over 110) but we deleted some as their valuations have either dropped below $1 billion, or it appears certain to us that their business fundamentals could no longer support their net worth. Also, some companies completed IPOs, so those were removed as well.

These 102 unicorns have a combined valuation of $435 billion, a truly jaw-dropping number. If they were an independent country, they would be the 26th largest economy in the world, just after Belgium and bigger than Thailand’s GDP. (The top 20 unicorns are listed below.)

CB Insights estimates there are 193 unicorns globally worth $664 billion. Your list suggests the Chinese unicorns are worth $435 billion. So China has two thirds of the world’s unicorns?

No, it’s because CB Insights only have about 40 Chinese unicorns on their list. Basically, they are missing most of the Chinese unicorns out here.

If you take a look at our ranking, most investors in the US or Europe would say, who are these companies that we’ve never heard of, but are worth over $1 billion? But for every single company on our ranking, we have covered them and tracked them for years, and not one name appears strange or weird to us.

So if you add the Chinese unicorns that appear on our list but were not included on CB Insights’ list, the ratio of Chinese unicorns in relation to global totals would be lower, but not much lower as those missing are generally smaller companies worth around $1 billion.

It’s not at all surprising to me that Chinese unicorns would be half of the global unicorn club, as China’s size is innately immense. China accounts for a majority in many aspects, whether it’s the world’s skyscrapers, or outbound tourists.

Are the unicorns in your list generally tech-related?

For sure, what else could investors be so bullish on or can support such valuations? Around 65% of the unicorns are in the sectors of financial technology, mobile internet, on-demand and O2O (online-to-offline), e-commerce and artificial intelligence. For other sectors, companies also have a strong tech element. Smart hardware maker Xiaomi alone has four unicorns in its ecosystem, all are manufacturers of smart devices such as the smart wrist band. The education sector’s two unicorns, iTutorGroup and Hujiang, are both online education companies. Logistics unicorns New Dada and Huochebang, are both powered by mobile apps to make certain segments of the logistics market more efficient.

How many of the unicorns have investments from Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT)?

Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent own or are directly affiliated with 13 unicorns, which are worth $124.51 billion in total. BAT as a whole have also invested in 38 unicorns worth a combined $163 billion. If you add these two together, BAT would have owned and invested in 66% of the unicorns in terms of valuation.

There is certainly some degree of alliance formation among start-ups: either you join the Tencent camp or you become a team member with Alibaba. The BAT and other major tech companies are redrawing digital territories, and start-ups live in a world shadowed by their dominance, but this is not unique to China.

Are there any other industry sectors that have a particularly strong showing on the list?

Artificial intelligence, which is sort of a newer thing, has five pure-play unicorns already, which is pretty amazing. I believe there will be more unicorns born in this sector this year and next. The bike renting companies Ofo and Mobike are newly minted unicorns that just burst onto the stage totally out of the blue.

Baidu’s Robin Li said that there won’t be any new unicorns born in the mobile internet sector, and that appears to be true. The number of unicorns utilising mobile internet technology will likely shrink going forward, as numerous companies are planning to list this year and others may be acquired.

How many unicorns do you forecast you’ll add to the list next year?

That’s hard to predict. I feel like if we look at the list, I see a lot more companies that will disappear from the list soon [when they IPO], including Ant Financial, iQiyi, Lufax, e-Shang Redwood, Three Squirrels, and the list goes on.

Where will the future unicorns come from? The obvious answer is AI, and who knows, maybe power bank rental companies or some sort of sharing economy type of ventures.

It appears to me that 2017 might be a peak for Chinese unicorns, but anything could happen.

Could the list reduce in size owing to over-inflated valuations coming down?

Oh yeah, we have seen a lot of those already taking place but people just haven’t paid much attention to it. Over a dozen unicorns have seen their net worth shrink.

Online snacks retailer Three Squirrels had its valuation reduced more than half when it filed an IPO application in Shenzhen last month, compared to its valuation in 2015. Other companies including Tiantian Express, Zhongan Insurance, e-commerce platform Koudai Gouwu and, tourism platform, and designated driver service eDaijia have all suffered similar fates.  Looking back, there is no question that investors and entrepreneurs got carried away in 2015. The time of reckoning has come and companies swimming naked won’t be able to hide much longer.

An offshoot of the list is your venture capital firm ranking…

Yes, we also ranked VCs by the number of unicorns they have under their belt. It turns out that the results fit squarely into the best performing VCs in China. Sequoia Capital, IDG Capital, Matrix Partners China, Qiming Venture Partners, Temasek Holdings, Yunfeng Capital, CDH Investments, DST Global, GGV Capital and Shunwei Capital are our top 10 VCs.

What’s interesting is that even our list may have underestimated the number of unicorns in China. IDG, for example, claims that it has invested in 26 companies that later joined the unicorn club, compared to 15 unicorns according to our ranking.

IDG refused to disclose the list of its unicorn portfolio. Even considering that some might have achieved an exit, there are potentially more unicorns out there in China that are yet to be known by people.


China Money Network’s Top 20 unicorns:


To see the full list go to:

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