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.
The company is deeply wedded to its work inside the government. Although some Palantir employees have protested its work with ICE and other parts of the government, it has not backed off.
In a letter to potential investors, included in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission Tuesday, Karp pointedly jabbed at fellow Silicon Valley companies and said he was proud of Palantir’s work with federal agencies.
“Our company was founded in Silicon Valley. But we seem to share fewer and fewer of the technology sector’s values and commitments,” he wrote. He added that “software projects with our nation’s defense and intelligence agencies, whose missions are to keep us safe, have become controversial, while companies built on advertising dollars are commonplace.”