Peter Thiel will be neck-and-neck with Graeme Hart for the title of richest New Zealander following the long-anticipated public listing of his spook software company, Palantir.
Palantir released a brief statement on Tuesday saying it had filed paperwork with the US Securities and Exchange Commission for a sharemarket listing.
The brief filing offered no financials, valuation or timeline.
A US$20 billion private equity valuation being bandied about in the media today dates from 2015, and Palantir's business has grown considerably since, particularly during the Trump administration. Palantir's recent new business includes new profiling tool business for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and, reportedly, a new contract with the US Department of Health and Human Services to build a coronavirus-tracking tool. A worldwide push to parlay its spy business into pandemic tracking has seen a similar deal with the UK government - although an offer to help the New Zealand Government went begging.
When IPO talk last surfaced, for a mooted listing in the second half of 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported, "After Palantir shared some of its internal metrics with Morgan Stanley bankers, the bank returned with a range of US$36b to US$41b for a 2020 public offering."
Thiel's stake in Palantir has never been made public, but Forbes has put it at 10 per cent - meaning his holding would be worth US$4.1b if the company does list at a US$41b valuation.
Current estimates of Thiel's wealth - around US$2.3b - lean heavily on his early investments in PayPal and Facebook.
Once a public listing unlocks his wealth in the mysterious Palantir, then Thiel could be worth US6.4b ($9.2b).
That would see him breathing down the neck of Graeme Hart, whom the NBR Rich List 2019 put on $10b, and ahead of the Todd family ($4b), ex-pat banker Richard Chandler ($3b) and the toy-empire Mowbray siblings (also $3b).
And although Hart's packaging business was recently on the backfoot, as revenue dropped for calendar 2019, Palantir's business is reportedly in high-growth - if profitless - mode with revenue reportedly increasing from US$750m to US$1b last year) - and it could be one of the few that booms from the pandemic and the general rise in surveillance.
A post-listing share-price surge is possible, which could in turn easily leapfrog Thiel past Hart.
Thiel has also been in the news lately as an early financial backer of Clearview AI, the controversial startup, recently trialled by NZ Police without clearance. Clearview scraped 2.8b images from Facebook and other social media sites to create a facial recognition database.
Although now sidelined in NZ, Clearview says it is being used by more than 2000 law enforcement agencies.
Afghanistan to NZ
Co-founded by Thiel and Alex Karp in 2004, Palantir makes software that helps security and law enforcement clients like the NSA, CIA and FBI mine mountains of "big data" from electronic surveillance.
It was named after a mystical, all-powerful seeing stone used by the evil wizard Saruman in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (of which Thiel is said to be a major fan).
Its software is credited with helping US authorities hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.
Our GCSB and SIS won't confirm or deny if they are Palantir customers but the company has an office in Wellington and the GCSB has advertised for staff proficient in Palantir's software. Born-and-bred Kiwi Jonty Kelt is one of Palantir's most senior executives. And a Herald investigation uncovered that the NZ Defence Force has spent more than $7.2m with Palantir since 2012.
And on its website currently, as part of a recruitment campaign for software engineers, Palantir says, "We meet problems where they live. Wherever our users are — whether it's Afghanistan or Atlanta, New York or New Zealand — we are there too".
Thiel hit local headlines in 2017 when it was revealed he had been made a New Zealand citizen since 2011 - despite spending just 11 days in the country.
The German-born, Californian-resident entrepreneur's Kiwi passport was fast-tracked as he invested millions in local startups including Xero and Vend.
Thiel subsequently lost enthusiasm for local tech investments but did become a prolific buyer of property around Queenstown and Wanaka, as featured in the Vice documentary, Hunt for the Bunker People.
The art of the Thiel
Thiel donated millions to the Trump campaign in 2016, and spoke at the Republican National Convention in the run-up to the election.
However, a recent Wall Street Journal report said Thiel has become disillusioned with Trump over his coronavirus response.
The paper noted the billionaire was not down to speak at this year's Republican convention, and he has not donated any money to the Trump 2020 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.