Silicon Valley's most secretive startup won't sell to tobacco companies

Alexander Karp Palantir


Palantir CEO Alex Karp

Palantir, the super-secretive Silicon Valley startup that's said to be valued at $20 billion, is also super selective about its customers, reports Fortune.

Palantir once turned down a partnership with a tobacco company "for fear the company would harness the data to pinpoint vulnerable communities to sell cigarettes to," CEO Alex Karp told Fortune.

For the first several years of its 12-year existence, Palantir only sold its data analysis products to agencies of the United States government.
That includes the United States Department of Defense and the intelligence community, helping them track criminals, terrorists, and fraud cases all over the world.

Those government connections have meant that Palantir has been swirled in a lot of cloak-and-dagger secrecy, even as it's raised $2.4 billion in venture financing. In fact, rumors have swirled that the United States government used Palantir tech to track down Osama Bin Laden - not that the company could or would ever comment on that.

But in recent years, Palantir has opened up to the private sector, selling its products to companies like Hershey and JP Morgan Chase. The idea is to use that same technology to help customers detect fraud and suss out customer behavior patterns.

In fact, Palantir says that Hershey used its software to detect that sales go up when its chocolate is placed next to marshmallows on store shelves.

It's working, apparently. Palantir disclosed to Fortune that it booked $1 billion in revenue in 2014, with commercial bookings up in 2015.
Peter Thiel

Flickr / Fortune Live Media

VC and Palantir cofounder Peter Thiel

That means Palantir can afford not to sell to just anybody - you have to believe in its values, too. See, Palantir thinks that its data software can save the world, per that report - its products are even named "Gotham" and "Metropolis," after Batman and Superman's respective home cities.

That philosophy extends to its government partnerships: Billionaire investor and Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel tells Fortune that he thinks that Palantir's data software can actually help end ubiquitous surveillance by showing agencies like the NSA exactly who's up to no good, so they can leave everybody else alone.

"The government was collecting a lot of data [in the war on terrorism], more than they could analyze. If we could help them make sense of data, they could end indiscriminate surveillance," Thiel tells Fortune.