Alex Karp: the maverick leading a “scary business”

Palantir, headed by Alex Karp, could be following Snap in holding a high-profile listing. But the business itself has made some people nervous.


Did Alex Karp's company help kill Osama bin Laden?
(Image credit: © 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP)

When Snap, the owner of social media app Snapchat, floated on the stock exchange earlier this month, there was much speculation about which tech giant would be next. Leading the list of candidates is Palantir, the data-analysis firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, which has long been regarded as one of Silicon Valley's most promising start-ups.

Revenues at the outfit last valued at $20bn and backed by the CIA's venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel are going great guns, notes the FT. Palantir's technological reputation is second to none, and CEO Alex Karp is evidently keen to get on with an initial public offering (IPO). So what's stopping him? In a nutshell, reputational risk. As one Valley lawyer once observed: "They're in a scary business".

Depending on your views on the balance to be struck between civil liberties and security, Palantir's technology is "either creepy or heroic", said Bloomberg in 2011. Formed by Thiel, his old Stanford dorm-mate Karp and several others in 2004, the firm's slick software and skill at analysing massive data sets for intelligence have made it the go-to company for law enforcers and spooks worldwide.

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The combination of "Big Brother and Big Data" makes some would-be investors nervous. But Karp thinks Palantir can carve a way through the conflicting goals of privacy and security, says Forbes. "I didn't sign up for the government to know when I smoke a joint or have an affair," he says.

Karp, 49, may qualify as the "most bizarre" CEO in Silicon Valley, says A self-described "deviant", he grew up in Philadelphia, has a philosophy doctorate from Goethe University Frankfurt and is renowned for his obsessive personality. A cabinet in his office is stocked with 20 pairs of identical swimming goggles and hand sanitiser. The firm its name is a reference to The Lord of the Rings has a "unique" culture formed around Karp's own "iconoclast image", says Forbes. He likes to address staff on everything from greed and integrity to Marxism via an internal video channel called KarpTube.

The addition of a Batman-themed office known as "Gotham" in New York is testament to the growing demand for Palantir's analytics among large banks and blue-chips. Yet for Karp, success has come at a price. A magnet for conspiracy theorists, he's been a major security target ever since "rumours began to spread that a start-up called Palantir helped to kill Osama bin Laden". And despite Karp's professed principles, civil-liberties campaigners have long worried that, in the wrong hands, Palantir's software could enable "a true totalitarian nightmare".

Those fears have been rekindled under President Trump, says The Intercept, an investigative reporting outfit particularly now we know that Palantir software is providing "the engine" for a new immigrant intelligence system that goes live in September. Being the author of "Trump's deportation machine" is not a headline Karp will relish. He's going to need all his savvy to pull off a potentially very divisive IPO.