Information technology

The digital assembly line

Technology firms vie for billions in corporate data-analytics contracts

SOMEBODY LESS driven than Tom Siebel would have long since thrown in the towel. In 2006 the entrepreneur, then 53 years old, sold his first firm, Siebel Systems, which made computer programs to track customer relations, to Oracle, a giant of business software. That left him a billionaire—but a restless one. In 2009, a few months after Mr Siebel had launched a new startup, he was trampled by an elephant while on safari in Tanzania. When, a dozen surgeries later, he could work again, the enterprise almost went bankrupt. Undeterred, he rebooted it.

Mr Siebel’s fortitude has paid off. The firm, now called C3.ai, raised $100m in venture capital last year, valuing it at $2.1bn. It was an early bet on data analytics, which converts raw data (from a machine’s sensors or a warehouse) into useful predictions (when equipment will fail or what the optimal stocking levels are) with the help of clever algorithms. Many investors see fortunes to be made from this new breed of enterprise software, which is spreading from Big Tech’s computer labs to corporations everywhere.

Worldwide, 35 companies that dabble in data analytics feature on a list of startups valued at $1bn or more, maintained by CB Insights, a research firm. Collectively, these unicorns…