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UPDATE 3-Palantir valued at $20 bln in choppy stock exchange debut

(New throughout, adds comments from Palantir and NYSE executives and analyst, updates prices to close)

Sept 30 (Reuters) - Palantir Technologies Inc, the U.S. data analytics firm known for its work with the Central Intelligence Agency and other government agencies, was valued at $20.6 billion in a choppy New York Stock Exchange debut on Wednesday.

The listing ended years of speculation about when the company, co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel in 2003, would go public and how much it would be worth.

Palantir’s shares closed at $9.50 apiece, below its $10 opening price though topping the weighted average price of $9.17 in the private markets in September as well as a reference price of $7.25 set by the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

Palantir decided in the middle of 2019 to go public, with an original timetable to complete the listing in the second half of 2021 but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated its plans, according to Chief Operating Officer Shyam Sankar.

“Broadly speaking COVID has been a tailwind for our business,” Sankar said in an interview.

“We started 83 new engagements with customers in the first three weeks of COVID without getting on a plane,” Sankar added.

The listing pegs Palantir’s valuation at roughly the same level as in a 2015 private fundraising round.

There has been considerable debate about whether investors will view it as a lucrative software provider or a less-glamorous consulting business.

Denver-based Palantir went public at a time of strong investor demand for new stocks, particularly technology companies that promise rapid growth.

The company, led by CEO Alex Karp, has seen strong demand for its services, with revenue rising almost 50% to $481.2 million in the first six months of 2020 from the comparable period a year earlier.

However, Palantir has yet to turn a profit in its 17 years of existence, posting a net loss of $164.7 million in the same period, compared with a loss of $280.5 million a year earlier.

DIRECT ROUTE

Palantir opted to go public through a direct listing rather than a traditional initial public offering, meaning it did not raise any money but allowed its investors to sell more shares.

Only two major companies - workplace messaging platform Slack Technologies Inc in 2019 and music-streaming service Spotify Technology SA in 2018 - have taken the direct listing route.

Workplace software maker Asana Inc also went public on Wednesday through a direct listing, and its shares opened up 29%.

“Today further advanced the direct listing as an option for companies looking to access the public market,” said NYSE Vice Chairman and Chief Commercial Officer John Tuttle.

Nevertheless, Palantir closing below its opening price is a sign the first new investors will have lost money which would be a setback for the growth of direct listings, according Kathleen Smith, founding principal at Renaissance Capital, a research firm and manager of IPO-focused exchange-traded funds

“With direct listings, the appropriate starting price would be the opening trade,” Smith said. “For the direct listing to gain traction as a new structure, investors will have to make money,” she added.

Palantir analyzes large amounts of data for U.S. government defense and intelligence agencies, global banks and energy companies.

As a public company, Palantir is expected to face intense scrutiny from investors and the media about its operations after years of being viewed as one of the most reclusive U.S. tech companies.

Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse Group AG and Goldman Sachs & Co were the lead banks advising Palantir on its listing. (Reporting by Anirban Sen and Niket Nishant in Bengaluru, Joshua Franklin and Chibuike Oguh in New York; Editing by Anil D’Silva and David Gregorio)

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