Palantir Technologies: Government Contracting Married With Google's Culture

Palantir Technologies, one of the latest entrants to the government intelligence services marketplace, has designed what some intelligence sources call the most effective tool for investigating terrorist networks. The main advance of the software: a user-friendly search tool that can scan multiple data sources at once, something previous search tools couldn’t do. With Palantir’s software, an analyst following a tip about a planned terror attack can more quickly and easily root out connections between suspects, money transfers, phone calls, and previous attacks worldwide.

Palantir’s start came from a conversation between founder Alexander Karp and PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Thiel posed the question:  “Could [Karp] build software that would uncover terror networks using the approach PayPal had devised to fight Russian cybercriminals?”  PayPal’s software was able to make connections between fraudulent payments that seemed unrelated on a surface level.  By following unconventional leads, PayPal could identify suspect customers and ferret out cybercrime networks, leading to a tenfold decrease in fraud losses following the software’s launch, even as competitors struggled to beat back cheaters.Mr. Thiel’s venture-capital fund then largely bankrolled the company’s $30 million start-up costs.

Not everyone is a fan.  Todd Drake, general manager of I2 Inc., Palantir’s chief rival, Palantir as “the new sexy thing,” and questions Palantir’s ability to make significant inroads in a market that prizes the stability provided by established players.  Palantir CEO Alexander Karp rebuts these claims by pointing to his company’s robust growth in the government market. It will be telling to those in the Government Contracting market if this new culture can survive the test of time.

What makes Palantir different?  For one thing, it ignored advice to hire retired generals in order to curry favor with the agencies and hired young government analysts frustrated by slow-footed technology.

Palantir’s culture is modeled on Google’s, rather than more conventional intelligence contractors.  Employees enjoy gratis catered meals of ahi tuna and a free-form 24-hour workplace wired for 16-person Halo gaming sessions.  The kitchen is stocked with exotic request items ranging from Pepto Bismol to glass bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola (sweetened with sugar, not corn syrup), and the company recently hosted its own battle of the bands.

Palantir’s unorthodox corporate climate has certainly paid off: the company’s Washington workload has exploded from eight pilot programs to more than 50 projects. The Australian government is now a client, and the NSA and the U.K. are currently eyeing Palantir’s software as analysis tools.

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