Softheon launched in 2000 with a pretty good business model, helping process payments over the Web for giants such as Sony, Gillette, JC Penney, J.P. Morgan Chase, and AOL. But it soon saw a possible billion-dollar opportunity in health care.

Softheon and Perot Systems won a contract for “RomneyCare” in Massachusetts, helping design and operate the first health insurance exchange that became the model for the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). Stony Brook-based Softheon CEO Eugene Sayan says his company today is the largest ACA administration and payment processing source in the nation, serving nearly 40 percent of consumers who receive health insurance on federal and state-based exchanges. The company has processed more than $10 billion in payments since the ACA launched and currently serves more than 20 million people.

“It’s had incredible organic growth,” says Joseph Campolo, managing partner at Ronkonkoma-based law firm of Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP, and Softheon’s counsel. “It’s not far-fetched to believe they will be a unicorn in the future.”

If you think unicorns are mythic creatures, you probably haven’t been following finance. A unicorn company is a private startup with a valuation of more than $1 billion.

“It refers to emerging companies with billion-dollar valuations,” says Alon Kapen, partner in Farrell Fritz’s corporate practice group and head of its emerging companies and venture capital practice group. “Lots of companies are valued at multiples of a billion dollars that have been around for many years.”

It’s not easy to identify companies with such a high valuation, because private companies rarely publicize financials.

Most officially become unicorns only after much smaller funding rounds at a ratio valuing them at $1 billion. 

“Once the deal closes, they typically provide data on their rounds,” Kapen says.

Lyft, Uber, WeWork Labs and Airbnb reached valuations of more than $1 billion long before they became a glimmer in Wall Street’s eye. Softheon hasn’t rushed to raise money lately, as it grows organically.

“There’s no inventory, no cost of goods,” Campolo says of firms like Softheon with the potential to break the billion-dollar barrier. “I think the way health care is going, it’s probably the number one field to produce new unicorns.”

Softheon’s rapid growth came as the company reinvented itself, tapping into health insurance marketplaces serving government employers, and payment processing.

Venture capital funds, Kapen says, have “raised enormous amounts of money to invest in late-stage companies and late-stage rounds of funding.”

Companies in the past often went public earlier, due to Securities and Exchange Commission rules requiring that they report to the SEC after they have 500 or more shareholders.

That increased to 2,000, allowing them to grow on the vine before being plucked by public markets.

“Most are in Silicon Valley. A bunch are in Manhattan and Boston,” Kapen says of unicorns. “Crowdfunding has attempted to address the geographical disparity between Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston, and everywhere else.”

Listings of unicorns these days show hundreds, with many in the United States, as well as a large herd in China.

“I have never seen so much money out there and such high valuations on companies,” Campolo says. “My expectation is we’re going to see more unicorns in the future, making them less rare.”

Meanwhile, Softheon recently signed a three-year agreement with AARP to design and manage an Internet-based health and wellness platform to serve 38 million AARP members.

As Campolo sees it, the value threshold for this mythic monetary beast may rise. Investors already can hunt “decacorns” valued at $10 billion and “hectocorns” valued at $100 billion.

“Five years from now, a billion-dollar evaluation won’t be a unicorn anymore,” Campolo says. “I think it’ll be five billion at that point. That’s how fast things are going right now.”

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