Masayoshi Son's A.I.-fueled spending spree kicked into high gear in the third quarter. The investments ranged across online commerce to hospitality and enterprise apps, but Son has said that artificial intelligence is the common thread that runs through all of them.
Working through Japanese telecom and tech conglomerate Softbank Corp. (SFTBY) and its massive Softbank Vision Fund, Son made investments in the quarter in companies ranging from workplace communications app maker Slack Technologies Inc. and sports e-commerce group Fanatics Inc., to Indian hotel tech group OYO (formally Oravel Stays Private Ltd), shared office space outfit WeWork Cos. Inc., Indian e-commerce group Flipkart Online Services Pvt. Ltd., and Swiss biomedical research outfit Roivant Sciences Ltd.
Son has made deals through Softbank itself and the Vision Fund, which Softbank controls. Softbank said in May that it planned to raise $100 billion for the fund, including $28 billion of its own funds, including a 25% stake in ARM Holdings plc worth $8.2 billion. The SoftBank boss wants even more capital in his quest to fund The Singularity, or the theoretical point when machines are expected to become smarter than humans.
Artificial intelligence is the connective tissue between all of the Vision Fund's investments, Son told an audience at a Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, conference in late October. "Different fields [and] different factors," he said, "but somehow somewhere it's all artificial-intelligence related."
In August, SoftBank transferred a stake in Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) to the Vision fund. The chipmaker develops technology for self-driving cars and machine learning. The stake is reportedly worth $4 billion, falling just below the 5% threshold that would require SoftBank to report it to the SEC. SoftBank made a similar transfer of shares in Internet of things and automotive chipmaker Arm Holdings Plc to the Vision Fund in March. And Son furthered the fund's smart car holdings in October by leading a $164 million investment in mapping company Mapbox to that will help the company build out its in-car navigation and autonomous driving units, among other uses.
The link to A.I. among Son's investments is not always clear.
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For instance, in September, the Vision Fund led a $250 million investment in Slack, which makes software so that employees can chat, exchange documents and so forth. The investment valued Slack at $5.1 billion. Slack's app focuses on interactions between humans, but its search function incorporates artificial intelligence that can help to solve workplace problems. "Search in Slack now surfaces people likely to know about the topic at hand, along with the channels where you can reach them," Slack's blog says.
SoftBank and the Vision Fund retained teams from Stibbe and Morrison & Foerster LLP for their joint $4.4 billion investment in August in WeWork to fund expansion in Asia. Morrison & Foerster also advised on third-quarter investments in OYO and Fantatics, and prior deals such as the purchase of robotics outfit Boston Dynamics from Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) and an investment in Chinese ride-sharing group Didi Chuxing. The Vision Fund also draws on the expertise of Rajeev Misra, who is the CEO of Softbank Investment Advisers, a subsidiary of Softbank that advises the fund. Misra is veteran of Deutsche Bank AG and Fortress Investment Group LLC.
Son told investors recently that the Vision Fund has already made a $3 billion profit in its short, five-month existence. He did not explain whether the gains were from the increase in value of the businesses, dividends or other sources. While most of the fund's holdings are private, it does own shares in Nvidia. And while biomedical research group Roivant, a Softbank investment, is private, Roivant does own shares in publicly-traded Axovant Sciences Ltd. (AXON) , which is focused on neurology and is worth $550 million, as well as Myovant Sciences Ltd. (MYOV) , which develops treatments for women's health and endocrine diseases and has an $800 million market cap.
The Vision Fund's goal of $100 billion may ultimately not be enough to fund Son's global ambitions in A.I. "People say it's too much. I say it's too little." Son told investors at the Riyadh conference. The SoftBank Chairman downplayed reports that he plans to launch a substantially larger fund. "I wouldn't' say each fund would be bigger," he said. "Each fund would be maybe the same size, but I would do it more frequently."
Even with Son's prodigious investments and acquisitions this year, the real fireworks could come in the fourth quarter if the Softbank boss can merge Sprint Corp. (S) , which Softbank owns more than 80% of, with T-Mobile US Inc. (TMUS) and finalize a reported $10 billion investment in Uber Technologies Inc.
To fully grasp the futuristic world of smart machines, robots and self driving cars that Son envisions, the tech mogul suggested that Riyadh attendees think more like George Lucas than George Soros. "Don't just look at what you can see," he said. "Listen to The Force."
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