When Eric Gundersen, the chief executive of a mapping start-up called Mapbox, met Masayoshi Son, the head of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, in late July, he expected to have to sell Mr. Son on what made Mapbox important.
But Mr. Son, 60, did not need to be convinced that Mapbox’s technology — which powers Lyft drivers and companies like Snap and Mastercard — had value. After a whirlwind courtship, Mr. Son’s nearly $100 billion Vision Fund, which SoftBank unveiled last October with money from Saudi Arabia and others, led a $164 million investment in Mapbox that was announced on Tuesday.
In the process, Mr. Son also explained his grand plan for deploying the Vision Fund to Mr. Gundersen. The Japanese billionaire said he believed robots would inexorably change the work force and machines would become more intelligent than people, an event referred to as the “Singularity.” As a result, Mr. Son told Mr. Gundersen, he is on a mission to own pieces of all the companies that may underpin the global shifts brought on by artificial intelligence to transportation, food, work, medicine and finance.
“For Masa, his vision is not just about predictions like the Singularity, which has gotten a lot of hype,” Mr. Gundersen said. “He understands that we’ll need a massive amount of data to get us to a future that’s more dependent on machines and robotics.”
What Mr. Son laid out for Mr. Gundersen helps explain why SoftBank and its Vision Fund have invested billions of dollars in a seemingly random sample of more than two dozen companies since the fund was announced. The investments span robotics software start-ups like Brain Corp and the indoor farming business Plenty, as well as more prominent companies like the business software maker Slack. The deals have run the gamut from smaller investments in start-ups to larger deals with public companies.
Mr. Son is deploying SoftBank’s nearly $100 billion Vision Fund by investing in a network of companies. Yet the companies all have something in common: They are involved in collecting enormous amounts of data, which are crucial to creating the brains for the machines that, in the future, will do more of our jobs and creating tools that allow people to better coexist.
Most recently, SoftBank has been involved in a plan to buy nearly a fifth of the existing stock of Uber, the world’s biggest ride-hailing company and one that has changed the transportation industry. SoftBank is aiming to accumulate Uber’s stock through a tender offer that could value the company at a discount to its current valuation of $68.5 billion, according to people briefed on the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details were confidential. The tender offer could still fall apart, one of the people said.
- Masayoshi Son’s grand plan for SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund includes a fifth of Uber