Apple this week confirmed its $1 billion investment in SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund, increasing SoftBank’s odds to be “the world’s No. 1 robotics company” in service humanoid robots.
In October, Tokyo-based SoftBank announced that it was preparing to establish its Vision Fund for the purpose of making investments in the technology sector globally. In recent weeks, the investment and technology community had speculated that Apple was preparing to make a major investment in the Vision Fund, which it announced on Jan. 6. The relationship between SoftBank and Apple extends back to 2008, when SoftBank made a deal with Apple to become the exclusive iPhone seller in Japan.
“Organically connected within an IoT ecosystem, these and other group companies have the potential to create new business models and take major evolutionary steps forward in the days ahead.” — SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son
Apple’s commitment follows Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund pledge of about $45 billion. Qualcomm, Foxconn, and Oracle are also said to be in for about $1 billion each. SoftBank reported that it will also invest $28 billion in the London-headquartered Vision Fund.
Vision Fund has lofty targets
At this rate and scale of support, SoftBank is on target to hit its goal of securing $100 billion for the Vision Fund, which SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son in October defined as a “new investment strategy on a scale that rivals those of current venture funds” to advance “promising technology companies.” Son, who recently met with President-elect Donald Trump, has promised to invest $50 billion of the fund in the U.S. to create 50,000 jobs in the country.
While SoftBank intends to invest a significant portion of the funds into promising tech startups, the company will use a portion of the funds to advance its own initiatives, which include Son’s vision to have SoftBank be a leader in the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence.
On Jan. 4, as part of the company’s third-quarter earnings call, Son declared these technologies as SoftBank’s next growth engine. He went on to say that the company’s aggressive moves and focus on these areas will benefit several of SoftBank’s operations including its Robotics Group, an intermediate holding company that oversees its robotics business.
“Organically connected within an IoT ecosystem, these and other group companies have the potential to create new business models and take major evolutionary steps forward in the days ahead,” Son commented.
SoftBank Robotics Group Corp. announced that it changed its company name from SoftBank Robotics Holdings Corp. in November. The Robotics Group offers services and products including the well-marketed service robot Pepper.
So far, there are 10,000 Pepper bots worldwide, according to SoftBank. A rollout of Pepper began in late 2016 with a focus on use cases in retail and hospitality. SoftBank expects that Pepper will expand into healthcare market.
Still a work in progress, SoftBank recently opened a new Pepper-focused outpost in San Francisco and unveiled an Android software development kit in the hopes of enticing programmers to write code and improve the robot’s learning ability. Microsoft, IBM Watson, and Google are also supporting that effort.