Japanese telecom giant SoftBank made a splash last year by announcing plans to invest $50 billion in the U.S. as part of its massive $100 billion “vision fund.” According to CEO Masayoshi Son, the company’s investments in U.S. firms will create roughly 50,000 jobs.
One of the benefits of SoftBank’s approach is that the company is taking a global view in terms of where it focuses its investments, said Ron Fisher, SoftBank Capital’s cofounder and managing partner.
“We don’t mind where the companies are,” he said. “So if we find a great AI company, for example, in Austin, we’ll put money behind that. Because we don’t have a natural bias to only investing in the Silicon Valley area, we’re looking along a global basis.”
Fisher spoke onstage today with CNBC’s Jon Fortt at a VentureBeat event to launch our Heartland Tech channel and upcoming Blueprint conference. The event was part of VentureBeat’s editorial initiative to explore the economic and tech divide between Silicon Valley and the rest of America.
It’s unclear how much SoftBank’s investment activity will benefit companies that aren’t part of the existing tech ecosystem. The company’s big-ticket investments have been focused primarily on tech players like chipmakers Nvidia and ARM, robotics company Boston Dynamics, and coworking company WeWork. Speaking of ARM, Fisher highlighted the chipmaker’s presence in Austin, Texas as an example of a technology company investing in the heartland.
SoftBank is aiming to become the Berkshire Hathaway of technology, according to Son. If he’s committed to following Warren Buffett’s model, perhaps serious investment in the heartland will follow. After all, Berkshire Hathaway poured money into a series of newspapers, like the Dothan Eagle, which serves the community of Dothan, Alabama.
The fund isn’t yet complete. While the vision fund has ballooned to $93 billion, SoftBank is still seeking an additional $7 billion. The company has thus far drawn investment from sovereign wealth funds belonging to Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, as well as private companies like Apple and Sharp. Half of that final pool will go to the U.S.
SoftBank’s portfolio companies are building offices outside the traditional Silicon Valley core, and Fisher highlighted one business in particular as a recent addition to its stable.
“One of the companies that we invested in fairly recently is a company called OneWeb, which is building the next generation of low Earth orbiting satellites,” Fisher said. “They decided, for obvious reasons, to go to Florida [because of the space industry there]. They will probably hire two to three thousand engineers in that area.”
50,000 jobs is a lofty number, one that happens to be roughly equivalent to the number of positions Youngstown, Ohio lost in the 1970s and 1980s as the steel business dried up. It’s worth noting that $50 billion could provide full-time work for a year to over 2.4 million people making $10 an hour.
People shouldn’t expect SoftBank to chip in a couple million here and there for mom-and-pop shops, however. Son told investors last month that he has “no intention of making small bets,” according to a report by the Financial Times.
SoftBank’s investment activity has reaped major returns in the past. The company holds a stake in Alibaba that is currently valued at over $11.2 billion. It also held a stake in mobile game maker Supercell, which it sold to Tencent last year for roughly $8.6 billion.
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