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SoftBank plans second AI venture fund
SOFTBANK Group Corp.'s early-stage venture capital arm is setting up a second investment fund dedicated to unearthing promising startups in artificial intelligence, propelling founder Masayoshi Son's ambition of staking out a position in the nascent technology.
Deepcore Inc. is preparing to form a new AI investment fund in two to three years as it expands its core startup incubation business, chief executive officer Katsumasa Niki said in an interview.
The company aims to find promising companies and nurture the next generation of up-and-comers, enroute to addressing Japan's deficit of global AI firms. Deepcore's second fund will surpass the 6 billion yen (S$75.7 million) raised for the first, Mr Niki said without elaborating.
The effort is separate from SoftBank's much better-known Vision Fund, the US$100 billion giant that has made large bets on industries from ride-hailing and autonomous driving to co-working spaces.
Billionaire founder Son says what unifies those investments is the way they will use AI, redefining every industry and creating new ones. This month, the Japanese investment conglomerate named renowned AI expert and Deepcore-adviser Yutaka Matsuo to its board, enlisting a specialist in the field for the first time.
"I wish an enterprise which can be like a GAFA will start its life in Japan," he said, invoking the acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. "The number of startups here is fewer than the US and Europe, and we need to increase it by providing such environment that engineers can open up a business."
SoftBank began a startup incubation business in February 2018 by forming Deepcore, which went on to set up an AI fund that SoftBank, Yahoo Japan Corp., Dentsu Inc. and soccer player Keisuke Honda invested in.
That fund has since invested in 18 early-stage startups as of May, said Mr Niki, who oversaw investment projects for SoftBank until 2016 and was instrumental in the acquisitions of Vodafone Group Plc's Japanese mobile unit and Sprint Corp.
Deepcore's picks include Vaak Inc., which operates a crime prevention business using image analysis. It's one of just several AI startups in the country, alongside unicorn Preferred Networks and smaller publicly traded concerns such as Heroz Inc.
Deepcore, which has some 250 people at its base in Tokyo, intends to open two more locations there. Its headquarters are close to the University of Tokyo, which has yielded about 70 per cent of the entrepreneurs in Deepcore's various startup-incubation programmes, Mr Niki said. BLOOMBERG