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SoftBank's Son searches for tech's next big thing

Inveterate businessman leverages $93bn war chest to plot carrier's next stage

SoftBank Group chief Masayoshi Son, left, established a charitable foundation last year to support young talent.

TOKYO -- The massive venture capital fund spearheaded by Japan's SoftBank Group and Saudi Arabia that shook up the tech world has spent its first two months operating largely under the radar. But its obscure bets offer clues to the direction that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son hopes to take.

Son appeared in good spirits Friday throughout a ceremony here held by the Masayoshi Son Foundation, lauding 45 young people selected to receive support from the organization. But when asked by reporters about the SoftBank Vision Fund, he responded with a piercing look. "I'll be a businessman till I die," he declared.

The $93 billion fund rivals the rest of the world's combined annual venture capital investment. But even with so much capital to bring to bear, Son's focus remains squarely on business.

The SoftBank chief has drawn comparisons to American investment guru Warren Buffett. He said that while he "respects Mr. Buffett," he intends to blaze his own trail.

Just which way that trail is going remains somewhat unclear. The Vision Fund has worked in silence since its debut a little over two months ago, offering no information about where it is investing. Just two U.S. companies have said they received capital from the fund, with others coming to light via media coverage of SoftBank.

Son has been jetting around the world on a private plane in search of new deals. "Lately, when I wake up, I automatically check to see where in the world I am," he said.

A large chunk of his time has been spent on the U.S. West Coast, including Silicon Valley. Many of the Vision Fund's bets include unheralded startups from this area, such as indoor-farming venture Plenty, autonomous-robot developer Brain, and Guardant Health, which is researching a blood test for cancer. These bear little relation to SoftBank's core mobile and telecommunications business.

Yet SoftBank itself, Son argues, is not a telecom company but a "vendor of information revolution." The company has changed its core business three times since its creation in 1981, riding the information technology industry's constant shifts. It started off with software distribution before entering the internet business in the 1990s, then broke into broadband in 2001 and became a wireless carrier in 2006.

Investment has been vital to this approach. SoftBank bought a stake in a little-known internet portal called Yahoo in 1995, and it acquired the Japanese operations of U.K. wireless carrier Vodafone in 2006 to kick off its mobile business.

Son sees the "internet of things" playing the leading role in the industry's next phase, driven by the evolution of artificial intelligence. He envisions a future in which AI-equipped robots live side by side with humans.

The fund's investments may seem scattershot, but in Son's mind, they are connected by this vision -- one that has led him to cast an unprecedentedly wide net. He seeks to use this capital to discover the seeds of new businesses.

By putting the Vision Fund on SoftBank's consolidated books, Son has put his money where his mouth is as he works to engineer the company's fourth pivot -- a task he calls his "big challenge."

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