SoftBank adding technology ambitions, with ARM, robotics

Photo ops of SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son sometimes show him chatting happily with his company’s humanoid robot, the childlike Pepper, or grinning as President Donald Trump heaps praise on him for creating American jobs.

It’s clear Son, Japan’s richest person, stands out in Japan Inc.

He is no “salaryman” president, those typical executives who rise gradually and quietly through the ranks, Japan-style, in a corporate culture that frowns upon mavericks and tends to squelch self-made ventures.

Since founding SoftBank in 1981, Son, a Japanese of Korean ancestry who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, has won both criticism and accolades as a daring investor who has gathered partners in diverse technology sectors from around the world.

Sometimes those adventures cost him. But often, they have paid off.

SoftBank Group Corp. reported Monday a 98 percent drop in its April-June profit at 5.5 billion yen ($50 million) on losses stemming from investments in the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba.

Quarterly sales rose 3 percent to 2.19 trillion yen ($20 billion), while the Tokyo-based company’s operating profit, which highlights core operations, logged a 50 percent increase year-on-year as its U.S. mobile carrier Sprint, previously a drain on the bottom line, boosted profitability.

The first telecoms carrier to offer the iPhone in Japan, SoftBank has bought British semiconductor company ARM. Its acquisition of U.S. robotics pioneer Boston Dynamics is awaiting regulatory approval. Recently, it has announced it will invest in Encored, a U.S. company specializing in IoT technology in the energy sector.

Son believes artificial intelligence combined with data gathered by billions of sensors will benefit people more than the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, helping to treat cancer, deliver accident-free driving and grow safer food.

Son also has money to invest: a private fund he set up last year for global investments in the technology sector, called the Vision Fund, with the potential to grow to as much as $100 billion. Trump has praised him for promising to invest $50 billion in U.S. startups to create 50,000 jobs.

Son stressed at a news conference Monday that his company was neither an old-style Japanese “zaibatsu,” a business conglomerate with roots in the 19th century Meiji Era, nor a venture capital outfit pursuing a quick payback.

SoftBank tries to influence strategy in the businesses it invests in, without exerting…

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