SoftBank and Mubadala grow closer

The Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi state investment company, have a closely intertwined relationship, and it’s one that the two are further cementing. According to the Financial Times, SoftBank has just committed half the capital for a new $400 million fund from Mubadala that aims to back European startups.

Industry observers might remember that Mubadala committed $15 billion to SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund as it was first being put together in 2017. Soon after, Mubadala opened a San Francisco office, as well as structured a $400 million fund designed to invest in early-stage startups to which SoftBank committed some capital.

The pact was understandable, including because Mubadala’s early-stage fund could theoretically provide SoftBank with a better idea of what’s happening at companies that are earlier in their trajectories than SoftBank typically sees. The move was meant to better enable Mubadala to oversee the money it committed to SoftBank.

The newer fund appears to be raising questions, however.  At least, the FT notes that the timing is “unusual” given that SoftBank is currently saddled with $154 billion in gross debt. The new fund also “raises the prospect that Mubadala’s influence with the Vision Fund will only grow by allowing it to shape SoftBank’s tech investments,” according to the FT’s sources.

Yet SoftBank may not have much choice but to work increasingly closely with Abu Dhabi. As the company’s CEO, Masayoshi Son, said earlier this month, the Vision Fund has spent about $50 billion of its approximately $99 billion in capital. Given the rate at which it has been investing (it just plugged nearly $1 billion into a company last week), its remaining funds might not last through 2020.

Meanwhile, it isn’t clear whether SoftBank enjoys the solid relationship that it once did with the Vision Fund’s biggest anchor investor, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which provided SoftBank with a $45 billion commitment for its current fund and that SoftBank was largely counting on to be its biggest backer in a second Vision Fund.

On October 3rd of last year, Bloomberg journalists talked with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MBS), and he said he planned to invest a further $45 billion in SoftBank. Yet what few knew then was that five days earlier, journalist and Saudi regime critic Jamal Khashoggi had vanished after going into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. As questions, and concern, began to spread over MBS’s involvement in the disappearance, many business executives canceled plans to visit Riyadh, where Saudi Arabia hosted an investment conference in the middle of October.

Son was among them, even as he tried hedging his bets by visiting privately with MBS in Riyadh the night before the event began. Whether that move angered MBS remains to be seen, as does whether the murder and more unflattering attention paid to Saudi Arabia because of it is impacting where SoftBank can invest its capital.

Son, for his part, declined to say earlier this month whether he would consider taking more money from Saudi sources — which is perhaps telling in itself.

According to the FT, Mubadala will use its new fund to write checks to European startups of between $5 million and $30 million. And as with Mubadala’s San Francisco-based team, the idea appears to be to act as a funnel for SoftBank’s Vision Fund, steering it deals that Mubadala’s team sees as the most promising in its portfolio.

Mubadala’s European venture fund will be run out of a new office in London, which is expected to open this spring. The Vision Fund is currently also headquartered in London, with another office in San Francisco and soon, offices expected in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.

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