Frankly Speaking: SoftBank Vision Fund accelerating hi-tech investment, globally and in Saudi Arabia, says CEO

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Updated 13 June 2021

Frankly Speaking: SoftBank Vision Fund accelerating hi-tech investment, globally and in Saudi Arabia, says CEO

  • Rajeev Misra made the remarks on Frankly Speaking, a series of video conversations with leading decision-makers
  • Speaking of Saudi Arabia, he said “It’s a 30 million population, it’s young, it’s growing. You have dynamic leadership”

DUBAI: More multibillion-dollar Vision Funds that will invest in high-technology startups around the world, including in Saudi Arabia, are being planned over the coming years.

Rajeev Misra, the chief executive of the business that currently oversees $130 billion of high-tech global investment, told Arab News that further funds are planned once the cash from Vision Fund 2 is fully invested. “There will be many Vision Funds over the next many decades,” he said.

Interviewed on Frankly Speaking, the series of video conversations with global decision-makers, Misra also revealed plans for the fund’s first investment in a Saudi company, its strategy to bring jobs and company start-ups to the Kingdom, and his desire to entice big Middle East investors back into the funds.

“We exist because of them. The Vision Fund is a joint effort by our two major partners — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Mubadala of the UAE — and whenever they decide to join in the next one, we’ll be ecstatic,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was the biggest backer of the first Vision Fund, with a stake of $45 billion out of a total of roughly $100 billion, but both it and Mubadala declined to join Vision Fund 2, which launched with a $30 billion investment wallet backed by SoftBank of Japan.




Rajeev Misra

Once Vision Fund 2 is fully invested — roughly $20 billion has so far been spent — Misra and his team will look to other funds. “There will be Vision Fund 3, there will be Vision Fund 4. The important thing is to create an infrastructure of 450 employees in 11 offices who can continue the work for the next 10 or 12 or 20 years,” he said.

Misra’s confidence has been boosted by the big contribution he made to the profits of SoftBank of Japan recently. Legendary investor Masayoshi Son, founder and chief executive of the financial giant, reported the biggest ever profit by a Japanese company, $46 billion, with the bulk of that coming from Vision Fund gains.

Misra acknowledged that Vision Fund has benefited from the strong financial markets of the pandemic crisis, when governments intervened with big stimulus packages and technology stocks boomed because of new working and travel patterns.

 

“COVID-19 last year validated our vision and accelerated it dramatically. It would have happened anyway; it just accelerated (things) by a few years. The pandemic catalyzed the adoption of digital services. The markets helped. The buoyancy of the markets is important, but the companies have to do well. A bad investment even in a good market does not make you money,” Misra said.

The Vision Funds enjoyed a string of successful initial public offerings (IPOs), notably the multibillion-dollar profit it made on the public offering of South Korean e-commerce group Coupang in New York.

“We had several IPOs that had huge profits in the past five months. Coupang is an exciting outcome and it is an amazing story because we stuck with Coupang even when they were not doing well,” Misra said.

The investments by the PIF and Mubadala in 2018 were motivated partly by the desire for financial returns in the fast-growing technology sector, but also by the need to create jobs and attract corporate start-ups in the Middle East from Vision Fund portfolio companies.

Misra told Arab News that he was “on the cusp” of the fund’s first investment in a Saudi company — a messaging company — but he declined to give details until the company itself made the announcement. A deal could be announced in the course of the next week, he added.

“I believe we have created thousands of jobs from our portfolio companies in the region, whether it’s in construction, whether it’s in hospitality or technology. And we work very closely not just with the PIF but also with the Ministry of Investment in doing so. We are a four-year-old fund, so this will continue over the next many years,” he said.

 

Misra is a trustee of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). “It is one of the top science universities in the world. There’s amazing talent in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“There are limitless opportunities to invest across all sectors. It’s a 30 million population, it’s young, it’s growing. You have dynamic leadership. Riyadh has ambitious plans to become the business hub of the region.

“The recent announcement to attract the regional headquarters involved huge incentives that support relocation. I mean Riyadh was recently recognized in the top 15 most entrepreneurial cities. Globally I think it’s attracting tremendous foreign investments, including as I said from the Vision Fund, with our first investment in a local company.”

Misra was adamant that the fund’s basic strategy — of investing in early stage high-technology companies — was the right one, and dismissed any suggestion of a crash in the valuations of the technology sector.

“The technology revolution is just accelerating. Not just with your regular industries like e-commerce or food delivery, but it’s accelerating within life sciences. In major industries, what are the two biggest industries that impact our GDP? Healthcare and education,” he said.

“Over the next five years, hundreds of billions of dollars in value will be created in customized health care, in reducing the cost of health care, and in personalized medicine.

“Also in democratizing online education, where education is accessible and will fuel quality education online. You will have online high schools and colleges providing Ivy League education globally. We believe AI will transform every industry in the world.”

“Technology is going nowhere. Technology is like what the human DNA is to your daily existence — it is intertwined with you. Either you adopt it or the business goes bust.”

The Vision Fund suffered some high-profile governance issues in the past, notably the demise of the IPO of WeWork in 2019 and subsequent revelations about conflicts of interest involving the founders of the office-space company. Some critics said that they detected a “Wild West culture” at Vision Fund portfolio companies.

Misra disagreed with that label. “In Fund 1 we have 85 portfolio companies. In Fund 2 we have 70 or 80 companies. We take minority stakes in those companies. We don’t run those companies. We sit on the boards. We do keep an eye on them but we don’t day-to-day run those companies.

“But we did make some mistakes and we learnt from it. Since then, we have undergone a major turnaround and now we make sure there are no conflicts of interest with the founder.”




Frank Kane

On the current craze for special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs), which some have called “blank check” companies, he said that there were benefits from accelerating the progress toward a stock market listing, but pointed out that no Vision Fund portfolio companies had used the fund’s own SPAC to go public.

“The most important message here is for a company, once you go public, you have to be ready and you have to be prepared to go public. You have to understand that you have to get up every quarter and explain to the analysts and the shareholders how you have performed,” he said.

Misra was keen to pay tribute to Son, the SoftBank founder who is often described as a “visionary” in the world of high-tech investment. He recalled how Son invested billions in a small mobile phone operator in Japan in 2006, just before the smartphone was launched.

“He said, ‘Rajeev, you don’t understand. Computing is going to move to the hand from the desktop. People are not going to be working off their desktop anymore. They’re going to use phones to compute, and I see that over the next 10 years and I’m willing to take that bet.’

“This shows you the nature of his vision — he saw 10 years forward and was willing to take a $20 billion investment in a highly competitive market when the market cap of SoftBank was $9 billion.”

Misra added: “That was 15 years ago, and it all came true.”

_____________________

Twitter: @frankanedubai

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Full reliance on SAF beyond reach of current aviation technology

Updated 04 December 2022

Full reliance on SAF beyond reach of current aviation technology

  • The high cost of SAF will affect its utility when compared with conventional jet fuel, according to KAPSARC

RIYADH: Although aircraft manufacturers and airlines have all aimed to increase energy efficiency over recent decades, the move to find alternatives to fossil-based fuels has been a struggle.

While the International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization are pushing the industry to adopt sustainable aviation fuel, the goal might be beyond the reach of current technologies, noted Riyadh-based King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center.

SAF is a term the aviation industry uses to describe nonconventional fossil-derived aviation fuel. It uses various sustainable resources, including carbon captured from the air and green hydrogen mixed with traditional jet fuel “with no changes needed to the aircraft or infrastructure,” according to Amsterdam-based SAF producer SkyNRG.

It adds that these green fuels cut emissions by 70 to 80 percent per flight.

Brian Moran, the vice president of global sustainability policy and partnerships for Boeing, explained that SAF is made from different feedstock such as biomass residue, cooking oils, or waste gases.

Brian Moran, the vice president of global sustainability policy and partnerships for Boeing. (Supplied)

Different pathways have been created to convert recycled carbon by combining it with hydrogen to produce a new fuel, Moran told Arab News in an earlier interview.

He added: “It’s not one silver bullet, but sustainable aviation fuel and low carbon fuels on the road to sustainable aviation fuels play a really vital role. And that’s why we’re so invested there.

“In the next 20 years, the world needs 43,000 new airplanes. So it’s on us to make sure that we continue this descend of emissions reduction that we have been on.”

High demand

IATA says the main challenge of SAF producers is meeting the airline demand for alternate fuel.

In 2021, airlines had ordered 14 billion liters of SAF, which “addresses the issue of whether airlines will buy the product,” added Willie Walsh, the director general of IATA, in an interview with CNBC.

The aviation sector has the second-highest energy demand in the transportation industry after the roads sector.

Willie Walsh, the director general of IATA.

Reports show that airlines are slowly moving to adopt SAF, with Qatar Airways and Emirates among them.

Qatar Airways has said 10 percent of its flights will use the fuel by 2030, while Emirates signed a memorandum of understanding with America’s GE Aviation in November 2021 to conduct an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER test flight using 100 percent SAF by the end of the year.

Pan-European aircraft manufacturer Airbus announced that all its aircraft are certified to fly with a mix of up to 50 percent SAF blended with kerosene. The aim is that all of its planes will be able to fly solely using SAF by 2030.

HIGHLIGHT

While the International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization are pushing the industry to adopt sustainable aviation fuel, the goal might be beyond the reach of current technologies, noted Riyadh-based King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center.

“I think quantity is the main issue at the moment. Governments should intensify the production of SAF. The reality is that airlines used every single drop of sustainable fuel that was available to us in 2021,” Walsh said in an interview issued by the association.

Even though about 100 million liters of SAF were used last year, according to Walsh, “that’s a very small amount compared to the total fuel required for the industry.”

Boosting supplies

Before 2021, only two companies globally produced SAF commercially: Finland-based Neste and Boston-based World Energy, according to the US Global Investors, a Texas-based investment adviser.

Other companies entering the field in 2021 and 2022 include Spain’s Repsol, France’s TotalEnergies, the UK’s BP, Phillips 66 and California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy.

IATA expects to see SAF production hit 7.9 billion liters by 2025, which would meet only around 2 percent of the industry’s fuel requirements. (Shutterstock)

Neste has a small annual capacity for 100,000 metric tons of SAF, but it claims to be on track to increase this to 1.5 million tons by the end of 2023 at its facilities in Europe and Singapore.

On the other hand, World Energy is planning to convert a refinery in Houston to a SAF plant, while Boeing is establishing a facility in Japan to begin researching and developing SAF.

In March, Riyadh-based Alfanar announced it had invested £1 billion ($1.3 billion) in a UK project which produces SAF from waste.

The Lighthouse Green Fuel project generates more than 180,000 metric tons annually in the UK, the firm said in a statement.

The cost factor

The high cost of SAF will affect its utility when compared with conventional jet fuel, according to KAPSARC. IATA estimates SAF generally costs twice or four times as much as any aviation fuel.

According to the Air Transport Action Group, this is happening in an industry that saw 1,478 airlines account for 2.1 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions and 12 percent of the transportation sector discharge in 2019.

“We are committed to supporting Saudi Arabia to succeed in open banking. And that is why we’re working the entire ecosystem, be it the fintech, banks or the regulator,” said Abdulla Al-Moayed, CEO and founder of Tarabut Gateway. (Supplied)

That year, the industry spent $186 billion on 95 billion gallons of fuel to fly its passengers worldwide.

Fossil fuel spending will remain a deciding factor for this sector for some time. Commercial aircraft, like trains and heavy-goods vehicles, cannot rely on electric engines, as they do not provide the thrust these power-hungry vehicles demand.

IATA expects to see SAF production hit 7.9 billion liters by 2025, which would meet only around 2 percent of the industry’s fuel requirements. However, by 2050, the association says production would jump to 449 billion liters or 65 percent of the sector’s needs.


Saudi pharmaceutical market size to reach $11bn by 2026

Updated 04 December 2022

Saudi pharmaceutical market size to reach $11bn by 2026

  • Bayer aims to keep tapping into local talent to contribute to the Saudi community

RIYADH: The Saudi pharmaceutical market is worth about $8 billion, according to Samer Lezzaiq, Bayer’s managing director for Saudi Arabia.

The market is estimated to touch $11 billion in 2026, almost as big as Egypt and the UAE combined.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the Saudi pharmaceutical market is among the largest in the Middle East,” said Lezzaiq.

“If you look into the markets, you will see that, for example, the UAE’s market is about $3 billion, while Egypt is a little bit more, it’s about $5.5 billion, so Saudi is almost as big as both Egypt and the UAE,” he added.

The German inventor of Aspirin has a 1.4 percent market share in the Kingdom, about 1 percent less than the company’s share globally.

“So our pharma market share globally is 2.4 percent. We are No. 12 in the world when it comes to pharmaceuticals. In Saudi, we have 1.4 percent; the mzarket share is lower than the global average,” he said.

Bayer’s main office in Saudi Arabia is based out of Jeddah, serving the Kingdom and neighboring Gulf countries.

With a team of 170 people, Bayer aims to keep tapping into Saudi talent to contribute to the well-being of the Saudi community.

“We have 170 employees in Saudi Arabia, almost 52 percent of our workforce is Saudi nationals,” said Samer Lezzaiq, Bayer’s managing director for Saudi Arabia

“We have 170 employees in Saudi Arabia, almost 52 percent of our workforce is Saudi nationals,” he said.

Lezzaiq said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the region in digital health. The company is utilizing digital tools to accelerate its sales in the region; it has recently closed a deal with Amazon to enhance its reach to consumers.

“Our consumer division has some dermatologically tested skin products that were launched recently. So there would be more potential to reach a larger number of consumers by partnering with third parties like Amazon. So digital today is really at the center of our strategy,” he added.

Bayer is a German company with a more than 150-year history and core competencies in healthcare and agriculture.

On March 6, 1899, Bayer AG registered the trade name Aspirin and began distributing the white powder to hospitals and clinics.


Middle East startups on a fund-raising spree

Updated 03 December 2022

Middle East startups on a fund-raising spree

  • UAE-based fintech Qashio raises $10m to fuel expansion into Saudi market

CAIRO: The UAE-based fintech startup Qashio raised $10 million in a seed funding round using equity and non-equity investments to accelerate expansion into Saudi Arabia.

Established in 2021, the company enables businesses to gain full visibility and control over their expenses through its spend management platform. In addition, it claims to be the first fintech company in the UAE to issue corporate employee cards.

“Saudi Arabia is making great efforts to align with its Vision 2030 by taking fintech-friendly approaches and bringing more fintech firms into the market. At Qashio, we are proud to be an integral part of propelling a cashless society in the UAE and now Saudi Arabia,” Armin Moradi, CEO and co-founder of Qashio, said in a statement.

The company already serves clients in the UAE and Saudi Arabia but will use its acquired funding to accelerate further customer acquisition and market presence in the Kingdom.

“This round of funding will help us expand hiring and growth into Saudi Arabia and other parts of the GCC and accelerate the execution of the product roadmap. We are excited for the days ahead,” chief product officer and co-founder Jonathan Lau said in a statement.

The round saw participation from venture capitalists One Way Ventures, MITAA, Cadorna Ventures, Sanabil 500 MENA, Nuwa Capital, Iliad Partners and Phoenix Investments.

Data is the new oil

Saudi Arabia-based data platform DataLexing raises $3 million in a seed funding round led by Sadu Capital with participation from Impact46 and other investors.

Founded in 2018 by Rayan Al-Faheid and Abdulelah Al-Ganas, the company offers organizations and individuals to acquire data without relying on technical personnel and gathering insights, apps, notifications, forms, and sheets in one place.

“The link between data and centralized reporting usually goes through different applications, platforms, data engineers, and multiple integrations. That wastes business users’ time and effort to produce a report on time and even with questionable accuracy,” Salem Washeely, managing director at Sadu Capital, said in a statement.

He further explained that DataLexing managed to bridge the gap for clients locally and globally by creating a hassle-free solution.

The company plans to utilize its funding round to expand into Gulf Cooperation countries and develop its product further.

Educating the youth

Saudi Arabia’s educational technology firm Jeel secured $1.1 million in a seed funding round led by Egypt-based venture capital firm EdVentures.

Founded in 2020 by Ahmed Sobaih, the company educates pre-schoolers through its edutainment platform, which contains learning content prepared by psychologists and educators.

EdVentures offers incubation, acceleration, and investment programs for startups to boost the ed tech sector, which hosts over 1,500 companies in the Middle East and North Africa.

Full spectrum of pharmaceuticals

Egypt-based B2B marketplace Grinta raised $8 million in a seed funding round co-led by Raed Ventures and Nclude alongside Endeavor Catalyst and 500 Global.

Established in 2021 by Mohamed Azab, Yosra Badr, Ali Youssef and Hamza Mohamed, Grinta provides pharmacies with a full range of pharmaceutical and medical products from vendors through its B2B platform.

“As we plan to expand our footprint in the main Pharma hubs on the continent, we will also enable Egyptian and regional Pharma manufacturers to further penetrate the $50 billion African market,” Azab, CEO of Grinta, said in a statement.

FASTFACTS

• Saudi Arabia’s educational technology firm Jeel secured $1.1 million in a seed funding round led by Egypt-based venture capital firm EdVentures.

• Egypt-based B2B marketplace Grinta raised $8 million in a seed funding round co-led by Raed Ventures and Nclude alongside Endeavor Catalyst and 500 Global.

The company plans to increase its market presence in Egypt and utilize its funding to enhance its tech platform and expand its team.

Since its inception, Grinta has been present in seven governates in Egypt, with over 14,000 registered pharmacies, 20,000 product offerings, and more than 100,000 delivered orders.

A Phoenix Star

UAE-based gaming platform Fenix Games secured an investment mega-round of $150 million led by Phoenix Group and Cypher Capital.

The company, founded this year, aims to boost blockchain games in the region by acquiring, investing, and creating a publishing platform of the future.

The company believes blockchain gaming is heading toward consolidation, where large corporations will acquire and invest in strong startups.

“We plan to acquire, invest, publish, and operate in select cases games and studios. We will have a few hundred million to deploy to execute our strategy,” Chris Ko, CEO and co-founder of Fenix Games, said in a statement.

He added that the company is tackling a structural gap by redefining publishing groups to leverage traditional publication but with new and innovative functionality.

Fenix Games aims to combine the skills of its team in publications and product management to provide publishing services to all game models, which include premium, free-to-play, and blockchain gaming across all platforms.

“The infrastructure, tools and support just do not exist. We believe there is an opportunity for the role of publishing to elevate its role in the gaming ecosystem,” Ko added.


Pakistan's ninth review in order, IMF 'can't dictate' country — finance minister

Updated 03 December 2022

Pakistan's ninth review in order, IMF 'can't dictate' country — finance minister

  • Pakistan awaits a tranche of $500mln from IMF as part of its $7 billion loan program
  • The country is facing a myriad of economic woes and desperately needs forex inflows

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said on Friday that the ninth review of the country's $7 billion loan program was in order and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) "can't dictate" it measures for the release a $500 million tranche. 

The IMF review for the release of its next tranche of funding has been pending since September, which has left Pakistan in dire need of external financing. 

Dar told a Pakistani TV station that all targets for the IMF review had been completed and that withholding a tranche despite that would not make sense. 

"Our ninth review is totally in order... I have reminded them they should come and review and give Pakistan $500 million," the finance minister said. 

"[You] can't dictate." 

Pakistan secured a $6 billion bailout in 2019 under an Extended Fund Facility (EFF), that was topped up with another $1 billion earlier this year. 

The minister said Pakistan's foreign reserves, currently at $7.5 billion, would be shored up with a $3 billion financing from a friendly country in the next two weeks. 

But the reserves at the moment are barely enough for a month of imports for the South Asian nation, facing a widening current account deficit and balance-of-payment crises as well as depreciation of national currency. 

Asked about a delay in the visit of an IMF delegation to Pakistan, Dar said he "didn't care" and he did not want to plead for the visit. 

"If it (money) doesn't come, we will manage, no problem," the minister added. 


As IMF funding delayed, Pakistan expects $3bn from friendly country

Updated 03 December 2022

As IMF funding delayed, Pakistan expects $3bn from friendly country

  • An IMF review for the release of its next tranche of funding has been pending since September
  • Pakistan's finance minister, Ishaq Dar, said all targets for the IMF's ninth review had been completed, adding that withholding a tranche despite that would not make sense

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan expects to secure $3 billion in external financing from a friendly country in two weeks, its finance minister said on Friday as the South Asian country awaits IMF funding.
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) review for the release of its next tranche of funding has been pending since September, leaving Pakistan in dire need of external financing.
Pakistan’s finance minister, Ishaq Dar, said on Friday in an interview with Geo News TV that all targets for the IMF’s ninth review had been completed, adding that withholding a tranche despite that would not make sense.
Pakistan secured a $6 billion bailout in 2019 under an Extended Fund Facility (EFF), that was topped up with another $1 billion earlier this year.
“We continue to engage in discussions with the government over policies to address the humanitarian and rehabilitation needs of the floods while promoting macroeconomic and fiscal sustainability,” the IMF’s resident representative in Pakistan, Esther Perez Ruiz, said in a statement.
Dar said Pakistan’s foreign reserves, which have dropped to $7.5 billion, will be shored up with a $3 billion financing from a friendly country in the next two weeks.
That is hardly enough for a month of imports for Pakistan, which has been facing a widening current account deficit and a balance of payments crisis.
“All the requirements for the ninth (IMF) review are completed,” Dar said, adding that the international lender was “behaving abnormal” by not completing the review.
Pakistan will make alternate arrangements in case of any delay from the IMF, he said.
“If the money doesn’t come, we will manage, no problem,” he added.