LONDON: SoftBank’s Vision Fund, backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the UAE’s Mubadala, invest in China’s ‘Uber for Trucks.’
Saudi Arabia’s appetite for investment in technology shows no sign of abating as reports emerge that a fund backed by the Kingdom is one of a number of investors looking to fund Chinese truck-hailing app Manbang.
SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund is said to be leading a group of funds and venture capitalists keen to support the mobile app platform, referred to as China’s “Uber for Trucks,” which helps link up truck drivers to shippers.
The platform is run by the Manbang Group, also known as the Full Truck Alliance, and was originally looking to raise up to $1 billion to fund its expansion. However, the company could be close to attracting as much as $2 billion from investors, according to the Wall Street Journal, which originally reported the investment.
The Vision Fund, the brainchild of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, is backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), as well as others including the UAE’s Mubadala Investment Company, Apple and Foxconn.
Alphabet’s venture capital fund CapitalG is also said to be one of the potential investors in the Chinese company. Softbank declined to comment on the reports. Alphabet did not respond to Arab News with a comment. The funding will help Manbang develop new business lines and to recruit talent, according to a statement from the firm, cited by Reuters.
The potential investment reflects Saudi Arabia’s continued interest in investing in tech startups outside of the Middle East as it strives to diversify its investment interests away from the oil and gas sector.
Technology is also an area where Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East investors, are eager to position themselves as major players.
“Globally people are still learning about these technologies. To an extent it is where the Middle East could play catch-up, it is not on the back-foot, like it is in a number of (other) industries,” said Philip Dowsett, a partner at the law firm Morgan Lewis, based in Dubai. Dowsett works closely wth a number of private equity and venture capital funds.
The Middle East could be “a player in these emerging technology markets,” he told Arab News.
Back in 2016, Saudi Arabia’s PIF invested $3.5 billion in the lift-sharing app Uber, while Twitter secured a $300 million investment from Prince Alwaleed’s Kingdom Holding Company in 2011. Alwaleed also invested $105 million in the ride-sharing app Lyft in 2015.
SoftBank’s Vision Fund also funded workplace messenging service Slack in September, while WeWork, the US-based startup that offers shared working spaces, secured a $4.4 billion investment from the fund last year. The funding was to be partly used to support the company’s expansion in Asia.
The Financial Times on April 24 reported that WeWork is looking to tap the debt markets to further fund its expansion.
While Saudi Arabia’s interest in technology is unlikely to slow, Dowsett said sovereign wealth funds, such as PIF, will have to start thinking about what they bring to the table part from just writing the ‘big checks.’
“Other than that ticket and that check, what else do you bring to that investment?” said Dowsett, saying outside of the Middle East the venture capital market for tech deals is highly competitive.
“This is what investors are trying to do. Gain this insight gain this experience, and build expertise in investing in technology assets,” he said. While most Middle East funds are looking for big-ticket tech deals outside of the region, the local tech industry is becoming more appealing to international investors.
“We are seeing a growth in the market,” said Dowsett, citing the Dubai-based ride-sharing app Careem, which launched in 2012 and has attracted venture capital funding from investors such as Daimler Financial Services.
“It is all helping to promote the Middle East and to show that there is an environment to invest and money is coming in from outside the region — and there are very decent assets,” he said. “I have a number of private equity clients from the US and UK who are looking at this — it is not the Wild West as it used to be, there are fantastic assets here,” he said, noting that sometimes they are harder to find, with big-ticket deals still few and far between.
Dowsett said that the region does still lack innovation and there was more a trend toward “reinvention,” where companies are taking concepts created elsewhere and replicating them for the region.