Saudi-backed fund invests with Alphabet

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Softbank’s Vision Fund — whose backers include Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — is investing in China’s Manbang, a truck-hailing app. (AFP)
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SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son. (AFP)
Updated 25 April 2018

Saudi-backed fund invests with Alphabet

  • The potential investment reflects Saudi Arabia’s continued interest in investing in tech startups outside of the Middle East.
  • Dowsett said that the region does still lack innovation and there was more a trend toward “reinvention”.

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.

Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

Updated 24 May 2018

Nestle streamlines R&D to speed up product innovation

LONDON: Food giant Nestle plans to combine its scientific research operations into a single unit in an attempt to speed up development of new products at a time when competition from smaller rivals is intensifying.
The world’s biggest packaged food maker, with brands including Nescafe coffee and Perrier water, has been struggling with slowing sales growth for years. Now it is also under pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb to increase investor returns.
To better compete, the Swiss company told Reuters it would merge its Nestle Research Center and Nestle Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) into one organization called Nestle Research.
The new entity, to be announced later on Thursday, will continue to be based in Lausanne, Switzerland and will employ around 800 people.
The reorganization, effective July 1, will not involve job cuts or the closure of facilities, a spokesman said.
By linking the “blue-sky” research done at NIHS with the more commercially focused Research Center, it hopes to accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into marketable products.
It also hopes this will help it compete with smaller, nimbler rivals who have been eating away at the market share of Nestle and other big firms like Danone, Unilever, Kraft Heinz and Kellogg.
Nestle Chief Technology Officer Stefan Palzer acknowledged earlier this month that his company had to keep pace with rising demand for goods that are organic, gluten-free or vegan.
“Big trends are embraced by smaller companies a bit more actively than the big companies,” Palzer told Reuters before Nestle’s streamlining plans had been finalized.
“We are adjusting our portfolio, doing many innovations and renovations to make the portfolio more relevant and to address those trends, but smaller companies are more agile.”
In the US — the world’s biggest packaged food market — small challenger brands could account for 15 percent of a $464 billion sector in a decade’s time, up from about 5 percent last year, Bernstein Research predicted last year.
The combination of research units is the latest move by Palzer aimed at speeding up development and ensuring research efforts are commercially viable.
Palzer, who took over Nestle’s innovation and research and development operations in January, is also supplementing long-term research projects with incremental product launches made faster by experimenting with new ideas more quickly.
Last month, for example, Palzer and colleagues got the idea for a vegetarian or vegan food product while on a business trip.
“Thursday we had an idea, Friday we returned to Switzerland and Monday evening I was able to taste the first prototype,” Palzer said. “Wednesday, this prototype was shown to the executive board, and Friday it was in the global pipeline.”
He declined to give more details of the product, except to say it is currently being assessed by the operations team to see how long it will take to produce and on what machinery.
Other steps include efforts to apply specific developments to more products, such as Nestle’s recent designer sugar crystals launched in low-sugar Milkybars in March, which will go into other products in the future.
The importance of agility was underlined by Nestle’s recent struggle to capitalize on resurgent demand for frozen foods.
The company says it reformulates one third of its product portfolio every year.
Nestle spent 1.72 billion Swiss francs ($1.73 billion) on R&D last year, down slightly from 2016 but up 22 percent from 2012. The company’s sales fell 2.6 percent over the same period.
As a percentage of sales, its expenditure has fluctuated only a little, but demands on the unit have increased.
Wells Fargo analyst John Baumgartner said that across 10 large publicly traded US food companies, median expenses for R&D and advertising have declined 20 percent over the past five years.
“As voids of ideas and marketing have emerged, start-ups have been more responsive to consumer needs, won the culture and created the emotional connections that drive sales,” he said in a recent note.
Palzer said some industry peers had been outsourcing innovation to cut costs, relying on acquisitions of small brands or partnerships with suppliers.
But he said it was critical for Nestle to maintain scientific expertise in-house to keep its own portfolio fresh and to be an attractive partner for collaboration with others. Nestle does R&D around the world, involving around 5,000 people.
Fundamental scientific research will remain key at Nestle, Palzer said, but he also highlighted the value of external partnerships and acquisitions that can bring in new research or capabilities more easily.
Scientific research and innovation itself is not necessarily the reason why big breakthroughs tend to be rare for multinational companies, said Shaun Browne, investment banker at Houlihan Lokey, who advises food companies on deals.
“They often don’t have the patience or passion that is really required,” Browne said. “Often these things are one individual who is just totally determined and passionate about their product and sees it through.”