SoftBank launches the Innovation Fund, committing $2B to invest in Latin America

While SoftBank continues to make big bets on startups out of its $100 billion Vision Fund, it has also launched another vehicle to invest in tech opportunities specifically in Latin America.

Today the group announced the SoftBank Innovation Fund, which is starting out with a $2 billion commitment to invest in tech startups in Central and South America, specifically starting in the countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico, covering areas like e-commerce, digital financial services, healthcare, mobility and insurance.

Alongside this, it’s establishing a group called the SoftBank Latin America Local Hub, which will partner with companies that are already in SoftBank’s investment portfolio to help them break into the region.

The effort in Latin America is a big win for Marcelo Claure, who has been named CEO of SoftBank Latin America. Claure is already COO of SoftBank Group Corp., as well as CEO of SoftBank Group International and executive chairman of Sprint Corporation — all roles he will continue to keep as he takes on this new challenge.

“Growing up in Latin America I witnessed firsthand the creativity and passion of the people,” said Claure in a statement. “There is so much innovation and disruption taking place in the region, and I believe the business opportunities have never been stronger. The SoftBank Innovation Fund will become a major investor in transformative Latin American companies that are poised to redefine their industries and create new economic opportunities for millions of people.”

This is the first time that SoftBank has created a fund of this kind focused on a single region — although it has spearheaded big bets into specific countries like India in the past — and it appears to be the first time that it has formally established a group to help other portfolio companies expand in a region, although this is likely something that SoftBank would have been doing on an informal basis before now.

News of this fund had been trickling out for some time, although a report in Bloomberg from January, which broke the news, had underestimated the amount that SoftBank would invest in it (it predicted $1 billion, while the actual starting amount is $2 billion).

SoftBank says that it has yet to determine where it will establish its HQ for this new effort. I don’t imagine this question will take on the heated race that we saw unfold around Amazon’s HQ2 decision-making process. Likely candidates will probably be cities where SoftBank has already established operations in the region.

Indeed, SoftBank is no stranger to investing in Latin America as part of its bigger “BRIC” strategy. As a developing market with a growing middle class (more than 50 million people in the region have entered the middle class, generating increased disposable income, SoftBank said), it is one of the fastest-growing regions for tech products and services.

SoftBank estimates that the region accounts for 10 percent of the world’s population and 8 percent of the world’s GDP. Notably — given SoftBank’s previous focus on Asia — it points out that this means it has “two times the GDP of India and half that of China.”

So far, SoftBank’s investments in the region have focused on e-commerce and related consumer services. It was one of the early investors in Uber rival 99 in Brazil (which eventually was taken over by Didi, the Chinese transportation giant that SoftBank also partly owns). It has also put at least $100 million into Loggi, another startup out of Brazil that focuses on delivery services. In Mexico, it is also embarking on a joint venture with Didi to establish transportation services there.

It’s likely the strong track record it has had in those investments so far that led SoftBank to extend its activities there, particularly since it has already established a strong bulkhead in different regions across Asia, including China and India.

“Latin America is on the cusp of becoming one of the most important economic regions in the world, and we anticipate significant growth in the decades ahead,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive officer of SBG, in a statement. “SBG plans to invest in entrepreneurs throughout Latin America and use technology to help address the challenges faced by many emerging economies with the goal of improving the lives of millions of Latin Americans. I am grateful to our Chief Operating Officer Marcelo Claure for leading this initiative, in addition to his other responsibilities at SBG.”

As with other SoftBank investments that do not come out of its Vision Fund, the latter will potentially use this as a springboard to get involved, as well.

“Latin America presents significant opportunities for SoftBank Group, and the Vision Fund will have the ability to co-invest alongside the innovation Fund,” said Rajeev Misra, CEO of SoftBank Investment Advisers, who runs the Vision Fund. “Marcelo and team will offer invaluable expertise to help Latin American companies scale their operations, benefit from the greater SoftBank ecosystem, and grow into global market leaders.”

The Vision Fund has come under some scrutiny because of its ties to Saudi money and the controversy surrounding that government’s human rights policies.

For investors like SoftBank, focusing attention on Latin America makes a lot of sense. Not only does that help it diversify by focusing on another (rapidly growing) region, but it gives the group one more way to sweeten the deal to invest in any fast-growing startup, by offering a helping hand in their efforts to expand to other regions by way of their network of contacts and existing services.

In addition to people getting more well-off in the region, there are other indicators that point to it being a healthy market for tech investment. Latin America has 375 million internet users and 250 million smartphone users, putting it ahead of the U.S. in terms of sheer numbers. And retail e-commerce has nearly doubled in the last three years, going to $54 billion in 2018 from $29.8 billion in 2015.

Similarly, there is a big opportunity ahead because of what the region doesn’t have. Some 400 million people are still without bank accounts or credit histories; and while 79 percent of the population lives in urban areas, those people generally don’t get great access to public transport. Healthcare has also been an area of underinvestment up to now, opening the door to building and expanding medical, wellness and other related solutions.

But to be clear, there are already a ton of companies and entrepreneurs (and talent) in the region, so this is as much about getting closer to them, and helping them grow with funding, as it is about bringing in startups from outside the region to tap these opportunities. SoftBank hopes that by setting out its stall in the heart of it, it will have a shot at profiting from both.