From Paytm to Oyo, Softbank's Masayoshi Son shines a light on his proteges

Topics SoftBank | Masayoshi Son | Oyo

SoftBank's Masayoshi Son | File photo
Masayoshi Son likes to sketch out a grand vision for the future of artificial intelligence to justify his seemingly scattershot approach to investing. On Thursday, he let his proteges and startups speak for themselves.

SoftBank Group Corp.’s $100 billion Vision Fund has 82 companies in its portfolio who delve into areas from satellites and autonomous driving to chips and cancer detection. The founders of Southeast Asian ride-hailing giant Grab, indoor farming startup Plenty, Indian hotel chain OYO Rooms and payments service Paytm took the stage at an annual SoftBank conference to explain how AI helps them stay on top in their respective fields.

Ritesh Agarwal, Oyo’s 25-year-old founder, said the company is using data to evaluate properties in under five days, a process that might take traditional hotels months. That allows the startup to add about 90,000 new rooms every 90 days, for a total of 1.1 million. Oyo also uses algorithms to predict what kind of interior design can boost demand -- pictures of Marilyn Monroe help, apparently -- and to adjust prices more than 43,000 times a minute.

Grab’s Anthony Tan said the company captures 40 terabytes of data daily through its “superapp,” which has been downloaded 155 million times by customers who use it to call a ride, order lunch and pay for purchases. Crunching those numbers allows Grab to make sure a car can be hailed within three minutes and offer food recommendations. The data can also help reduce congestion in Southeast Asia’s crowded cities, reduce food wastage and improve access to credit.

Each of Paytm’s 700 billion mobile payment transactions runs a gauntlet of more than 1,000 checks in a thousandth of a second, to root out fraud, founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma said at the event. The rules can be as simple as comparing the phone’s location to that of a merchant receiving payment, and declining those that don’t match. The data could also be used by sellers to determine in real time whether to extend a particular customer credit.

Finally, Plenty says its high-tech approach to growing crops indoors results in plants that yield more without pesticides, use a fraction of water of their counterparts in the field and taste better, to boot. Founder Matt Barnard said the company used AI to developed 6.4 billion produce recipes that allow farmers to adapt production within days to take advantage of a sudden shortage of kale or iceberg lettuce.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund poured $3 billion into Grab and took part in a $1 billion round for Oyo last year. In 2017, it led a $200 million investment in Plenty. Last year’s event included presentations from machine learning platform Pettum Inc., Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, ZhongAn Insurance and General Motors Co.’s self-driving unit, Cruise.

“The crystal ball that tells the future doesn’t exist, but something close to that is being created now,” Son said at SoftBank World in Tokyo. “The AI revolution can make people happier. That’s the opportunity in front of us.”

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