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SoftBank leads Mapbox fundraising as it pushes ahead on AI empire

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SoftBank is leading a $280mn funding round in US location-mapping company Mapbox, as the Japanese conglomerate’s founder and chief executive Masayoshi Son steps up his dealmaking in artificial intelligence.

The investment in San Francisco-based Mapbox, according to people close to SoftBank, is part of a push into AI that fulfils Son’s promise to go on the “counteroffensive” and has included discussions with multiple potential investment targets including OpenAI.

Mapbox software sits behind the in-car navigation systems of Toyota, BMW, General Motors and others — systems that are increasingly adaptive to changing conditions and whose ability to process new information will be critical as vehicles become more autonomous.

The decision to plough fresh investment into Mapbox, which was among the earliest group of companies backed by SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, comes days after Son’s tech conglomerate listed UK chip designer Arm in the US. 

The Japanese group raised almost $5bn through the initial public offering of Arm, whose shares rose strongly from their trading debut to give the chip designer a market capitalisation of $62bn at the end of last week.  

Analysts calculate that the money raised from the listing, along with the potential for new financing and SoftBank’s existing cash and borrowings, could combine to provide an estimated $65bn war chest for Son, who has said that Arm will be at the centre of a push to “rule the world” of AI.

According to PitchBook, which tracks data on private companies, Mapbox had a valuation of $1.2bn as of its last round in April 2020 and had previously raised a total of $360mn since it was founded in 2011. People close to the company say that new round values the company marginally higher — at about $1.3bn — before including new capital raised.

Two bankers involved in the Arm IPO, and close to SoftBank, said that the chip group’s New York listing was to a significant extent testing the waters for other tech listings that were shelved in the downturn. These, including several Vision Fund portfolio companies, have been awaiting signals that the market had improved enough for them to dust off their IPO plans. 

The same bankers said that such companies could include Mapbox, which internally discussed going public in 2021 through a merger with a SoftBank-backed special purpose acquisition company but dropped the idea when the tech market soured. 

Mapbox chief executive Peter Sirota, said the new funding for the group would be used to enhance the ways in which its AI software can interact more closely with the cameras and other sensors in a vehicle “so split-second decisions can be made with the best data possible”.

Mapbox’s services include cloud-based location data used by Facebook, Snap and others. The company will this week be exhibiting at the Tokyo Game Show for the first time in a bid to promote its services to developers whose games use real-world locations.

SoftBank declined to comment.

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