SoftBank’s Vision Fund, a $100 billion behemoth that is upending the insular world of technology investing, doesn’t operate like other venture funds.
Sure, they want your pitch, but what SoftBank founder Masa Son is really looking for is futuristic technology — even if it requires your company to do something it hadn’t considered before.
For example, Light CEO Dave Grannan met with Son three times in Tokyo and California on its way to landing a $121 million Series D led by SoftBank Vision Fund.
“He’s very quickly pushing you on ‘where else can this technology go.’ He gets the basics about what computational imaging is and what it enables. His mind spins incredibly fast into: In the whole world and all the things he sees, how do you apply that,” Grannan told Business Insider.
Light is best known for a $2000 camera that uses “computational imaging,” or using software and machine learning, to stitch together photos so that they’re higher quality and have 3D data.
But when Son heard Grannan’s pitch, his mind moved past cameras to another, bigger market: the race for self-driving cars. Son believed that Light’s camera technology could replace the expensive, fragile laser-based sensors that self-driving cars currently use to see the world around them.
“That’s really unique in the VC world. Most investors, you come in with a point of view on a pitch, and they’re going to drill down to the 18th level of detail about your target market, your margin, runway, and time to profitability,” Grannan said. “Certainly those things are important to SoftBank Vision Fund writ large.”
“But that’s not Masa. Masa is going to focus on the very, very big picture and conceptually where things go,” he continued.
Light’s experience with Son lines up with what other entrepreneurs have said about meeting the Japanese mogul.
Cohesity, a software storage startup, recently secured $250 million in funding from investors including SoftBank, and it had a Son story to tell, too.
“I was naïve,” Cohesity CEO Mohit Aron told Business Insider’s Julie Bort. “I know investors and the way they work, but I don’t know how SoftBank worked.”
He found out that Son personally approves every deal, and traveled to a highly secure mansion in Portola Valley, California, to finalize the details and meet the man.
“He obviously trusts the team that does the work [on the deal] but he believes in a personal connection with all the founders,” Aron said.
Son’s lieutenants find the deals and pitch him on them, but he’s the decision maker. The SoftBank founder typically knows whether he wants to invest before he meets with entrepreneurs, and due diligence is mostly finished, according to a profile in Businessweek. So Son spends his time asking questions to founders and encouraging them to think more broadly about opportunities.
That’s the kind of meeting Light’s founders had with Masa. They were connected to the fund through their network of founders and investors, including Akshay Naheta, a partner at SoftBank.
But they had to meet Son before the deal was finished, because he likes to be “intimately involved” with his investments, including participating in brainstorming sessions.
“We met with Masa three different times before we closed the round,” Grannan explained. “It was always about, you know, not a litmus test, but brainstorming and getting comfortable with where this technology could go, and did we all believe in it collectively?”
Light eventually decided to take a crack at the self-driving market with its camera technology, armed with $121 million in funding, in addition to its L16 camera and pending deals with smartphone makers.
“[Masa] believed what we call our passive optic system, our regular cameras, versus LIDARs, could actually solve a lot of the problems that LIDAR suffers today,” Grannan continued. “As we studied the problem, we were convinced that Masa was right, that we could build a better sensing or seeing system for cars.”
Ultimately, for Light, it was an eye-opening experience. “I think he’s a very non-traditional investor blazing his own trail,” Grannan said.