Billionaires: Mukesh Ambani buys majority stake in robotics start-up for $132m

In our fortnightly roundup, Masayoshi Son's SoftBank Group prices its biggest yen bond and US biotech tycoon Soon-Shiong launches a Covid-19 vaccine plant in South Africa

FILE PHOTO: Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
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Mukesh Ambani

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries has bought an Indian robotics start-up as the conglomerate scales up automation across its businesses, from e-commerce to new energy.

Reliance paid $132 million for a majority stake in Addverb Technologies, which uses robots to make e-commerce warehouses and energy production more efficient, Sangeet Kumar, the start-up’s co-founder and chief executive, says.

Mr Ambani, Asia’s richest person with a net worth of $95.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is investing in technology as competition from rivals such as Amazon intensifies in India’s booming e-commerce market.

Addverb already works in dozens of warehouses across Reliance’s empire, including online grocer JioMart, fashion retailer Ajio and internet pharmacy Netmeds, deploying robotic conveyors, semi-automated systems and pick-by-voice software.

“Reliance has huge plans to implement automation across digital warehouses,” says Mr Kumar, 41. “They have plans to expand warehousing to hundreds of locations in the next two years and when you have that scale, only robotic systems can be effective.”

Established five years ago, the New Delhi-based Addverb designs and makes software and installs robotic systems. That makes it one of a limited number of companies in the world to work in every aspect of robotics, from hardware and software to deployment.

Addverb’s robots help to pack Reliance’s oil and gas storage facilities, and it has designed automation for the conglomerate’s refinery in Jamnagar in western India. It is implementing solutions in Reliance’s giant new solar factories, also in Jamnagar, a location where the company plans to make green energy investments of more than $80bn.

Reliance has huge plans to implement automation across digital warehouses
Sangeet Kumar, co-founder and chief executive of Addverb Technologies

The biggest collaboration between the two is yet to come, Mr Kumar says. Addverb and Reliance are planning to build “next level” 5G robotics and battery systems, as well as harness carbon fibre to build affordable, advanced robots.

Addverb is expected to clock about $61m in revenue in the fiscal year ending in March, and its customers include Amazon, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Walmart-owned Flipkart, as well as other manufacturers and retailers in Europe and Asia. Its products include robots that improve storage density on warehouse racks, sorting robots, self-driving cars and robo shuttles.

Addverb is scouting land around Delhi as it envisages building the world’s largest robot-making factory, Mr Kumar says. It also wants to accelerate expansion in Europe and the US. The start-up already has subsidiaries in Singapore, the Netherlands and Australia.

Masayoshi Son

SoftBank Group has priced its biggest-ever yen bond, using its popularity with retail investors to raise 550bn Japanese yen ($4.8bn) to pay off other debt.

Billionaire Masayoshi Son’s technology conglomerate, which made headlines last year due to losses on Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Global, has been the single-biggest issuer in the Japanese corporate bond market in the past decade. It sold the new seven-year subordinated note at 2.48 per cent, according to underwriter Nomura Securities.

Despite the high gearing, Mr Son’s reputation for entrepreneurship means the company is popular among retail investors. In comparison with payouts on Japanese government debt and notes from other local companies, its bonds offer attractive returns.

The yield on SoftBank’s new bond is a touch higher than the 2.4 per cent for the company’s 450bn yen of subordinated notes issued last September, reflecting the rise in borrowing costs for Japanese companies this year as global central banks begin unwinding their crisis-era stimulus.

The prospect of higher interest rates also prompted a sell-off in technology companies shares this month.

“The pricing level seems appropriate,” says Toshiyasu Ohashi, chief credit analyst at Daiwa Securities. “The impact from global interest rises on tech shares is a factor that could change SoftBank’s credit standing, but the company has been controlling its finances.”

Patrick Soon-Shiong

US biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong launched a plant that will produce a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses a year in Cape Town by 2025, which would make it the biggest such factory in Africa and could help the least vaccinated continent tackle the pandemic.

Africa has struggled to secure vaccines, while wealthy countries were already giving their populations shots. To date, just 10.1 per cent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are fully vaccinated. That compares with 62 per cent of Americans and 72 per cent of people in the UK.

Mr Soon-Shiong’s ImmunityBio company is developing a messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, Covid-19 vaccine that it hopes will be used as a universal booster for earlier shots and may help end the pandemic by targeting the nucleocapsid protein at the core of the coronavirus, which is less prone to mutation than the spike proteins targeted by other shots. His South African venture came about after talks with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“We want to manufacture this in Africa for Africa and export it to the world,” Mr Soon-Shiong, who was born in the South African city of Gqeberha, says. “President Ramaphosa said ‘come home, we will make this happen’.”

We want to manufacture this in Africa for Africa and export it to the world
Patrick Soon-Shiong, biotech billionaire

The plant, which could employ 400 to 600 people, is ultimately dependent on the vaccine Mr Soon-Shiong's companies are developing getting approval. Trials are being conducted in a number of countries, including South Africa, Botswana and Australia.

In May, Mr Soon-Shiong, who has a net worth of $9.9bn according to data compiled by Bloomberg, said he would give an initial 3bn South African rand ($195m) to South Africa to help with the transfer of new technology for Covid-19 vaccines and other therapies, including for diseases such as cancer, HIV and tuberculosis.

Mr Soon-Shiong made his fortune by inventing the cancer drug Abraxane and today his assets include the Los Angeles Times newspaper and a share of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, which he bought from former player Magic Johnson.

Guillaume Pousaz

Billionaire Guillaume Pousaz studied economics in college in his native Switzerland with hopes of becoming an investment banker. Then his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, leading him to drop out in his final year of studies in 2005 and later go to work for a payments-processing firm in the US.

It’s partly because of these events that Mr Pousaz set up Last week, the online-payments firm raised $1bn from investors, including Chase Coleman’s Tiger Global Management and the Qatar Investment Authority, at a $40bn valuation. At that level, Mr Pousaz’s stake is worth about $19.4bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The funds will be used to expand in the US and invest in technology, the London-based company says.

A Checkout representative declined to comment.

The company, whose valuation has almost tripled from 2021, is the latest in the FinTech sector to raise money at strikingly high levels. UK peer Revolut saw its value soar six-fold in July from its last round in 2020, while mobile-payments firm Stripe in March became the biggest US start-up at the time with a $95bn valuation.

Checkout has expanded rapidly since Mr Pousaz, its 40-year-old chief executive, launched the company in 2012. Over the past year, the firm has opened new offices in six countries and says it now operates in almost two dozen nations. Clients include Yum! Pizza Hut and crypto exchange Coinbase.

Mr Pousaz’s surging fortune allowed him to set up his own family office last year, Zinal Growth. It has since invested in e-commerce start-ups Ziina and Wayflyer, as well as blockchain firm Snickerdoodle Labs, according to CB Insights and Crunchbase.

Updated: January 24, 2022, 5:00 AM