Asian telcos tap Silicon Valley for new ideas

Caroline Gabriel/Wireless Watch
19 Feb 2013

Two of Japan's main cellcos – NTT Docomo and Softbank - have recently announced new venture funds in Silicon Valley, following in the footsteps of Telefonica and others. The operators' key suppliers are also boosting their activities in the world's heartland of IT innovation, as networking and computing converge and carriers need to differentiate themselves with applications and user experiences. Samsung recently established a new venture fund to expand its US-based innovation division.

NTT Docomo is establishing a ¥10 billion ($109 million) fund and a related operating company, specifically focused on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Docomo's new fund will complement its existing joint ventures and R&D projects, mainly in Japan, to keep itself at the forefront of mobile devices and user experiences.

The company will also launch an incubation program to support startups and venture companies, and is inviting companies to apply before March 11. Those selected will be provided with up to $23,000 in seed funding in convertible notes plus office space and other infrastructure, mentoring and knowhow – and of course, they will have the chance to show off their ideas to a major mobile powerhouse. For the most promising, deeper collaborations and equity investments can be considered.

Rival Softbank is investing even bigger sums, setting up a $250 million venture capital fund to invest in web and mobile applications and services companies. The unit, called Softbank PrinceVille Investments, will be operated via the carrier's existing Softbank Capital group. Interestingly, Softbank will collaborate with two highly influential Asian companies in the mobile web ecosystem – Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba (a Softbank affiliate), which is developing its own mobile operating system; and semiconductor supplier MediaTek of Taiwan, which is advanced in integrating web services directly on chips for mass market handsets.

Softbank's new fund will invest in “sector leading companies in social media, mobile applications, ecommerce, online advertising, gaming and cloud computing”, according to its statement. It will favor firms which are established and have already raised multiple rounds of funding, and/or have reached the point of readiness to expand in Japan or China. This complements Softbank Capital, which focuses more heavily on new startups.

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