SoftBank leads $19.5 million investment round in UK’s Splyt

The Japanese wireless unit of SoftBank Group Corp. led a $19.5 million investment in Splyt Group Ltd., a UK-based startup that makes software to simplify ride-hailing abroad.

With the latest round, Splyt has raised a total of $35 million, including an earlier investment by Southeast Asia’s ride-hailing giant Grab. SoftBank Corp. declined to disclose the exact amount of its contribution, but said the deal gives it a seat on Splyt’s board.

Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group has been the largest investor in ride-hailing companies, taking stakes in Uber Technologies Inc. in the US, Didi Chuxing in China and Grab in Singapore. The Japanese conglomerate reported record losses in May because of the tumbling value of its portfolio companies, including Uber.

Splyt works behind the scenes to connect the networks of ride-hailing providers so that users can book rides with the same app even when they leave its service territory. The company’s software also lets partners like Ant Financial’s Alipay, Booking.com and Trip.com build a ride-hailing option into their offerings. Splyt’s service covers 2,000 cities in 150 countries and also includes bike-sharing, scooters and airport transfers.

“Wireless roaming is one way to think about it: you don’t have to buy a new SIM card every time you travel and can just use your own phone,” Splyt co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Philipp Mintchin said in an interview. “Another analogy is an airline alliance.”

The biggest ride-hailing companies have waged years of costly battles in each others territories before they agreed to stay out of each others’ core markets. In 2016, Uber ceded China to Didi Chuxing in exchange for a stake in its former rival. It pulled out of Russia in a similar manner the following year and sold its Southeast Asia operations to Grab in 2018. This divvied-up world created an opportunity for intermediaries like Splyt.

SoftBank Group’s Son poured over $20 billion into Uber, Didi, Grab and India’s Ola. But ride-hailing is only one segment in the portfolio of almost 90 companies his Vision Fund amassed over the past few years. And Son has been eager to get the startups to work together. He has often used Japan as the testing ground for the alliances.

SoftBank Corp. has been the main conduit for joint ventures with the companies Son invested in. Its more successful examples include PayPay, a mobile payment service powered by India’s Paytm, and a taxi offering in a partnership with Didi. Others, like its partnership with India’s hotel-chain Oyo, have struggled.

SoftBank Corp.’s vice president and head of global business Daichi Nozaki declined to reveal what plans the company has for Splyt, but said they won’t be limited to Japan. SoftBank already has multiple projects with Grab in Southeast Asia and the region has potential for further partnerships, Nozaki said in an interview.

“My struggle is figuring out how SoftBank in Japan can benefit from the ecosystem and how to come up with tangible benefits,” he said. “For us, the Vision Fund portfolio is a window for global expansion.”

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