SoftBank invests $2.8bn in robotics group AutoStore

SoftBank has struck a $2.8bn deal for a 40 per cent stake in Norwegian warehouse automation company AutoStore, in the latest addition to its web of investments in ecommerce and robotics.

The Japanese group behind the world’s largest technology fund said late on Monday that it will buy the stake from US private equity group Thomas H Lee Partners and Sweden’s EQT in a deal valuing AutoStore at $7.7bn.

The three shareholders will have representation on AutoStore’s board, with Thomas H Lee remaining its majority shareholder.

“We view AutoStore as a foundational technology that enables rapid and cost-effective logistics for companies around the globe,” SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son said in a statement.

Karl Johan Lier, chief executive of AutoStore, added that SoftBank’s backing would bolster its ambitions to grow in the Asia-Pacific region.

The investment comes as AutoStore is embroiled in a patent dispute with Ocado Group after the Norwegian company last year filed legal claims in UK and US courts alleging that its British rival violated its robot patents. Ocado has previously said it was “not aware of any infringement” of AutoStore’s rights.

Founded in 1996, AutoStore is known for “cube storage automation”, a technology that allows robots to maximise storage space in warehouses.
It has 20,000 robots deployed across 35 countries with a client base that includes German conglomerate Siemens, Japan’s Panasonic and US electronics retailer Best Buy.

SoftBank and its Vision Fund have invested aggressively in robotics technology, with Son frequently predicting that computers will surpass humans in 30 years.

SoftBank invented a humanoid robot called Pepper and previously owned Boston Dynamics before selling the US robotics group to South Korean carmaker Hyundai last year.

The group’s focus has shifted from humanoid robots to warehouse automation and other technologies that can improve the logistics supply chain for ecommerce groups such as China’s Alibaba and South Korea’s Coupang.

In 2019, SoftBank invested in Berkshire Grey, a US warehouse robotics company, while its Vision Fund has backed US logistics technology firm Flock Freight and Indian logistics start-up Delhivery.

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