SoftBank invests in artificial-intelligence startup Qraft Technologies

Industry:    4 months ago

SoftBank Group Corp. is investing $146 million in Qraft Technologies Inc. to gain access to the money manager’s artificial intelligence tools and help seed the startup’s growth.

Qraft, which manages $1.7 billion for Asian banks and insurance companies and through its lineup of U.S.-listed exchange-traded funds, built a software platform that mines market data for promising stocks.

Founded in 2016 by its chief executive, Marcus Hyung-Sik Kim, the Seoul-based firm plans to use the investment to further its expansion into the U.S. and other key markets, said Robert Nestor, Qraft’s U.S. CEO.

The companies declined to disclose Qraft’s valuation.

Tokyo’s SoftBank is one of the world’s largest investors in technology companies, with its Vision Fund and a successor managing a portfolio of more than $100 billion.

Asset managers, once sceptical of the value of AI and mindful of their staffs’ concerns that the programs would replace human stock- and bond-pickers, are now looking to add data-analysis tools that can help them combat chronic underperformance and justify the fees they charge investors.

The industry’s awakening has triggered an arms race to hire programmers who can develop those tools and spot the market signals hidden in the data. Those signals can be fleeting, giving firms as little as a few months of good returns before other investors spot the same trend. And the costs of hiring teams of technologists, in demand from every industry ranging from manufacturing to finance, can be prohibitive.

“Asset management has probably been the slowest adopter to AI, outside of trading,” Mr. Nestor said. “Many firms are now going through the process of saying ‘we need to be thinking about it.’ Most midsized and smaller firms don’t have the capabilities. That’s an opportunity for us.”

Qraft hired Mr. Nestor, a former executive at BlackRock Inc. and Vanguard Group, late last year with plans to pitch the company’s AI-investing engine to other asset managers. Mr. Nestor said the company intends to build out sales teams in key markets including the U.S. and China.

Qraft has 50 employees, most of whom work on the firm’s core AI software. Those employees own about a third of the company, with the rest held by outside investors, Mr. Nestor said. “SoftBank [now] makes up a large portion of that,” he said, though a few smaller venture-capital firms and institutions are also investors. He declined to name them.

The startup has been on SoftBank’s radar for a couple of years, and in early 2020 its Vision Fund considered investing in Qraft before ultimately passing. SoftBank revisited the idea a year later, but this time as an investment by the company itself, said Kentaro Matsui, managing partner of SB Investment Advisers.

“We wanted to test how we could utilize AI, and we thought Qraft was the best way to do that,” Mr. Matsui said.