SoftBank Group Corp. agreed to pay $ 2.8 billion for a 40 percent stake in Norwegian warehouse automation firm AutoStore, another big bet by the Japanese conglomerate on robotic technology.
AutoStore is regulated by Thomas H. Lee Partners LP, while another private equity firm, Sweden̵7;s EQT AB, holds minority stake. The deal values the company at $ 7.7 billion, including debt, the company said on Monday.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the deal was imminent early Monday.
SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son has been betting big on artificial intelligence and internet-connected devices for years, with a 2017 prediction that smart robots will outnumber humans within 30 years.
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AutoStore’s technology has made it possible for warehouses to be operated by almost all robots.The company was founded in 1996 and pioneered the densely packed storage and access system that is widely used today.
It uses giant cubes full of trash, robots, but not humans, able to travel across the top of the cube, dig up the trash, and deliver it to a station where workers collect orders. This is especially useful in smaller warehouses, which are becoming increasingly competitive to speed up delivery of goods to urban consumers.
The company, which is expected to turn a profit in 2021, will benefit from manufacturers using technology to reduce costs and as e-commerce touches more parts of everyday life, be it shopping for clothing, groceries or home goods. AutoStore’s customer households include John Deere, Gucci and Texas Instruments Inc., according to its website.
SoftBank has established a network of investments in global e-commerce and its associated supply chains. There are bets on some of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, including China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and South Korea’s Coupang Inc.
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Thomas H. Lee agreed to acquire AutoStore from EQT in 2019, with EQT and other investors keeping their stakes.EQT acquired AutoStore in 2017.
Under the deal, Thomas H. Lee will remain a major shareholder and, along with SoftBank and EQT, will represent the board of directors.