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Internet connectivity projects unite as Alphabet spinout Loon grabs $125M from SoftBank’s HAPSMobile

Two futuristic projects are coming together to help increase global internet access after Loon, the Google spinout that uses a collection of floating balloons to bring connectivity to remote areas, announced it has raised money from a SoftBank initiative.

HAPSMobile, a SoftBank project that is also focused on increasing global connectivity, is investing $125 million into Loon, according to an announcement from SoftBank made this morning. The agreement includes an option for Loon to make a reciprocal $125 million investment in HAPSMobile and it includes co-operation plans, details of which are below.

HAPSMobile is a one-year-old joint venture between SoftBank and U.S. company AeroVironment . The company has developed a solar-powered drone that’s designed to deliver 5G connectivity in the same way Facebook has tried in the past. The social network canceled its Aquila drone last year, although it is reported to have teamed up with Airbus for new trials in Australia.

Where Facebook has stumbled, HAPSMobile has made promising progress. The company said that its HAWK 30 drone — pictured below in an impression — has completed its initial development and the first trials are reportedly set to begin this year.

Loon, meanwhile, was one of the first projects to go after the idea of air-based connectivity with a launch in 2013. The business was spun out of X, the ‘moonshot’ division of Alphabet, last year and, though it is still a work in progress, it has certainly developed from an initial crazy idea conceived within Google.

Loon played a role in connecting those affected by flooding in Peru in 2017 and it assisted those devastated by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. Loon claims its balloons have flown more than 30 million kms and provided internet access for “hundreds of thousands” of people across the world.

In addition to the capital investment, the two companies have announced a set of initiatives that will help them leverage their collective work and technology.

For starters, they say they will make their crafts/balloons open to use for the other — so HAPSMobile can tap Loon balloons for connectivity and vice-versa — while, connected to that, they will jointly develop a communication payload across both services. They also plan to develop a common ground station that could work with each side’s tech and develop shared connectivity that their airborne hardware can tap.

Loon has already developed fleet management technology because of the nature of its service, which is delivered by a collection of balloons, and that will be optimized for HAPSMobile.

The premise of HAPSMobile is very much like Loon

Outside of tech, the duo said they will create an alliance “to promote the use of high altitude communications solution with regulators and officials worldwide.”

The investment is another signal that shows SoftBank’s appetite in tech investing is not limited to up-and-coming startups via its Vision Fund, more established ventures are indeed also in play. Just yesterday, the Vision Fund announced plans to invest $1 billion in German payment firm Wirecard and its past investments include ARM and Nvidia, although SoftBank has sold its stake in the latter.

Korean conglomerate SK leads $600M round for Chinese chipmaker Horizon Robotics

Horizon Robotics, a three-year-old Chinese startup backed by Intel Capital, just raised a mega-round of fundings from domestic and overseas backers as it competes for global supremacy in developing AI solutions and chips aimed at autonomous vehicles, smart retail stores, surveillance equipment and other devices for everyday scenarios.

The Beijing-based company announced Wednesday in a statement that it’s hauled in $600 million in a Series B funding round led by SK China, the China subsidiary of South Korean conglomerate SK Group; SK Hynix, SK’s semiconductor unit; and a number of undisclosed Chinese automakers along with their funds.

The fresh capital drove Horizon’s valuation to at least $3 billion, the company claims. The Financial Times previously reported that the chipmaker was raising up to $1 billion in a funding round that could value it at as much as $4 billion. Such a price tag could perhaps be justified by the vast amount of resources China has poured into the red-hot sector as part of a national push to shed dependency on imported chips and work towards what analysts call “semiconductor sovereignty.”

Horizon did not specify how the proceeds will be used. The company could not be immediately reached for comments.

In 2015, Yu Kai left Baidu as the Chinese search engine giant’s deep learning executive and founded Horizon to make the “brains” for a broad spectrum of connected devices. In doing so Yu essentially set himself up for a race against industry veterans like Intel and Nvidia. To date, the startup has managed to make a dent by securing government contracts, which provide a stable source of income for China’s AI upstarts including SenseTime, and several big-name clients like SK’s telecommunication unit, which is already leveraging Horizon’s algorithms to develop smart retail solutions. Like many of its peers who are at the forefront of the AI race, Horizon has set up an office in Silicon Valley and hiring local talents for its lab.

Other investors who joined the round included several of Horizon’s returning investors such as Hillhouse Capital and Morningside Venture Capital . There were also some heavyweight new backers, such as a fund run by conglomerate China Oceanwide Holdings as well as the CSOBOR Fund, a private equity entity set up by China’s state-owned CITIC to back projects pertaining to China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” modern Silk Road initiative.

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