There’s another Son in Japan trying to change the world

Taizo Son is the youngest brother of Masayoshi Son, chief executive officer of SoftBank Group Corp

Taizo Son, chief executive officer of Mitletoe Inc. Photo: Bloomberg
Taizo Son, chief executive officer of Mitletoe Inc. Photo: Bloomberg

Tokyo: When a massive tsunami swept away entire towns in north-eastern Japan five years ago, Taizo Son filled three shipping containers with emergency supplies and sent them to aid relief efforts. Later, he bet almost $100 million of his own money on start-ups seeking to transform everything from transportation and education to farming and medicine.

Now, he’s ready to talk more about Mistletoe, a combination of an early-stage venture firm, incubator and entrepreneur-in-residence program. It’s focused on making an impact on society.

But Son, 43, isn’t just the former head of GungHo Online Entertainment Inc., developer of Puzzle & Dragons—once the world’s best-selling smartphone title. He’s also the youngest brother of Masayoshi Son, chief executive officer of SoftBank Group Corp. Taizo is 15 years younger, worth about $12 billion less and generally keeps a lower profile. There are two other brothers in the Korean immigrant family from the island of Kyushu. With similar hairlines, the family resemblance is unmistakable. So is the confidence.

“We aren’t deciding to do something because it’s profitable, or not do something if it isn’t,” Taizo Son said in an interview at Mistletoe’s new office in Tokyo’s Aoyama district. “What’s needed are like-minded people getting together to give shape to things.”

When he launched Mistletoe three years ago, Son sought to emulate Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz’s ability to draw on the knowledge of a network of experts, as well as Google’s backing of long-term projects.

One of Mistletoe’s start-ups is Zipline, whose drones will be used in Rwanda to deliver blood and medicine to rural hospitals. By flying and parachuting supplies, the fixed-wing machines can bypass the African country’s underdeveloped road network and get them to those who need it. He’s also backing Zoox, a fully autonomous car, micro-satellite maker Astroscale and a toilet gadget that analyses urine to detect diseases.

So far, Son has invested about 10 billion yen ($97 million) of his own money in 30 start-ups. That’s why he’s willing to wait 10 to 15 years—longer than most VCs—for the bets to pay off. Proceeds from his other investments—500 Start-ups, Beyond Ventures, Grove Ventures and other funds—will help finance Mistletoe.

“Perhaps I’ve gotten old, reaching the age when you start to think about social responsibility,” he said, weighing in on Silicon Valley’s angst over whether the brightest minds in technology are being wasted on getting people to click on ads. “I’m interested in more direct solutions to problems.”

Taizo got his start in college by helping his brother get Yahoo Japan Corp. off the ground, and later made his mark with GungHo. When the company’s stock peaked in 2013, it was worth more than Mazda Motor Corp. and briefly made Taizo a billionaire. He still owns at least 24 percent of the game developer, giving him a net worth of more than $720 million, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. Taizo Son remains on GungHo’s board, but is no longer an executive at the company. SoftBank once owned 26% in GungHo, but announced in June that it would sell most of its stake.

As a major shareholder of SoftBank, the older Son is worth $12.5 billion, making him Japan’s second-richest man, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In July, SoftBank announced it would pay $32 billion to buy ARM Holdings Plc, as a bet on the future of the internet of things, an area that’s also important to Taizo and Mistletoe. The brothers share a vision of solving humanity’s problems with technology, but it’s also clear they’re going about it in different ways.

While SoftBank’s offices tend to be bland, like the rest of corporate Japan, Mistletoe is housed on two floors of natural wood and wicker furniture. Cables snake all over the place, a virtual-reality headset is nestled in a pile of controllers and a 3-D printer shares a desk with a bike helmet.

“I have my own way of doing things that is different from my brother’s and will eventually top him,” Taizo said. “Of course, he’s still way ahead.” Bloomberg