Taizo Son is a man on a mission to save the world. Not in the guns blazing superhero kind of way, but rather by empowering mankind to help themselves.
The serial investor and entrepreneur believes this will happen when innovative forms of technology, such as artiﬁcial intelligence, robots, biotechnology and blockchain, have advanced to a point where individuals can harness them to better their lives. Think autonomous drones that deliver essential medicine to those in need, bed sensors to detect an individual’s biorhythms and space-debris robot cleaners to prevent collisions in space.
These are not mere pipe dreams. His venture capital ﬁrm Mistletoe has pumped money into start-ups like Zipline, Aba and Astroscale to help get these innovations up and running.
“Technology is one of the main sources of inspiration for us to create novel solutions that will change our work and lifestyle,” says Son during his interview at swanky business club Spectrum, where Mistletoe is headquartered in Singapore.
He relocated here from Japan in 2017 together with his wife, Seia Lee, an accomplished mezzo-soprano, and ﬁve-year-old son. He strides in at 10am sharp for this interview and photoshoot, with Lee by his side. A seasoned opera singer who has performed in prestigious concert halls including Suntory Hall in Tokyo and Cadogan Hall in London, Lee quips that she is now her husband’s “wardrobe director”.
More importantly, he is here to talk about fostering the entrepreneurship scene in Singapore and beyond. The couple moved here as the business-friendly environment and attractive tax system offer an ideal ecosystem to nurture young entrepreneurs and start-ups that are pushing the boundaries of human innovation globally, Son reveals. From Singapore, he jetsets frequently across the globe in search of the next sharp mind who may have a solution to a problem plaguing the world.
“We are at one of the most exciting moments in history with all kinds of new and innovative technology that I believe can democratise society, so that we can be independent enough to offer helping hands to each other,” he shares.
Son made his fortune from his gaming company GungHo Online Entertainment, which created Puzzle & Dragons, the ﬁrst mobile game to cross US$1 billion ($1.36 billion) in revenue. He started Mistletoe in 2013 to invest in tech entrepreneurs seeking to solve global social challenges in the wide-ranging ﬁelds of health, education, transportation, food and more. To date, he has invested some US$155 million in 97 start-ups, including Garena (now rebranded as Sea), which has gone public.
His passion to make the world a better place resonates with his father’s belief system. “I was raised and taught by my father and our philosophy is that we should contribute as much as we can to the world,” Son says. The youngest brother of Masayoshi Son, founder and chief executive of Japanese company SoftBank, adds: “Money should not be the ultimate goal that people dedicate their lives to.”
Shirley Crystal Chua, founder and group CEO of Golden Equator, a ﬁntech, business consultancy and fund management company, which Spectrum is a part of, says this altruistic outlook is characteristic of Son.
“He is very aligned with social causes and is always thinking about what he can contribute to the world, but he does so in an innovative and inventive style,” she says.
It is Son’s hope that the innovations he has invested in will bring the world closer to what he terms “human autonomy”. He says: “As individuals, we have to be empowered by technology so we can be independent. This way, we won’t have to rely too much on any kind of organisation or systems like governments or corporations.”
In a world where many are observing the growing dominance of technology behemoths the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google with increasing unease, Son’s views will surely strike a chord.
Still, this quest for greater autonomy is not without its risks, particularly in terms of monetary returns for those who invest in its development. Statistics show that, on average, some nine in 10 startups fail—but these ﬁgures hardly rattle Son.
“Usually, I will lose money because most of the entrepreneurs will fail. But it is ok since it is my own money,” he says of the investments made by Mistletoe, which he personally funds.
To Son, what matters is the priceless lesson these bright minds learn through failing. “It is a good learning curve for them because they grow up and they will be successful. Failure is a necessary process, so I encourage them to start fast and fail fast.”
Eventually, he believes they will succeed.
This nurturing approach goes beyond monetary support. Son is known to devote the most precious resource of all—his time—to the entrepreneurs whose ideas he invests in.
“When I look at my 20 years of history as an entrepreneur and founder, the most helpful and fruitful support that I have received from others is fatherly-like support compared to technical or ﬁnancial support. It is much more precious, so I do my best to do the same for the young founders,” he says.
But to enjoy this level of support from Son, these entrepreneurs have to ﬁrst prove their worth. “For a very early stage startup, I won’t look through any business plan or spreadsheet. But I will listen to their vision and their reasons for starting something. If their reason is to earn big money, that is too weak to sustain. I am looking for passion and strong motivation,” he says.
For example, the founder of Aba, an elderlycare technology company, was driven to develop bed sensors after seeing her grandmother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.
“She realised many other people have similar struggles so she made up her mind to develop this technology. Even in hardship, she will never give up,” Son explains.
For budding inventors and entrepreneurs, Son is a Yoda-like ﬁgure offering the gentle—some say cryptic—guidance they need to progress.
“I won’t give advice, I just listen. I’ll keep asking why they feel and think a certain way, to try and make them think more deeply so that they eventually recognise the solution by themselves. Most of the time, this is good learning for them,” Son says.
Son, who led an $18 million investment in Golden Equator in April, also serves as Group Special Advisor at the Singapore-founded group of companies, with whom he shares a vision to invest for the future by building ﬁnancial, human and technology capital. His name, knowledge and connections have lent the group gravitas in creating a thriving ecosystem for entrepreneurs to connect with like-minded investors. He has, for instance, introduced Softbank Ventures Asia to the Golden Equator community for further business opportunities across the group’s business verticals.
Chua, who has worked with Son since 2017 and is now close friends with him and his family, says: “Communicating with him is like sparring in a tennis game. It is not one way but a mutual sparring of information, which makes it more engaging and allows us to come up with ideas that collectively makes sense. Plus, he understands what is out there in the world and distils that information to get to the essence of things, which is inspiring for people who are around him.”
More recently, Son teamed up with Golden Equator to launch NextGen Foundation, designed to get next-generation members of business families involved in philanthropic causes. He chose to align himself with the group’s multiple initiatives because of the synergy between his expertise and what they can offer.
“Asian countries tend to be fragmented because there are less bridges to collaborate with one another. For example if you look at startups in Silicon Valley, their teams are very international. But in Asia, that is less so—when I was in Japan, I had almost no relationship with Southeast Asians,” says Son.
“The Golden Equator Group has built very good relationships and cross bridges with different parties in Southeast Asia, while I have experience in building ecosystems; they are from the ﬁnancial sector, and I am from tech.”
A strong advocate of education, Son wants to ﬁnd a solution for what he views as one of the most pressing problems for the next generation.
“The world is changing drastically and education is one of the most serious areas that has yet to be updated,” says Son, who sits on the board of the Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities (ETIC), which provides youth with opportunities to develop their capabilities as social entrepreneurs. He has also teamed up with Y Combinator and Singularity Institute in Silicon Valley to provide grants to PhD students looking to work with start-ups in the areas of mobility and sustainability.
In his mind, current educational systems are stuck with curricula and a system of passive learning created 30 to 40 years ago. But in this digital age, he believes the focus for schools should be on equipping students with the necessary skills to harness new technologies such as robotics and AI.
Vivita, his Japan-based creative education accelerator, aims to address this. At its activity centres in Japan and Estonia—with another slated to open in Singapore later this year—there are no teachers or curriculum to follow. Instead, the centre is outﬁ tted with high-tech equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters and computers, and is staffed by software experts who encourage children to pitch their own inventions by experimenting with these machines. By giving them the liberty to play and explore to their heart’s content, Son hopes to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and creative thinkers.
He says he was very gratiﬁed to read Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten, which echoes his belief that the various stages of education should focus more on play, imagination and sharing, just like in kindergarten, to encourage essential soft skills like creativity and critical thinking.
It is a principal Son personally applies when bonding with his own child. An involved father, he spends most late afternoons at home in Sentosa Cove, homeschooling and playing with his son in the pool.
“My son is very independent and creative; he never follows my instructions, so I’ve given up,” he says with obvious pride. “I have learnt to encourage him by saying ‘this is amazing’, ‘wow this’ and ‘wow that’.”
Art Direction by Catherine Wong
Photography by Micky Wong
Fashion Styling by Ong Weisheng
Hair by Sean Ang
Makeup by Amy Chow using Laura Mercier
Photography Assistance by Sally Yap
This story first appeared in the August 2019 issue of A.