When the Japanese telecoms company SoftBank announced its $32bn (£24.3bn) takeover of the Cambridge, UK-based semiconductor designer ARM Holdings back in July, public response was heavily informed by the recent political turmoil in Britain.
To those mindful of the deterrent impact of a Brexit vote on foreign investment into the UK, the deal signified the continued attractiveness of fundamentally strong British tech companies to overseas buyers encouraged by the weakness of sterling – as previously predicted in this column.
To those concerned about UK Plc’s long-standing tendency to nurture exceptional tech companies before disposing of them to larger foreign acquirers, ARM’s sale dashed hopes that new Prime Minister Theresa May might be more protectionist in outlook than her predecessor.
But a longer-term and less parochial analysis should consider the significance of the deal within the wider, global context of the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). Entailing the interconnectivity of devices, from fridges and thermostats to cars and streetlamps, the IoT is expected to spread exponentially over the coming decades.
As with any paradigm shift, tech companies will rework their investment strategies accordingly to capitalize on the commercial opportunities heralded by this upcoming transformation. In stating that ARM’s proprietary chip designs will allow his company “to capture the very significant opportunities provided by the Internet of Things”, SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son identified the IoT as the rationale for one of the year’s single largest tech deals. There are few more conspicuous ways of firing the starting gun on an impending technological revolution.
Yet SoftBank’s investment does not represent all too significant a departure from the established pattern of tech giants paying a substantial premium to make a speculative, lateral move and secure a strategic foothold in the IoT space. Around the same time, for example, US wireless communications behemoth Verizon announced its own $2.4bn acquisition of the Irish fleet management software provider Fleetmatics, doubling down on the acquisition of Telogis earlier in the year. Back in January 2014, Google (now Alphabet) added an IoT dimension to its portfolio of non-core, ‘moonshot’ projects with its $3.2bn acquisition of connected thermostat and smoke detector designer Nest. The company’s subsequent difficulties seemingly put paid to earlier, comparable predictions of an imminent revolution in the field of connected devices.
SoftBank shares’ underwhelming performance in the aftermath of the ARM announcement suggested that many investors believed this deal belonged in the same category of speculative acquisition, despite the company’s greater size and profitability. Concerns centered on how ARM’s chip designs are better suited for the mobile devices market, in which it holds an 85% share globally. By contrast, the company made a lateral move of its own into the IoT space only earlier this year, paying $350m at a substantial revenue multiple for imaging technology specialist Apical and the ‘embedded computer vision’ technology required for next-generation security systems, vehicles and other connected appliances. Even Masayoshi Son downplayed any notion of immediate commercial benefit, instead discussing a 20-year timeframe for significant results in the IoT market.
None of which is to say that we have not reached a seminal moment in the rise of the Internet of Things – only that the SoftBank-ARM acquisition does not best exemplify this. It represents the highest-profile investment to date within a growing volume of IoT-related deal activity. As is so often the case, however, the real changes are actually being prefigured by numerous transactions within the mid-market, valued at around or below a billion dollars.
In August, Norland Capital, Iconiq Capital and RIT Capital Partners all invested in CSL Group, a provider of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications in the security and health sectors. In June, the US private equity firm ABRY Partners announced its acquisition of the Swedish-Norwegian technology company AddSecure, the leading provider of mission-critical secure M2M communications in the Nordic market. Last year, CVC Capital Partners bought Wireless Logic, Europe’s leading independent provider of M2M managed services.
These examples speak to the commercial viability of IoT-focused companies in two different ways.
Firstly, they underline the attractiveness of the ‘industrial Internet of Things’, the business-to-business (B2B) applications of mass inter-device connectivity. The industrial IoT has typically generated less interest than its consumer counterpart. However, General Electric – which made the $495m acquisition of software developer Meridium to bolster its own industrial IoT platform, Predix, earlier this month – forecasts that by 2020 its annual revenues will outstrip those of the consumer IoT, $225bn to $170bn.
AddSecure and CSL benefit from growing public and private sector demand for fully monitored and managed secure connectivity for security purposes, providing connected alarm systems for municipalities and major retail premises alike. Wireless Logic offers connectivity solutions to over 1000 customers across Europe, for instance a provider of real-time energy performance data analysis to corporate clients using small-scale power generators. Each company’s respective product offering has demonstrable, real-world and lucrative B2B applications.
Secondly, the prominent involvement of financial sponsors highlights how private equity firms, whose agreements with their fund investors routinely dictate that they sell their investee companies within a set timeframe, are seeing the short- to medium-term growth and exit prospects of businesses positioned to capitalize on the IoT boom.
Under growing pressure from their fund investors, private equity investors are increasingly drawn to business models where strong growth driven by fundamental technology paradigm shifts eventually delivers superior profitability and returns on investment. Companies designing the software, connectivity or hardware required to enable the Internet of Things, far from being moonshot enterprises with ill-defined target markets, increasingly fit this specification.
SoftBank is of course right to place its own, very sizeable investment within an extended timeframe. Many of the deals within the rising tide of IoT M&A activity will be primarily long-termist and speculative as well as strategic in nature. It’s just that this is far from the whole story.
It’s the increasing momentum of less conspicuous deals for focused mid-market companies poised to benefit in the short and medium term which tells us that the Internet of Things is about to really take off.
This article was written by Paul-Noël Guély from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.