Toyota is the latest Fortune 500 company to launch an AI focused venture capital fund. The initial early-stage fund will deploy $100 million and operate as a subsidiary of the Toyota Research Institute. The automaker has strategically positioned itself as an ROI rather than strategic-focused fund — meaning that it aims to profit like any other VC firm.
Jim Adler will serve as managing director of the fund. He has been serving as vice president of Toyota Research and comes from a product background. Adler and the rest of the team at Toyota AI Ventures have made three investments to date. These include:
Nauto — Developing driverless car technology
SLAMcore — Building visual tracking and mapping algorithms
Intuition Robotics — Creating a robot companion for older adults
The team says their strongest value add is helping startups think about what business problems are worth solving. Of course, Toyota Research Institute also brings technical expertise to assist the AI fund with diligence and to help startups make improvements to core technology.
Most of the top founders I speak to tell me that they have little issue raising capital and tend to avoid corporate venture when they can. There is a general anxiety in the market that corporates are not genuine when they promise to be ROI rather than strategic investors. Many question whether even small IP and strategic risk warrants corporate involvement, particularly at the volatile seed stage.
“We let startups lead these kinds of discussions,” Adler said when asked about this tension. “We’re not here to extract IP from these investments.”
Toyota has structured its fund as a separate company rather than an on-balance-sheet entity to minimize conflicts of interest. The firm expects to follow on and lead both seed and Series A deals.
Running effective corporate venture arms is difficult, and it’s even more difficult when dealing with AI startups. The capital-saturated AI startup ecosystem needs data, genuine corporate customers and advisors with product expertise. There are exactly four trillion corporate venture arms in the world, but shockingly few get this right — fingers crossed Toyota knows what they’re getting themselves into.