Why would Masayoshi Son's $100 billion SoftBank Vision Fund invest $1.1 billion in View, a tintable-window startup?

It’s one of the biggest venture capital rounds we've ever covered and was announced earlier this month.

View’s “dynamic” glass windows can change their tint to let in the right amount of natural light without obstructing views. This small change can result in healthier and happier occupants while saving a significant amount of energy.  

The SoftBank Vision Fund (which includes $45 billion from the rulers of Saudi Arabia) has made even bigger investments in Uber (more than $7.7 billion) and WeWork ($4.4 billion) — but those are global-scale, industry-disrupting companies.

Tintable windows seem rather prosaic in that light. 

But according to Erich Klawuhn, VP of product management at View, “It’s just the start in a series of smart building solutions” in what he claims is a “wide-open competitive landscape” for the electrochromic window builder.

View’s foremost value proposition is boosting employee health and productivity, followed by increasing property value, and lastly, saving energy by reducing lighting and HVAC electricity use by up to 20 percent.

Still, a 20 percent savings in energy costs for a commercial building is more than significant, if the claim is true.

Dynamic glass

Electrochromic glass uses a thin film of metal oxides that change the opacity of a window depending on voltage applied.  

View’s electrochromic technology originated out of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab; it sandwiches a deposited layer of tungsten oxide between two panes of glass. View’s major competitor, SageGlass, was acquired by Saint-Gobain in 2012.   

Electrochromic windows can cost two to four times as much as a standard double-paned window, although the costs of shades and blinds are eliminated. There are wiring and power costs associated with dynamic windows, as well as the UL standards compliance and code issues brought about by introducing a new technology to the historically conservative building industry.    

Research and Markets pegs the global smart glass market at $3.12 billion in 2017, with a forecast of $14.24 billion by 2026, while the global market for construction glass is forecast as $115 billion by 2020.

View has raised close to $2 billion since its inception as Soladigm 11 years ago from investors including Corning, Madrone Capital Partners, Khosla Ventures, GE, TIAA Investments, Reinet Investments, DBL Investors, Navitas Capital, Sigma Partners and The Westly Group.

How do you spend​ $1.1 billion?

The $1.1 billion investment (SoftBank Vision Fund was the sole participant in the round) is intended to scale View's manufacturing capacity in Mississippi and continue development of new applications in security and longer-term applications like displays. 

View says its Mississippi-built glass is installed in 35 million square feet of buildings across hundreds of installations in North America. 

These windows can use their active, networked nature to serve as a platform for a number of other services — and it’s these adjacent applications that could be motivating the massive investment in this company. 

View’s security product uses the already networked and powered smart windows to accurately detect and locate glass breakage and then signal the customer.   

Traditional glass-breakage sensors use microphones to detect signature frequencies, while View detects the loss of a circuit across its electrochromic layer. View claims that acoustic sensors can generate false alarms triggered by ambient sounds.

Blade Runner-style full-buil​ding displays?

The View system is one of the first powered and connected networks in a new building, according to Klawuhn, and once that network is up, “We can add other services onto the platform."

It’s a bit lofty, but the vision for dynamic glass is as a low-voltage skin that creates a digital network at the edge of the building. Working with Microsoft’s IOT software, View envisions a suite of air-quality sensors, cameras and microphones integrated into its window frames. 

From there, it’s not that big a leap to a different way of interacting with a building. In a few years, a smarter building might recognize you and your HVAC and lighting preferences or respond to voice commands and your presence as you move through the structure. 

More cinematically, an active glass surface lends itself for use as a large outside building display as shown in Blade Runner or internal window displays as in Minority Report.

Klawuhn essentially told me to cool my jets. There’s some potential for displays, internal and external, but it’s not yet part of the product stack. What View does have are “many more use cases and products” that leverage this low-voltage and powered network early in the construction cycle.