Elephants in the Room — Corporates Enter the AI Investing Boom

Ansaf Kareem
5 min readOct 24, 2023

Introduction

It is no secret that AI is the theme of the year in the venture world — and investment dollars are proving it. According to Crunchbase, more than 1 in 4 investment dollars have been invested in US AI startups in 2023 alone. Compare that to years prior where, for example between 2018 and 2022, AI startups received only an average of 12% of total funding capital.

Although venture firms seem to be making the most noise about their focus on AI, corporations have also gotten deeply involved. Some of these investments include Amazon’s recent $4 billion investment into Anthropic and Microsoft’s $10B+ multi-year investment in OpenAI.

Historically, corporates and strategics have taken a complementary role to traditional financiers of private companies, but in this recent AI wave, large corporates are signaling their strategic interest in artificial intelligence in a big way.

For founders building in the AI space, corporates and strategics have emerged as increasingly important collaborators and investors.

I took a deeper dive to unpack the trends below:

Overview and Limitations of our Analysis

For the analysis, we looked at all the reported funding rounds in Pitchbook since the release of ChatGPT3 (Nov 2022) in which corporate strategics led or participated.

Our data set includes: Adobe, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Atlassian, Cisco, Intuit, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia, Oracle, Salesforce, SAP, ServiceNow, Workday, and Databricks (the only private company included).

Over the past ~11 months, there have been 69 investments in private companies and 16 M&A deals involving AI or AI applications/adjacent companies.

Note: What defines an AI company can sometimes be a bit amorphous, but if the company self-describes as an AI company, we included it in the data set. We were also limited to the data available in PitchBook and in some cases dollars invested, valuations, or acquisition numbers were not included.

Special thanks to Maaz Usmani for his help in this analysis.

Strategics have a heavy focus on LLMs and Infrastructure Companies, and are not shy with size of investment.

The top 3 investments by size account for more than half of the total investment in this period, suggesting strong investment concentration.

The largest investment rounds were all in the Infrastructure and LLM space. Not only can cutting edge models be strategically important for corporates, but the large dollars needed to support these LLM investments may sometimes be better suited for strategics versus traditional venture capital models.

Source: Pitchbook Data as of October 23rd 2023

Since the spring of 2023, the number of deals involving corporates in the AI space have stayed reasonably steady, with a heavier focus on growth deals not just by total dollars exposed, but also overall count.

Source: Pitchbook Data as of October 23rd 2023

Additionally, strategics only led 15 of the 69 rounds during this period, suggesting that strategics are still primarily participating in rounds led by other venture capital investors. Nvidia was the most active lead investor, leading 7 of these rounds, with Salesforce coming in second.

Strategic Investors in AI: Nvidia Tops the Charts

Source: Pitchbook Data as of October 23rd 2023

Notably, Nvidia has been the most active investor, not just in the top investments by size, but also in overall count. Nearly half of all the investments made in this time period included Nvidia as an investor.

More than 75% of Nvidia’s investments went to growth stage companies, including investing in 8 of the 10 largest financings in this period. Almost half of their total investments were in the infrastructure/LLM sector, with the healthcare/therapeutics being the next largest sector.

The second most active player is Salesforce. Salesforce has also invested primarily in Infra/LLM companies but has a more balanced portfolio which includes security, SaaS, hardware, EdTech and Web3. Also, unlike Nvidia, Salesforce only participated in 3 of the 10 top rounds, another indication of their more balanced approach between early and growth rounds.

Source: Pitchbook Data as of October 23rd 2023

Infrastructure and LLM investments dominated the sector focus of most strategics during this period. However, healthcare/therapeutics and SaaS companies came in tied for second.

Other Large Corporations are Investing Selectively

Many large corporations have only made 1–2 investments in the space, including Amazon, Meta, Cisco, ServiceNow, Oracle, and Workday.

Notably, Apple, Adobe, and Intuit are all absent from the investment list, though Apple did make acquisitions in the space during this period.

Overall, strategic investment has been primarily focused on growth stage companies, with less than $700M of the $11B+ raised in this time period going to early stage companies (Seed-Series B).

M&A has been steady in this period, but mostly consists of small acquisitions

There have been 16 M&A transactions during this period, with mostly unannounced acquisition sizes leading us to believe these were smaller acquisitions, likely acqui-hires. The notable exceptions to this is MosiacML’s acquisition by Databricks for $1.3 billion in June 2023 and Arcion’s acquisition (also by Databricks) for $100M in October 2023.

Source: Pitchbook Data as of October 23rd 2023

In order to better understand the posture of strategics and their appetite for future investment and M&A, the below segmentation may provide some signal.

Some companies like Adobe may be digesting prior large M&A targets, such as Figma, and will likely be out of the large M&A game in the near future.

Source: Analysis of Pitchbook Data as of October 23rd 2023

Key Takeaways for Founders

  1. Strategic investors can be very influential to your funding rounds, especially if you are in the infrastructure/LLM space. If you are at the growth stage, partnering with a large strategic for an investment can help you with accelerating R&D, increasing brand recognition, and building channel/GTM partnerships.
  2. For those looking for early stage investments from corporates, focus on those with an appetite for moving early. Nvidia, Atlassian, Salesforce, and the venture arms of Alphabet and Microsoft, are all good places to explore early stage venture partners.
  3. Although Infrastructure/LLMs are the most prioritized sector at the moment, other areas are emerging. The healthcare/therapeutics and SaaS space has seen the most investment from corporates operating in the AI space, but other categories are starting to see more, specifically Security.
  4. M&A so far has primarily focused on smaller companies, but it is still early innings. As strategics make large investments in startups, we could see some of the larger players become more acquisitive over time.

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Ansaf Kareem

Early Stage Investor. Former @RelateIQ, @McKinsey, @Stanford.