Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Seoulz
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Disclaimer: all content within the Startup Ecosystem Summary and Editor’s Guide sections is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the guest editor. The guest editor is not responsible for content within the Country Snapshot and Community sections, as much of this content is compiled from external sources and does not necessarily reflect the guest editor’s view.
The Korean startup ecosystem has been on the rise ever since major global companies started to support startups in Korea. Google launched its first Asian Campus in Seoul in 2015. Facebook opened its Innovation Lab in Pangyo Techno Valley. Korean conglomerates soon followed suit, with Samsung creating Samsung C-Lab to nurture early-stage startups. The Korea government continues to invest in the startup ecosystem with plans to invest US$12 billion over the next 4 years. South Korea is the perfect place for tech startups to launch their product or service. Korea is considered one of the top connected countries in the world. In addition to having one of the fastest internet connections in the world, smartphone penetration sits at 95%.
Koreans are also very tech-savvy and are early adopters of new and innovative technologies. This is one of the main reasons why Koreans embraced blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies so quickly. While the blockchain hype has died down, Korea is still a leader in the Fintech space with successful startups like Viva Republica. In addition, the Korean fashion and beauty industry is stronger than ever. Lastly, South Korea’s strong cultural and economic ties to China, Southeast Asia, and Japan make Korea the perfect place for global startups looking to enter the Asian market.
The outlook for the Korean startup ecosystem looks strong as more and more Korean startups are eager to partner with global startups. This is a change from their domestic-only focused mentality. The Korean government has played their role in bringing in global companies to interact with the Korean startups. Korean culture is hotter than ever thanks mainly to the success of the boy band BTS. BTS has been massively successful in bringing Korean music and culture, known as the “Korean Wave,” to the U.S. in 2019. The Korean Wave content business has generated over US$3 billion abroad in 2019.
Other industry sectors with great potential are gaming, beauty, HealthTech, AI, and blockchain. The Korean government has put restrictions on ICO projects in Korea, however, they have embraced blockchain technologies. Regulations will play a huge role in what happens to the blockchain ecosystem in Korea moving forward.
Even with globalization, Korean startups still have issues going global. The main issue is that since Korea’s market size is around US$750 billion (15th in the world) many Korean startups feel there is no need to expand into other markets. There is therefore a risk of Korean startups being overtaken by global companies coming into Korea if local startups do not start expanding outside of Korea.
Editor’s choice of the country’s top 10 emerging tech startups.
Editor’s pick of which ‘Featured Startup’ is especially worth following and why.
Editor’s choice of the industries with the most potential for technology disruption and growth.
Editor’s perspective of the maturity level of talent in the ecosystem.
Editor’s commentary on how the country’s culture and history have impacted the ecosystem.
After the Korean War, South Korea and North Korea were dirt poor. In fact, many don’t know that after the war, North Korea was in better shape than South Korea. North Korea controlled most of the industrial infrastructure while South Korea mainly relied on agriculture. A third of the South Korean population was homeless and the government depended greatly on the United States. However, North Korea has struggled to advance, while South Korea has been an economic powerhouse.
The man most responsible for South Korea’s success was President Park Chung-hee. His plan for South Korea was to bring together the leading companies in Korea and help fund them through U.S. government loans. Many of these companies were able to get loans at low-interest rates and compete with global companies. (While this brought great economic prosperity to Korea, it also brought with it corruption). Some of the Korean companies that flourished were Lotte, Samsung, and LG. These companies played and continue to play a large role in supporting and shaping the startup ecosystem.
As these companies grew, so did the Korean economy, whose GDP at the end of 2018 was at US$1.65 trillion. There is a lot of pride amongst Korean citizens for these major corporations as they feel they are what helped make Korea what it is today. Brand loyalty for Korean products is very high which makes it at times difficult for new foreign brands to break into the Korean market.
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500 Kimchi (Seoul): Seed fund typically investing US$100,000-250,000 per investment into 15-20 new companies a year in Korea. (Source: 500 Startups)
Altos Ventures (Seoul): Early-stage venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley with 16 years’ experience in Korea. In 2016, the firm raised US$100 million to invest exclusively in Korea. It is believed to be the largest Korea-focused fund ever raised by a US venture firm. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Big Basin Capital (Seoul): Venture capital firm specialising in early-stage and startup investments; typically investing up to US$1 million in the US and Korea. Big Basin Capital was founded in 2013 and is based in Cupertino, California, and Seoul, South Korea. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Bon Angels (Seoul): Founded in 2006 as an angel investment team, which then built up a corporate body in 2010, Bon Angels Venture Partners is arguably the first early-stage venture capital of significance in Korea. (Source: Bon Angels)
Coolidge Corner Investment (Seoul, Busan): Provides early-stage funding to the most innovative tech startup companies in Korea. (Source: Coolidge Corner Investment)
Hyundai Cradle (Seoul): The Hyundai Motor Company has established an international corporate venture capital unit called Hyundai Cradle with regional offices in five selected markets – Israel, US, China, Germany and Korea. Focusing on the five areas of mobility, smart cities, energy, robotics and AI, it has invested a total of US$70 million worth of minority stakes in 15 foreign startups over the last three years. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
IMM Investment (Seoul): A late-stage capital and private equity firm established in July 1999. With longstanding trust of institutional investors, partners and investment professionals continue to create significant value for portfolio companies, which consist of Information Technology, Healthcare/Biotech and Manufacturing. (Source: IMM)
Innopolis Partners (Seoul): A venture capital firm focused on Life Sciences, materials, and manufacturing startups. (Source: Innopolis Partners)
K Cube Ventures/Kakao Ventures (Seongnam): Early stage VC investing in the technology, mobile and gaming sectors. (Source: Kakao Ventures)
Naver Ventures (Seongnam): The corporate venture capital arm of NAVER Corporation. (Source: Naver)
Qualcomm Ventures Korea (Seoul): The corporate investment arm for Qualcomm, Inc., with investments in more than 120 portfolio companies worldwide. In 2016, it created a US$50 million fund to nurture Korean startups in the fields of 5G, IoT, automobiles and other mobile services. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
SamsungNext Corporate VC (Suwon): SamsungNext (formerly the Global Innovation Centre) announced plans in 2017 to invest in early-stage startups that focus on emerging technologies. They established a fund of nearly US$150 million targeting startups specializing in VR, AI, IoT, and other new frontier technologies. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
SL Investment (Seoul): SL Investment invests in small and medium-sized venture companies across industries including Life Sciences, mobile, O2O, next-generation semiconductor/display, AI, VR, and robotics. (Source: SL Investment)
Smilegate Investment Inc. (Seongnam): Venture capital arm of Smilegate, one of Korea’s most successful gaming companies. Investments are predominantly made in information and communication, electronics, online media and animation. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Softbank Ventures Korea (Seoul): A subsidiary of SoftBank Korea. It primarily invests in early to growth-stage startups with the potential to expand into Asia and beyond. Major investment industries are mobile services, digital media, e-commerce, digital education, industrial tech, communication solutions, security, data management, gaming and devices and equipment. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Startup Alliance Korea (Seoul): Works to help the Korean startup community and help Korean startups expand into the global market. They run the Startup Ecosystem Conference and the Korea Startup Forum where they gather opinions of stakeholders and discuss the future of Korea’s startup ecosystem. (Source: Startup Alliance Korea)
TIPS Program (Seoul): TIPS Korea is a tech incubator program for Korean Startups. The program matches each startup with successful venture founders to help them go global. They have a large network of angel investors and offers mentorship through professional support and matching Korean startups with R&D funds. This includes up to US$840,000 per tech startup for up to 3 years. (Source: Seoulz)
ActnerLab (Seoul): A startup accelerator for hardware startups. The accelerator program works in cooperation with Lab IX of Silicon Valley to help manage Korea’s finest hardware startups. ActnerLab helps entrepreneurs in Korea manufacture prototypes directly and quickly. (Source: Seoulz)
D2 Startup Factory (Seoul): A startup accelerator created by Naver. They mainly invest in Korean startups that deal with AI technology, machine learning, and IoT. The program was launched in 2015. Their accelerator program includes a workspace, mentorship, networking opportunities for partnerships and collaboration opportunities with Naver. (Source: Seoulz)
Deblock (Seoul): An accelerator and blockchain VC fund. It was founded by ICON & AD4th Insight which is a Korean blockchain marketing company. They focus mainly on Korean projects that are looking to build on the ICON platform. DeBlock provides funding as well as help in marketing, token economics advice, networking, and technical consulting. (Source: Seoulz)
DEV Korea Discovery (Seoul): An accelerator program in Korea that connects Seoul to New York. Their main focus is on Korean startups that create transformative digital and mobile products. They help Korean startups go global through their platform that includes entrepreneurs with over 20+ years of experience going global. This accelerator program is a one-stop solution for those looking to cross into the United States. Their fund called the DEV Korea Discovery Fund invests in 20 startups a year. (Source: Seoulz)
DreamPlus Korea (Seoul): An accelerator powered by Hanwha Corporation providing seed funding for promising startups throughout Korea, Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. They also provide office spaces, expert mentoring, investor relations, and specialized marketing solutions. Their main focus is on Fintech and they are considered one of the biggest Fintech accelerators in Korea. DreamPlus picks the startups themselves and they focus on startups that are in fields such as cryptocurrency, payment, security, and lending. There are three DreamPlus centers in South Korea as well as one in Japan and another in China. (Source: Seoulz)
Fast Track Asia (Seoul): An accelerator program founded in 2012 helping Korean startups expand outside of Korea. The countries they mainly target are Japan and Southeast Asia, but they also have begun helping Korean startups expand into the United States. (Source: Seoulz)
Future Play (Seoul): An accelerator known to get the best entrepreneurs from Samsung that have new and innovative ideas in the tech space. The accelerator program which focuses on early-stage startups was launched in 2014. It was founded by entrepreneurs that want to help Korean startups go Global. (Source: Seoulz)
Grants4Apps Korea (Seoul): An acceleration program created by Bayer Korea for Korean startups that specialize in digital healthcare/smart farms. The accelerator program is open to all info-tech startups that specialize in digital healthcare, life sciences, animal health, medical big data processing, and agriculture. Only three applicants are chosen per year (over 400 apply) and those chosen will get the opportunity to collaborate with Bayer. The Korean startups will get office spaces at Bayer Korea in Seoul. (Source: Seoulz)
K-Startup (Pangyo): Launched in 2013, K-Startup is one of the very first Startup Accelerators in South Korea. It is in partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs, SK Planet, and the Banks Foundation. It is also in partnership with AppCenter which is a non-profit organization that focuses on supporting developers as well as startups. It holds events throughout the year to help support the Korean startup ecosystem. (Source: K-Startup)
Koisra Seed Partners (Seoul): A Korean-Israeli seed fund and accelerator that focuses on transforming Korean startups into global success stories through the mentoring and networks of well-established Israeli entrepreneurs. (Source: Koisra Seed Partners)
Lotte Accelerator (Seoul): A corporate accelerator launched in 2016 to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship in Korea. Their aim is to act as a bridge between large corporations and startups. Lotte has a strong network of over 75 affiliates that operate in many different industries. Through the Lotte Accelerator program, Korean startups can get mentorship, have access to Lotte’s network and resources, and get business/investment opportunities. (Source: Seoulz)
Primer Sazze (Seoul): One of the most well-known accelerators in Korea. It is a Korean startup accelerator started by entrepreneurs in Korea in 2010. Primer has invested in over 130 startups that are focused on IT and software services. To get into Primer’s accelerator program, startups need to first participate in Primer’s entrepreneurship training program. The training program will allow startups to verify their business ideas through both online and offline activities and tasks. The progress will take a total of 2 months. Furthermore, during the 2-month process, Startups will have access to Primer’s mentors who can help with marketing education and business verification. (Source: Seoulz)
Sopoong (Seoul): A social venture accelerator focusing on aspiring social enterprises. They have incubated startups such as Socar, Tumblbug, Spacecloud, and 50 others. Their market value from their portfolio is over US$400 million. Sopoong runs seed investment and accelerator programs twice a year. Their main focus is on early-stage social venture business models. They also invested in South Korean education technology startup Jaranda. (Source: Seoulz)
SparkLabs Korea (Seoul): This global accelerator was founded in 2012. They already have the best team of mentors in Korea. They invest in Korean Startups that want to expand to the U.S., Japan, and China. Their main headquarters are located in Seoul but SparkLabs already has several overseas startups. Industry focus includes internet, online gaming, mobile, digital media, and e-commerce sectors. In addition, their Demo Days are some of the best in Asia due to their vast mentor network. (Source: Seoulz)
The Ventures (Seoul): An accelerator started by the former founders of Viki (acquired by Rakuten for US$200 million in 2013). (Source: The Ventures)
WeWork Labs Seoul (Seoul): A startup acceleration space in Yeoksam that helps early-stage Korean startups go global. It is also a shared working space where Korean entrepreneurs can join a variety of acceleration programs, get networking support and consulting, and have access to WeWork’s vast network of mentors, investors, VCs, and successful entrepreneurs. WeWork Labs Korea has partnered with D.CAMP, Fintech company Dayli Financial Group, and Naver-backed startup hub Startup Alliance. Former Naver CEO Kim Sang-hun and Nexon co-founder Kim Sang-beom will take part in Labs’ programs as advisors. (Source: Seoulz)
Busan Techno Park (Busan): Contributes to the activation of the local economy and enhancing business's competitiveness by promoting the technological advance of local-specialized industries and supporting new technology-based startups based on cooperation among industrial, academic, research and governmental bodies in Busan. (Source: Busan Techno Park)
D. CAMP (Seoul): South Korea’s first entrepreneur’s hub, founded by Dreambank in 2013. It provides space for founders, investors, mentors and other players in the scene to make connections and work together. (Source: D. CAMP)
Pangyo Techno Valley (Pangyo): An innovation park south of Seoul in the Gyeonggi Province focusing on information, biotech, cultural and fusion technology. Completed in 2015, it incorporates both global R&D centres and the Industry-Academic R&D Center. The park provides an environment in which SMEs and startups can mutually exchange information with high-tech research institutes and large, global companies such as Samsung, LG, Hanwha and GSCaltex. It aims to merge different industrial sectors, mostly within information and communications technology, to create new business opportunities and foster the growth of startups. Korea’s top 60 startups and K-Global 300 startups are all located in the Pangyo Startup Campus. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Seoul Global Startup Center (Seoul): Founded in 2016 by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in Yongsan in central Seoul, the center runs the Born2Global Accelerator Program. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
HeyStartup & Startup Boxing Day (Seoul): A 2-day Startup conferences and networking function with members of the Korean startup ecosystem. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
K-Startup Grand Challenge (Pangyo): Selected international startups pitch to a panel and get selected to be funded in Korea. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
D.CAMP D.Day (Seoul): Monthly pitching session where selected startups pitch to receive investment and become a resident of D.CAMP coworking space. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Startup Grind Seoul (Seoul): The mission of Startup Grind is to educate, connect, and inspire entrepreneurs. Startup Grind Seoul in sponsorship with AsanNanum Foundation meets monthly in the heart of Seoul. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Busan Center for Creative Economy and Innovation (Busan): A space of communication and exchanges for Busan’s creative economy. It functions as a catalyst for aspiring entrepreneurs who dream of starting a business and a ‘stepping stone’ to make imagination into reality. It also plays as a ‘base camp’ for local early startups by providing exchange space for them. (Source: Busan Startup)
Busan Economic Promotion Agency (Busan): A non-profit foundation established by Busan Metropolitan City and Small and Medium Business Administration to provide essential services required by small and medium-sized businesses and micro-enterprises of Busan, contributing to strengthening competitiveness and improving management conditions of companies located in Busan. (Source: Busan Economic Promotion Agency)
Busan IT Industry Promotion Agency (Busan): Contributes to job creation in Busan by providing customized IT/CT training and one-stop startup support services and developing self-sustainable networks. It also creates a productive startup ecosystem by delivering job creation programs in a systematic way. (Source: Busan Startup)
Daedeok Innopolis: The R&D innovation cluster of the Republic of Korea founded In 1973. Innopolis is a public research complex in the Daedeok area, built to improve the effectiveness of national R&D investments through the geographical concentration of national R&D assets in one place. (Source: Daedeok Innopolis)
Korea Institute of Startup and Entrepreneurship Development (KISED): KISED is a state-run agency established in 2014 under the Small and Medium Business Administration. KISED supports prospective entrepreneurs and startup companies in the development of apps, software, and content during the company’s early stages (less than 1 year). KISED has supported many international startups through its annual program TIPS Town Accelerators Global Accelerating Program for Startups (GAPS). (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Korea Venture Investment Corporation: Since its foundation in 2005, the Korea Venture Investment Corporation has supported innovative small businesses by operating the Korean Fund of Funds (FoF). The Korea Venture Investment Corporation manages several Korean FoF and Matching Funds, including Angel Investment matching funds, SMB and Venture M&A Matching Fund, FoFs for Industrial Technology Commercialization and Foreign VC Investment Fund. The Korean FoF has reached US$1.86 billion and enabled venture funds to exceed US$10.8 billion. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
National IT Industry Promotion Agency (NIPA): The National IT Industry Promotion Agency (NIPA), under the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, supports the overseas expansion of ICT startups and companies and the creation of global startups with multi-cultural ICT talents. The program endeavors to attract overseas startups and provide them with unique support to establish themselves in Asia. NIPA provides various startup programs, such as the K-Startup Grand Challenge, and focuses on information technology, biotech, cultural technology, and fusion technology. (Source: Austrade Korean Startup Ecosystem Guide)
Yonsei University (Seoul): One of Korea's three SKY universities, a group of universities widely regarded as the most prestigious in the country. Yonsei was established in 1885 and is one of the oldest universities in South Korea. (Source: Yonsei University)