The growth of talented, high-quality Korean social ventures

by Sy-Hyun Berg

Photo by Daniel Lee (https://unsplash.com/photos/isMorfbwRZ8)

With one of the fastest mobile internet speeds (52.53Mbps, January 2019), highest mobile penetration (84%) and government initiatives, Korea continues to invest in cultivating small businesses and the startup ecosystem.

Since 2010, the Korean government recognized the urgent need of new economic growth source and to reform job creation. It started to engage in the startup incubation process and invested billions in early stage startup funding and small business in grants, subsidized loans, and provided tax incentives. It also provided match funding with international investors, and established international entrepreneurship programs at universities.

Primer was the first startup accelerator in Korea and was founded by successful venture entrepreneur, Taekkyung Lee (co-founder of Daum). Primer engaged in the startup incubation process and invested in mobile application and Internet startups, and then facilitated their entry into the global market.

Currently, there are over 50 co-working spaces, 100 accelerators, incubators, and Innovation Centers in Korea. The start-up scene is strong and growing: the number of startups was close to 30,000 in 2017 with over 100,000 startup employees. Over $600 million USD has gone to late-stage startups funding in 2018. The steady growth is partly a result of the government’s steadfast commitment to fostering the startup ecosystem. The Moon Jae-In government has kept up support for startups through the creation of the Ministry of SMEs and Startups with a funding budget of $800 million USD. Major venture-capital investment in South Korea stems from the US, Japan, Singapore and Israel, especially in areas such as meditech, biotech and fintech. Other potentially strong areas include life science, information electronics, cryptocurrency and aerospace.

There is an increasing drive in Korea to meet global challenges while targeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a multi-dimensional approache. It embraces innovative technologies to tackle the problems more effectively by supporting tech based social ventures. Some of the companies I am working with are shown below.  All these social ventures are currently supported by Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), a government agency responsible for the Official Development Assistance (ODA) through its Creative Technology Solution (CTS) Programme, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

1. Mand.ro

Mad.ro distributes 3D printed light weight, low-cost myoelectric prosthetic hands for Syrian refugees. Its innovative hand costs one tenth of existing prosthetics and weighs less than 1kg. Mand.ro uses 3D printing and scanning technologies for parts and circuits.  By using open source parts and circuits, it ensures that its product can be manufactured and maintained easily by virtually anyone. Mand.ro also provides workshops in Jordan and Korea to   teach   people   how   to   manufacture   myoelectric prosthetic hands using 3D printing. 

Sang Ho Lee (Founder of Mand.ro)

Photo: courtesy of Yoon Seung Shin (http://www.snunews.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=15504)

2. LabSD

LabSD created a comprehensive community eye health solution, EYELIKE Platform, which allows health professionals – such as government agencies, NGOs and international institutions engaging in eye care projects – in developing countries to conduct screenings with minimum training at international standards. They can diagnose diseases such as diabetes retinopathy, glaucoma, or Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) with considerably reduced time and cost, while sharing the information with the entire referral system. EYELIKE Platform comes with a fundus camera, its operating system and pattern recognition algorithm. The sensitivity and specificity of screening on EYELIKE Platform is better than 85%. Patient information can be stored, analyzed and shared with implementing partners for monitoring and evaluation. By using Artificial Intelligence based Clinical Decision Supporting System (CDSS) for blindness-causing eye diseases, it strengthens efficiency and effectiveness of its eye care.

A portable, non-mydriatic retinal camera attached to smartphones

Photo: courtesy of Holden Yoon Seung Kim (https://www.iapb.org/news/korean-startups-innovate-with-braille-technology-diagnostic-tools/)

3. Braillist

 Braillist developed a Portable Braille Dictionary Device that supports the visually impaired to use smartphones more independently and conveniently, so improving productivity and their quality of life. The company will also be introducing a compact electronic braille dictionary for the visually impaired to make learning braille easier and faster. The dictionary is aimed at decreasing the illiteracy (in Braille) rate among blind people in Colombia.

Photo: courtesy of Holden Yoon Seung Kim (https://www.iapb.org/news/korean-startups-innovate-with-braille-technology-diagnostic-tools/)

These examples show that the role of institutions in entrepreneurship development is best secured through economic and social value creation embodied in growth-oriented, early stage social enterprises. This can be accomplished when technology acts as the mediator between the institutions on the one hand and value creation on the other.  The strength of such value creation enables dynamic, socially motivated entrepreneurs to cross borders to secure social and cognitive legitimacy. Furthermore, the cases show that a focused attention on high technology need not be driven by commercial imperatives alone. Social motivation and objectives are equally strong drivers for the scaling up process of these startups. The pro-active role of government and other institutions such as foundations, industry associations and universities were significant elements of this development.

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