At the start of 2015, I did something that would have seemed insane ten years earlier: I launched a startup in Seoul, Korea, as a Brit.
When I arrived in Korea in 2004, the nation was developing very rapidly, but it wasn’t seen as the world leader in consumer technology that it is today. Samsung and LG were on the way up, but the big names in cell phones were still Motorola and Nokia.
I didn’t have the benefit then of the K-Startup Grand Challenge and the potential of landing $100,000 in grant money — more about that down below.
However, over the decade that I’ve lived on and off in Korea, it has become a world leader in technology, advanced manufacturing, and even culture. And since 2013, it has started to emerge as a startup hub in Asia as well.
Having seen Korea’s transformation over the last ten years this makes absolute sense:
- Korea is safe, highly developed and stable, while boasting all the excitement you’d expect from a leading global metropolis.
- Internet speeds are off the charts. 4G LTE penetrates even the remotest parts of the country and the deepest subway tunnels and 5G is just round the corner.
- The high level of education, especially in STEM fields, has helped fuel the success of tech giants and billion-dollar unicorns like Kakao, Coupang, and Yello Mobile. Now many of those with exceptional academic qualifications are looking towards entrepreneurship as a viable career.
- Everyone in Korea is an early adopter. Koreans have fallen in love with having the latest tech and unlike many other markets in Asia, Koreans can afford to buy it, too.
- Korea has exploded as Asia’s capital of cool and is enthusiastically exporting its pop culture across Asia in the form of girl groups, boy bands, TV dramas, and movies. Domestically-produced fashion and cosmetics are also booming industries.
- Setting up a business here has had its challenges, but Korean customers and partners have been happy working with me as a foreigner.
I’m not the only one convinced of Korea’s benefits for startups.
“For us, the close proximity to the rest of Asia allows us to keep up-to-date with rapidly changing technological trends much quicker than if we were in the West,” said Alex Gershon, Business Development Manager at file sharing startup Send Anywhere. “We’ve used Asia and Korea as testing grounds for our product before full internationalization. Korea’s technological integration has made the geographic separation between the Asian and Western markets almost non-existent.”
Looking to bring more foreign startups to Korea, the government has just begun accepting applications for the K-Startup Grand Challenge. This all-expenses-paid acceleration program gives entrepreneurs looking to break into Asia an advantage that I didn’t have when I founded G3 Partners a little less than two years ago.
The K-Startup Grand Challenge will bring 40 foreign startups to a new $160 million startup campus in Pangyo, an area dubbed Korea’s Silicon Valley. It’s just 14 minutes south of Gangnam, and it’s also where many of Korea’s major tech companies keep their R&D labs. (Not coincidentally, 14 of these companies have signed on to provide mentors for the program.)
Startups in the program will receive round trip flights and a stipend to cover living expenses for up to three staff. There are also grants of up to $133,000 that will be awarded to the top startups at a demo day at the end of the program.
Four of Seoul’s most successful accelerators – SparkLabs, DEV Korea, ActnerLab, and Shift – will take on the actual acceleration, pairing startups with local mentors, providing training and other support.
This, of course, isn’t altruism on the part of the Korean government. Dr. Chang-yong Ahn, a director at Korea’s Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning puts it bluntly, “Most innovation is borne from diversity – just look at Silicon Valley.” The K-Startup Grand Challenge is part of a $2 billion annual effort, funded by the Korean government and private companies, to transform Korea’s economy into one with a stronger focus on technology entrepreneurship. Increasing diversity is an important component if that effort is to succeed.
Last year, these efforts began to bear fruit as startups like animated video platform Wideo expanded to Korea.
“We knew we wanted to expand to Asia. The question was where,” said Brandon Park, Korean Country Manager for Wideo. “We commissioned a study through Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and found that Korea’s high level of IT expertise, openness to online transactions, and the quality of its ICT infrastructure make it the undisputed choice. We were also very fortunate to receive two government grants and a free office, making the move easier.”
Organizers for the K-Startup Grand Challenge have expressed a preference for startups in gaming, finance, bio-tech, software, and ICT. However, they are accepting applications from companies across all industries with growth potential.
If you’re interested in breaking into Asia, start the application process now. The deadline is June 14.
First appeared at Venture Beat