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A showcase of South Korean startups from the Smart Content Center: iPortfolio and MiraclEngine

StartupsBlog
by Aatif Sulleyman
, 04 Dec 2012Blog
A showcase of South Korean startups from the Smart Content Center: iPortfolio and MiraclEngine

For a quick overview of my trip to South Korea's startup scene, check out my article about the Smart Content Center 

The first company I met with was iPortfolio which, through its main product Spindle Books, digitalises books aimed primarily towards the education and travel sectors. CEO Robert Kim and director and co-founder Jonghwan Lee, told me more about their business, which was founded at the end of 2011.

Kim's mission is "Transform books, reform education." His wife is a teacher and Kim himself has been working on ways to harness technology in order to improve the quality of education, both in South Korea and abroad, for 15 years. The general consensus that hit me when I chatted with a small number of Koreans is that the country's education system is in desperate need of change and that reading habits in the country have declined. There seems to be much potential in educational applications, at least in South Korea.

World Book, one of the world's best-selling print encyclopaedia, and RHK (formerly Random House Korea), the travel guide publisher, are two of iPortfolio's biggest clients.

The foremost objective of iPortfolio's educational contents is to create a highly reliable product which does not crash, since even a tiny glitch could cause a classroom to descend into chaos which means that eBooks should be as dependable as physical books. The application is available both on iOS and Android.

His eBooks all stay true to the format and layout of the original products, since Kim is determined not to undermine their prime intrinsic editorial intentions and values. Textbooks are composed very carefully and faithfully.

However, extra "value-added features" are included to enrich the user experience, such as additional informative video and audio footage, and the ability to annotate pages, something that reminds me the likes of Microsoft's now defunct Encarta.

This educational content is globally available, having been tested and adopted in countries in South-East Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. Due to issues with the domestic education system, Kim says that he is currently only targeting Korean tutors operating in the private sector. A "page synchronisation" feature, which will enable teachers to synchronise all pages in a classroom at the touch of a button, is currently under construction and set for an April release.

The company's travel guides business is more impressive. As of 27 November, travel guides produced by Spindle Books occupied the top seven positions in the paid travel app category of the Korean Apple app store, and 10 of the top 15. Despite being slightly more expensive than RHK's physical travel guides, iPortfolio's 26 digital versions, which began launching around eight months ago, have consistently dominated that particular section of the app store.

Kim tells me that this impressive rate of adoption is once more due to the eBook's additional contents, such as real-time exchange rates and the ability to discuss services (like hotels and restaurants) with other tourists. Coming soon to these guides will be a location-based page search option, enabling tourists with a limited supply of time to search for nearby attractions within a particular area by location, rather than by keyword. A camera function to aid identification of landmarks is integrated into the guidebooks, which will also convert the images into a personal album.

The electronic guidebooks include cities from all over the world, such as Paris, Tokyo and New York, but are currently only available in Korean. English, Chinese and Japanese versions are on the way though.

Currently Spindle Books content is only available on the Android and iOS platforms, however, following overtures from Microsoft, a Windows Phone 8 version is set to be launched. According to Kim, iPortfolio has also struck up a business relation with Samsung, which partly funded the development of travel guides for the Galaxy Note.

iPortfolio was part of the first wave of companies incubated by SCC in May 2012. Since then, Kim says that business has picked up substantially and that it is reassuring to see streams of potential investors approaching the company on a consistent basis. However, he is still waiting for an investor who shares the same mindset and mission as himself and Lee. The company began with four employees but has expanded to 10, and is scheduled to double in size next year.

Next I chatted with Jaewoo Choi, the CEO of MiraclEngine, which is a startup that develops and produces text-based adventure games for smart devices, "that combines the components of game and eBook." Karma Drama, its main product which will be released shortly, is a soap-opera-type app targeted specifically towards women aged between 20 and 40.

Karma Drama is set to be released as a social networking service (SNS), with the option to share and distribute stories via Facebook. Users will be able to alter the storyline by making key decisions throughout, and get friends involved by renaming characters after them and sending pop-up messages to them, asking them to actively partake in the decision-making and simultaneously encouraging them to download the app for themselves.

Choi explains that the idea for this type of text-based app came from Japanese horror and dating simulation games, which are very popular amongst what he describes as a "hardcore fanbase." He understands, therefore, that this genre comes with certain connotations attached to it but is confident that he can gain at least a small portion of the market with his more approachable subject matter. He has surveyed attitudes towards the prototype version of the game, and found that people unfamiliar with the Japanese versions tended to be significantly more positive about it.

Another potential problem with Karma Drama is the fact that it incorporates a series of large images (of a professional actress), which makes the app heavier than intended. Since Choi plans on replacing these images with video footage in the not-too-distant future, he sees this as a rather urgent issue but is sure he can find an effective solution.

Karma Drama's action was actually written by a Korean soap opera writer, whose work is well-known throughout the country. Due to Japan's different reading habits and present fondness for Korean actors, Choi intends to first roll his products out to Japan. It also doesn't hurt that there is already high demand for text-based adventure games in the country.

The developer is currently currently constructing a portfolio of different plots, as well as building a smart tool that will simplify production of content and make the entire process of coming up with compelling plotlines less time-consuming.

MiraclEngine, which joined SCC in October 2012, has a separate project in the pipeline, in the form of Ad-Balloon, a targeted advertising service. The app will allow small and personal businesses to issue virtual leaflets to people using certain apps in specific areas. Choi's team has spent five months researching the market and developing the product, though it is still not quite ready to go live.

Choi and his developers, who are all from gaming backgrounds, have worked within the mobile game development industry for over ten years, and is, at least initially, targeting Android as the main platform for MiraclEngine products, since it is the most widely-used operating system in the world.

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