Why South Korea's startup culture must open up to find its first Google

For many, South Korea is synonymous with technological innovation. Industry giants like Samsung, LG, and Humax were all birthed from the future facing Asian nation and represent a considerable source of national pride for its citizens. Indeed, one of the first things geeky visitors are likely to notice upon stepping out in the Peninsula is the dearth of Apple devices on display - in this hood, the Galaxy S4 is the pre-eminent status symbol, not the iPhone 5S.

With technology so deeply engrained in Korean culture, It is perhaps surprising that South Korea's startup scene is still in a decidedly embryonic phase. In part, this can be attributed to the oft stifling impact of the country's chaebol system. Historically backed by government after government after government, these conglomerates earned a less than favourable reputation amongst many ordinary Koreans for their habit of freely adopting grassroots innovations as their own, poaching top talent from smaller firms, and borrowing vast sums of money during times of financial instability.

That all began to change, however, with the ascension of Kim Dae-jung to the country's presidency in 1998. Under his government, the chaebols started to be held more accountable financially and wield less influence politically. Fast forward to the country's current leader and first female President, Park Geun-hye, and South Korea's government is focusing acutely on the building a more creative economy. As a result, there has been a seismic shift in government's relationship with early-stage technology ventures.

These days, startup incubators, like the Smart Content Center (SCS) visited by ITProPortal recently, are quickly becoming the height of fashion. During our time at the SCS, we sat down with entrepreneur Robert Kim, CEO of edtech startup iPortfolio. Enjoying 250 per cent year-over-year revenue growth, his company is well positioned to emerge as one of South Korea's first 21st century startup success stories, so we were keen to hear what he thought about his country's rapidly changing technology landscape. Specifically, we wanted to find out more about how Seoul's budding startup scene compared to more established tech hubs like Tech City and Silicon Valley.

"The atmosphere is different from Tech City. It's very lively in Google Campus, Tech City - everywhere. There's no partitions, everyone seems to have no corporate confidential stuff, everyone shares everything. Here that is not our culture. We're more conservative. The working environment, the ethics, the attitude is not totally open in Korea," Kim told us.

He added: "Maybe that comes from the Korean economic environment [and] the chaebols taking away all our resources and developers. We try to protect what we're doing more. It's different, but healthy in many ways."

As a result, Kim said that it was important to recognise that South Korea's startup culture is still very much a nascent phenomenon, one that is still five or 10 years away from boasting high-profile success stories like Facebook, Dropbox, or Twitter.

"The startup culture itself is in a beginning stage in Korea – there's not many superstars. We're expecting maybe after 10 years, we'll have some global companies like Facebook or Google that will have come from a Korean base. Silicon Valley, Tech City? They've gone through several cycles already. They know what's effective and what's not effective. We need to open up more but that won't happen overnight. The environment has to build over time."

It follows that South Korea's investment infrastructure is also less developed than those found around Europe and in the US.

"The investment ecology in Korea is very primitive right now in terms of funding. Getting funding from London or Silicon Valley? That would come with a lot of influence globally. But being stationed in Korea, there are limits," he noted.

Kim added that he hoped today's emerging South Korean tech companies would develop a sense of responsibility around the country's startup ecosystem and begin to develop a self-sustaining culture that required less government intervention in the future. One day, he said, he hoped to own an incubator space like the Smart Content Center.

"The value would be more appreciated if a company like us grew up from this building and wanted to own this building. A lot of companies make money and buy baseball clubs, but there should be more contribution to the society. We want to make money out of education and bring it back. It would have a lot of meaning if, after 10 years, one of the small startup tenants here bought the building and then rented it out for free to startups," he opined.

Having said that, Kim was immensely grateful for government's role in supporting the Smart Content Center – which boasts world-class testing facilities, IT support, and 3D printing capabilities - and by connection iPortfolio's drive to become a global player in the edtech market. The infrastructure provided by the SCS, he said, had been invaluable in helping to solidify iPortfolio's relationship with its customers, who include the UK's renowned Oxford University Press (OUP). The OUP began adopting the Korean firm's proprietary Spindle eBook platform as the basis for its Oxford Learner's Bookshelf in 2012 and now the partnership could well be on the brink of a long-term contract.

"Oxford came down here several times [and] being a resident here really helped us...Every time they visit, they see the action is going on here...They saw all the infrastructure and the support we get from ETRI, the largest government research body in Korea, equipped with all of the smart devices sold in the world. Not many companies have all the devices ready for their apps to be checked and tested. For a lot of startups, it could be a burden," Kim noted.

He concluded: "This Center has been helping us get ready for global business. Partnering with a big company like the OUP requires a lot of investment on our side, but thanks to the SCS and the infrastructure side, Oxford was relieved. If we were a standalone startup from somewhere and tried to do business with a global company, that could have been tough."

It's ironic, in a way. At a time when UK politicians are desperate to align themselves with the success of Tech City, halfway across the world, Korean startups are dreaming of the day when they rely less on the hand of government. A lesson, perhaps, for those of us entrenched in the world of the Roundabout? Whatever the case, we can probably all agree on one thing: having a 3D printer about the office would be really, really cool.