[EJ Insight]Investors size up Korean start-ups in funding pageant


South Korea’s top technology start-ups are striving to win the nod of investors in Asia’s largest conference for fledgling companies.

They’re vying with dozens of hopefuls in the corporate equivalent of a beauty pageant, complete with a judging panel and a cash prize — US$250,000 in investment.

The candidates are each given a chance to present their technology and business plan to the judges who will pick the eventual winner from among the top 20 companies.

Son Jeong-hoon, 31, who represents Talky, an anonymous text and group video sharing app, thinks the future lies in smart watches.

“The Apple watch was launched last month. Maybe next year, we will see a lot of people wearing smart watches. Talky is the first must-have app for smart watch users,” he said.

Son said 30 percent of text messages are repetitive but Talky will offer human-like responses that smart watch users can choose from.

“Think about the future or machine intelligence. Our app will understand what people want and will do tedious texts for them,” he said.

Son is the chief technology officer of a three-man start-up.

James Jung, chief executive of beSucess, a tech media company which organized the Seoul conference, said many Korean start-ups have a limited connection to overseas markets.

“We are organizing this conference for them,” he said.

It’s the fourth year beSuccess is holding the conference which has attracted a record 2,600 participants.

South Korea is an emerging start-up powerhouse, according to the Bloomberg Global Innovation Index, which ranks it No.1 this year based on certain metrics, one of which is the number of domestic high-tech companies.

The country is a fertile ground for fledgling tech businesses seeking angel investors. The challenge is to measure up to their expectations.

“They should be very techy,” said veteran investor Ryu Jung-hee, chief executive of start-up accelerator Future Play.

If a company has trailblazing technology, it can expand very quickly or be acquired by a bigger player, he said.

“I would choose companies that have the number one technology in the world, not merely in Korea or Asia,” he said

Ryu criticized the education system in Asia, saying it has limited the creativity of engineers.

“Asians always focus on solutions, but westerners always focus on the problems. But to make the future, we should focus on the problems, not the solutions,” he said.

Outside the top 20, about 100 other hopefuls are pitching their business directly to investors.

Among them is the developer of HouHou, the most popular weather app in South Korea with 70,000 active users just three months after its launch in February.

The app is popular for its signature “raining” emoticon which inspired its name.

“We will collect more weather-related information before we collaborate with call-taxi services to further develop the business,” said co-founder Cha Seung-hak.

Jay Kwak, founder and chief executive of Anispoon, a platform that allows tourists to find home-cooked meals from Korean families, said he is seeking funding to hire more staff to build an official website instead of using Facebook to do business.

“About 500 tourists have used our service since our launch in August last year,” he said.

Kwak wants to expand the business to Taiwan, Japan and China.