Korean startups gear up for the spotlight

South Korea, home of technology titans such as smartphone king Samsung and LG, hasn’t had much experience building a Silicon Valley ecosystem. Like Japan, many of the best and brightest end up at its big conglomerates, where much of the innovation happens. But that is slowly changing and a new breed of entrepreneurs is trying to speed up the process.
One of the newest signs is the emergence of a startup conference called beLaunch, a two-day event in Seoul which will kick off next week. The inaugural conference is being touted as the first entrepreneurial event created by and made for other startups. Despite its grassroots origins, the gathering has attracted some big name sponsors including Amazon (s amzn), Google (s goog), Microsoft (s msft) and Samsung. I’ll be there moderating a panel on fundraising with Maverick Capital’s Eric Kim and David Lee of XG Ventures and also looking for cool startups.
James Jung, the organizer of beLaunch and the CEO and founder of local tech blog beSuccess, said the vision for the conference is to help catalyze the startup community, providing tools and lessons that can help local companies go global. He said Koreans have traditionally shied away from startups, but thanks to more government prodding, corporate support and local success stories such as daily deals provider TicketMonster, which sold to LivingSocial last year, entrepreneurs are getting a taste for startup life. Facebook, through the movie The Social Network and its recent IPO, has also helped convince more people to give it a go.
“From last year to this year, people are really starting to get into startups,” Jung said. “People feel like this is a great ecosystem to make money.  There were startups before but there is an atmosphere now that is shaped by the media and successful stories.”
Startups like e-commerce site Coupang, which is now on a $600 million annual run rate, and Kakao Talk, a mobile communications app with more than 40 million users, are part of this new breed of startups in South Korea. They are showing that local companies can combine some of the best of East and West in creating successful ventures.
Jung said more private investors are also emerging to help support entrepreneurs, taking the place of the government, which has also been doling out money to startups. Big companies like local telecom operator KT have also started launching their own incubator programs to help encourage more innovation.
There’s still a chance that Korea’s newfound interest in startups is more of a passing fad. And it remains to be seen if more break-out hits can emerge on their own instead of being swallowed up by the big corporations. But Jung believes the first step is to get the community on the same page and to encourage local entrepreneurs to think big. And he’s hoping that events like beLaunch can bring about more of the other tools needed to make a start-up community successful.
“Money is important but that’s not everything,” said Jung. “We need more mentors and advanced entrepreneurs to give us lessons.  We need media and universities, the whole ecosystem.”