South Korea

Seeking startups: South Korea’s tech-oriented port

Busan is reinventing itself as a tech-friendly hub, while also encouraging art and rebuilding its port

Type ‘Busan’ into an internet search and you get zombies and shipping. An odd mix perhaps but the Korean film Train to Busan and the downfall of Hanjin Shipping, once South Korea’s largest shipping line, dominate the headlines from the city.

These stories also reflect two of the city’s major industries. The Busan International Film Festival, launched in 1996, is now held annually in the Busan Cinema Center, drawing talent from around the world, including cinematic startups. Busan is South Korea’s largest port but the demise of one of the city’s biggest maritime players was a major blow. To strengthen the port’s competitiveness, a new port with a high-tech complex is being built around Gadeokdo Island and is set for completion in 2020.

However, the city refuses to be reliant on one industry. It has built a cloud data model complex in Mieum-dong District, and R&D centres for everything from radioactive isotope convergence research to textiles to Internet of Things ventures. The Busan Economic Promotion Agency is actively seeking startups, providing space for business activity, training, incubation and other support, says Son Young-hee, an official of Busan city’s startup support team. For foreign nationals, this could mean free flights to attend a pitch event and then visa support if they choose to relocate.

Those who come will find a smart city with free Wi-Fi zones across the city and everything from smart street lights to safety tags for children that track their location. A virtual-reality arcade lets visitors enter whole new worlds. Among the city’s incubators, Orange Farm focuses on gaming and collaborates with gaming giant Smilegate. The HTC Vive team runs the Busan VR Incubating Program. The Amazon-Busan Cloud Innovation Centre is also here, and Microsoft will open its own data centre in the city in 2019.

The city is also home to some of South Korea’s chaebols, or family-owned conglomerates, and they are now asked by the government to look to startups as a chance to access new tech. Indeed in Busan, a venture called The Founders Club was created specifically to bridge the old and the innovative new.

The person

Kim Cheol-hoon

Kim Cheol-hoon
Credit: Ryan Chan

The go-to guy for startup connections

Kim Cheol-hoon helps people connect. He is the driving force behind Busan’s Startup Weekend, which brings people together to bounce around ideas and supports groups like Free Code Camp Busan. His venture, Bloop, organises events that he says offer ‘a chance to meet the cool folks who are pushing business, art and entertainment’.

Kim is now planning a Busan Startup Week and working on bringing Busan into the global Startup Grind event network. ‘I’d like to hold some cool events based on gatherings like Slush in Finland and SXSW in Texas, and in the near future I want to create an original startup event that reflects Asian culture,’ he says.

Kim began his career as a salesman in a smartphone store and then worked at a bookstore based on an online-to-offline business model (in which customers are drawn to physical stores through digital marketing). He started an events business in 2014 but the climate was wrong – that’s changed today. ‘Busan has a geographically attractive location, due to its proximity to China, Japan and Russia,’ he says. ‘I think Busan could take a leading role in the East Asian startup ecosystem, both financially and culturally.’

Kim points to government incentives including a smart factory system, which connects existing manufacturers with hardware startups to help them diversify. ‘Lots of companies in the manufacturing industry have gone through a harsh time but they are now trying to invest in R&D and are cooperating with startups, hoping to bring about another prosperous era,’ he says.

Then there are physical attributes of his hometown, such as the well-organised transport network, affordable food, mountains, beaches and rivers. These, coupled with a rapidly growing scene, says Kim, make Busan an attractive place for startups. Just find him when you get there.

The product

Hull-cleaning robot

Innovation Asia Busan South Korea
Credit: Ryan Chan

For a smoother-sailing industry

Maritime startups are introducing new ways to tackle age-old issues with ships, from ensuring the cleanliness of the vessel’s water to enhancing telecommunications in steel-enclosed spaces.

TAS Global, a Busan-born company, was recognised by South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy for delivering one of the best new technologies of 2015. The invention is a hull-cleaning robot that can work more efficiently than divers. A vessel gets slower as objects such as seaweed get attached to it.

Cleaning is needed to lower the friction against the water and save fuel. ‘South Korean shipping companies spend between KRW 400 billion (HK$2.7 billion) and KRW 1 trillion (HK$6.8 billion) on fuel for their operations,’ says Kim Yu-sik, TAS Global’s chief executive and founder. ‘Our technology can reduce 10 to 20 percent of the cost.’

The company has three robots, which it hires out. ‘Each robot cleans for 12 hours per day and can clean 20 mid-small sized vessels, up to 250 metres in length, per month,’ says Kim. ‘Occasionally, when a client requests a quick clean, we employ more than one robot.’

TAS Global opened a factory in Busan in March and aims to make 30 to 40 robots this year. R&D continues as robots are developed to tackle hard matter on hulls such as seashells, and in the next two years the company hopes to make robots that can cut sunken vessels and aid in salvage work. ‘We expect fast growth, as our technology provides huge savings to shipping companies,’ says Kim. ‘At present we have a network of executives in the vessel design field, and through them we market to South Korea’s large shipping companies. In two to three years, we will reach out to the global market.’

What to Watch

Playing matchmaker

Venditz has created an app that helps match people with a moving company suitable for their location, needs and budget. The team is already working with 650 companies. It has grabbed the attention of VC K-Bridge, which has invested KRW 500 million (HK$3.4 million).

Lock and block

Taking its name from the German for god of creation, Schaffengott prides itself on design. It has created an anti-theft lock for cars that combines with a pad to prevent dented doors. A luggage protection system will be released during the first half of 2017.

Zip up

A tent that keeps in heat and lowers heating bills is the main product from ByMom, a socially and environmentally aware startup. It claims the tent maintains a temperature that’s 2.4°C higher than its surroundings. Last year the company sold 18,234 tents globally.

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