The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is the premiere science and technology academy in Korea. KAIST’s primary campus is in Daejeon and the location of an impressive research and science park one hour south of Seoul.
Seok-bong Lee is the head of DaeDeok Net, the foremost voice of the innovation and technology emerging from the Daejeon community. He invited me to speak with some of the leaders in this community so I jumped on a train and headed south to Daejeon two days after my talk at the STEPI Symposium. The day kicked off with a fantastic lunch including duck, fish, kimchi, and iced coffee. I had the honor of meeting Chul Hwan Kim, (Chief Director, KITE Entrepreneurship Foundation), Se-Jung Oh (President, Institute for Basic Science), Dr. Jooho Whang (President, Korea Institute of Energy Research), and several other faculty members and administrators.
I spent the day with this group engaging in a whirlwind of interviews, roundtable discussions, and community tours. Aside from torrential rains and slippery sidewalks, there was a fantastic exchange of insights, knowledge, and inspiration: interviewers asked great questions, discussions were fruitful, and the driving tours provided context for how the impressive physical spaces support research in the Daejeon and KAIST university community. I was particularly impressed by the excitement of Daedeok Net team manager Joseph Kim for supporting Daejeon’s startup scene, as well as Jeongwon Lee, a driven recent grad working as a medical imaging researcher who is leading the effort to create a hacker/maker/coworking space in Daejeon.
The bulk of the afternoon consisted of impassioned conversations about the future of Korean entrepreneurship with Chul Hwan Kim. Mr. Kim is a five time entrepreneur with two exits two his name. His first exit was a an e-ink company; his other exit was a company that developed litihium ion battery technologies. He is an excitable, friendly man with a broad of knowledge across different fields of technology and his face lights up when he talks about anything related to entrepreneurship. Now that he has multiple successes under his belt, he spends his time bolstering entrepreneurship in Korea through his foundation and his role as a professor at KAIST. He founded the KITE Entrepreneurship Foundation two years ago. He has raised $20 million in capital and KITE is the vehicle that will deploy this capital to startups.
It was this setup that led us to an intense, caffeine-fueled discussion at the Daejeon train station. Here we discussed this distance between the present moment and a booming Korean startup ecosystem. The KITE foundation’s capital is sourced from funds captured from his previous entrepreneurial successes and the Korean government. In addition to a raising capital, he has single-handedly aggregated several successful Daejeon entrepreneurs and convinced them all to help mentor the next generation of Korean entrepreneurs. Mentors and money are two of the key pillars needed to meaningfully support a startup scene. These are two of the hardest things to bring together—we work in many communities where passion and excitement are abundant, but there is no active angel investor scene. Kim has gathered these folks and begun gluing them together. The next step for him is to harness the ideas and energy of university students and larger community. Academic settings where students can experience the entire startup process first hand are exceedingly rare, and practiced-based learning programs like 3 Day Startup look to compliment the more theory- and strategically-oriented entrepreneurship classes.
I boarded the train back to Seoul galvanized by the discussion eager to work with the next generation of entrepreneurs in Daejeon.
Special thanks to Seok-bong Lee and his team at Daedeok Net for the work they do promoting Daejeon’s culture of science and technology.