South Korean entrepreneurs in Israel hope to mimic 'start-up nation' model

Hi-tech start-up founders from Asian nation participate in month-long program at Tel Aviv University.

Benjamin Jeongwon Ryu, founder of Healcerion, at TAU 370 (photo credit: Henry Rome)
Benjamin Jeongwon Ryu, founder of Healcerion, at TAU 370
(photo credit: Henry Rome)
From advanced cyber-security applications to portable ultrasound devices, the 10 tech start-ups that presented at Tel Aviv University last week had two things in common. They were all small companies from South Korea, and they all entered a competition to come to Israel and learn about the start-up environment here.
The companies had participated in a month-long program at Tel Aviv University, in which they were paired with Israeli mentors and participated in seminars centering around Israel’s “Start-up Nation” model. Last week, the companies presented their revised business models as a capstone to the program.
The pairing of South Korean start-up leaders and Israeli entrepreneurs was a first for Tel Aviv University, which ran the initiative through its Lahav Executive Education program.
The university collaborated with the Korean government and venture capital firm The Yozma Group.
In sum, the partnership reflects a growing desire for collaborations between the hi-tech communities in both countries, organizers said.
The interest by the South Korean government in mimicking the Israeli start-up atmosphere was underscored by the presence of the Korean ambassador to Israel, Kim Il Soo.
“Our two countries have [much] in common, and one of the things [is] we have to develop our economy based on high technology because we don’t have natural resources,” Kim said in an interview.
He added that the new South Korean administration has pushed a new policy called “creative economy,” which seeks to promote entrepreneurship.
“A major component of that policy is creating the ecosystem for [hi-tech] startup,” he said. “Israel is the benchmark country.”
A motivation toward creating this program, therefore, was to expose Korean entrepreneurs to the ways in which the Israeli system is different.
“They are coming from [a] different mindset,” said Udi Aharoni, the CEO of the Lahav program. “We are not trying to teach them anything. We are trying to show them our point of view.”
In particular, officials from both countries said, Korean companies tend to focus on local markets while Israeli companies tend to think globally from the outset. And the Korean financial culture does not accept failure as part of a business cycle, while the Israeli ecosystem does.
“It is quite common that failure [in Korea] cannot be compensated by another attempt,” Kim said. “But it doesn’t only come from the cultural difference, it comes from the financial mechanism through which start-ups are [founded].”
The Korean start-ups on display focused on vastly different sectors and were at various stages of development.
Some companies focused on social engagement – such as gift giving and purchasing, business references and TV viewing – while others created new medical products, such as an app that tracks a person’s medicines.
One company developed a new, portable way to prevent perishable foods from spoiling, while another builds classroom technology.
There was no declared winner in last week’s “Demo Day,” but one company – called Cubbying, which collects a user’s social media data – came close.
At the conclusion of Cubbying’s presentation, Saul Singer, co-author of the book that coined the term “Start-up nation,” spoke up.
“This is something I’d like to try,” he said, drawing nervous laughs from the presenters.