In line with our mission to shed light on the many investment opportunities popping up across Asia and Australasia, FinanceAsia is showcasing the entrepreneurs who are leading the wave of technological disruption in different countries and across a range of sectors.
Their companies range in size and maturity, but these people share a common drive and vision to compete against established institutions, whether in financial services, retail, energy, robotics, or logistics, to name just a few of the industries featured.
Following our methodology, we have selected five entrepreneurs from each of Asia Pacific's largest economies. Today we look at South Korea.
Home to a culture that traditionally has rewarded homogeneity, South Korean entrepreneurs are striking out on their own in increasing numbers. Many, like Toss’ dentist-turned-founder SG Lee, join but eventually exit the formal workforce.
Despite the proliferation of technology and education among the nation’s population, South Korean unicorns are relatively rare. But fundraising trends give reason for hope. Venture capital investment has doubled in the last four years according to Born2Global’s 2018 Korean Startup Index.
Year founded: 2010
Industry: Technology, E-Commerce
Prominent backers: Softbank Vision Fund, Sequoia Capital
Kim is the founder and chief executive officer of Coupang, South Korea’s largest online retailer. Launched in 2010, the company’s low prices and emphasis on fast delivery are popular with consumers and have made it one of the fastest-growing internet companies in Asia.
More than just the Amazon of South Korea, as it is frequently labelled, the retailer has disrupted and dominated the country’s e-commerce industry by providing comprehensive end-to-end service.
“In addition to fulfilment centres we’ve built out our own last-mile logistics,” Kim told CNBC last year. “That allows us to customise and personalise even the last mile experience for our customers.”
Thanks to this focus on customer service and fast delivery, Coupang services are in high demand; the company’s mobile app has been downloaded by half the South Korean population. Armed with a $2 billion investment from Softbank Vision Fund in November last year, the company is now targeting the other half of the populace before it considers outside markets.
Coupang’s founder is a Harvard University graduate who went on to join the school’s business school briefly before dropping out after six months. He trained as a consultant at Boston Consulting Group and tested his business skills with his first startup, Vintage Media Company, which he sold in 2009.
The entrepreneur’s business management skills are now being put to the test as Coupang scales operations to keep pace with demand.
Year founded: 2013
Prominent backers: Altos Ventures, Sequoia Capital
Lee, a former dentist at Seoul’s Samsung Medical Centre, is the figure behind South Korean payments platform Toss. The entrepreneur founded Viva Republica in 2011 and the business went through eight major changes before launching as Toss in 2015.
“Toss started as a [peer-to-peer] payments service like Venmo, but we were lucky to be in the position to fill all the voids that existed in the [South] Korean fintech industry,” Lee explained at this year’s Future of Fintech conference in NYC.
His prediction for the future? “I think that all financial services should collide into one super app that is going to solve all of the financial needs that the user has.”
Toss is working to accomplish this and make finance quick and accessible. Valued at $1.2 billion, it is South Korea’s first – and only – fintech unicorn. In its most recent funding effort Toss raised $64 million in a Series F round in August led by Hong Kong investor Aspex Management.
The startup is now partnered with banks across the country to make a variety of services, from real estate micro-investments to money transfers, a finger-tap away for app users.
One of Toss’ most popular functions is the e-wallet, which can be used to shop at convenience stores and pay for public transportation.
Company: Energy Nomad
Year founded: 2014
Prominent backers: None
Park is founder and chief executive of Energy Nomad, a developer of portable hydro-electric energy sources. She came up with the concept while working for a private company to build bricks-and-mortar hydroelectric stations. In 2014 Park set up shop with a team of engineers and created a small device that can be dropped into moving water to generate electricity.
Energy Nomad has opened up the renewable energy sector to small-scale customers, many of whom use Park’s gadget when camping or in rural areas. Moving forward, the entrepreneur is looking to expand her services into Southeast Asia.
BONG JIN KIM
Company: Woowa Bros
Year founded: 2011
Industry: Technology, E-Commerce
Prominent backers: Altos Ventures, Hillhouse Capital Group
Kim is co-founder and chief executive officer of smartphone application developer Woowa Bros. Products include food delivery app Baedal Minjok.
Woowa Bros is rapidly expanding, and just acquired Vietnam’s leading online delivery company Vietnammm. In December last, it raised $320 million in Series G funding from Sequoia Capital and Hillhouse Capital.
Company: Yello Mobile
Year founded: 2012
Prominent backers: Macquarie Capital, SBI Investments
Lee is the founder of Yello Mobile, a mobile software company with offerings that include shopping platform Coocha and entertainment app PIKIcast.
The entrepreneur received his BA from Sogang University before pursuing a postgraduate master’s degree in science. Lee ranked number 38 on Forbes’ Korea Richest 2019 list.
Rebounding from several recently settled lawsuits, Yello is in the middle of integrating blockchain tech into a healthcare platform. The market arm of the company – Yello Digital Marketing – recently partnered with Tencent and two other companies to create the Six Network.