My Korean Quest for Entrepreneurship

On February 16, 2013 by Alexander

It’s three in the morning in Silicon Valley, or maybe it’s four. I don’t know. I’m exhausted. It’s been a marathon day of meetings, tours, interviews and promotional videos. The clock on my iPhone is telling me numbers that doesn’t seem to mean anything. Whatever time it is back home in Silicon Valley, its dinnertime in Daejon, South Korea.

I’m in Korea to search for entrepreneurship, startups and the conditions that could foster development of a venture capital ecosystem. I wrote about the rise of China, the post-IT future of Israel, the Russian government’s attempts at starting a venture capital industry, how India’s sagging infrastructure weighed on entrepreneurs, and most recently, how a new breed of investors was looking to tap into Africa. And now I was investigating Korea’s potential as an investment destination and its desire to launch a Silicon Valley-style innovation ecosystem.

I set out seeking a new destination for U.S.-style venture capital and small companies poised to grow. I came back from Korea with a greater appreciation for its unique innovation trajectory, technology commercialization process and the big conglomerates that dominate its industry. As much as parts of Korea wanted to be like Silicon Valley, I found myself wishing that parts of Silicon Valley would be more like Korea.

Korea has become increasingly powerful in the past half decade. Samsung and Hyundai have become true industry leaders. The government has actively promoted cleantech, setting aside huge stimuli for wind projects and in-home hydrogen fuel cells. And perhaps most interestingly, the large pools of Korean capital, such as the $250 billion Korean Pension System (KPS) are actively looking to diversify out of domestic bonds and into “alternative assets” such as venture capital and private equity. To put that last piece of data into perspective, KPS is about the size of CalPERS, which has invested in several hundred venture funds over the past decade and continues to be one of the largest supporters of the industry.

Better still, it hasn’t been rocked by a housing bubble and had only limited exposure to the global financial crisis. Seoul is full of new skyscrapers, expensive new cars cruise smoothly paved streets and new infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges dot the countryside.

It looked like a place where venture capitalists might also find success, especially given Korea’s technological prowess. I set off looking for Silicon Valley-style opportunities in the country’s biggest innovation hub.

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