This week, Nathan has an article in VentureBeat covering the diversification of Korea’s startup scene. TL;DR Korean startups are more diverse than they were a few years ago, but there’s still room to improve.

Right now, about 17% of Korean startup employees are foreign nationals, according to a recent white paper by the Korean Startup Ecosystem Forum (PDF). Korea’s visa policies set the practical ceiling at just 20%. While 20% would be high in some industries, when you compare Seoul with Silicon Valley, where 45% of startup employees are foreign nationals, or London, where the number stands at 53%, and you start to see the difference.


As Nathan points out in his article, the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning is working to bring in foreign startup founders through programs like the K-Startup Grand Challenge. The City of Seoul is also helping foreign entrepreneurs set up ventures with co-working space and other support through the Seoul Global Startup Center and other facilities set to come online soon, which are a pet project of progressive Seoul Mayor Won-Soon Park.

Here are a few key points from Nathan’s article, but the whole thing is worth a read:

Foreign Investors are taking interest in Korea

Foreign investment in Korean businesses increased 13.4 percent last year. The number of foreign students – read future professionals – studying at Korean universities is also at a record high.

Crowdfunding has become an avenue for Korean startups to sell globally

Solar Paper became the first Korean crowdfunding campaign to reach $1 million in August of 2015. Bagel Labs ($1.3 million) and Ripplebuds ($750,000) have also enjoyed success running their campaigns from temporary offices in the USA.

Korea’s startup ecosystem is maturing and developing support structures

Accelerators like Sparklabs and Future Play, coworking spaces and incubators like Google Campus, Maru180, and D Camp have become plentiful. In fact, at last count there are 20+ accelerators in operation in Seoul. While many are fueled by government handouts, the bustle of activity is a positive sign.

Success cases are changing Korean attitudes toward startups

Until recently, no self-respecting Korean mother would let her child join a startup. Why would she when, until recently, there were precious few signs you could make a decent living as an entrepreneur in the country? Youths risked scorn from their families and peers if they didn’t pursue a career at an established conglomerate like Samsung, LG, or Hyundai.

That is now changing. The government has played a positive role in legitimizing entrepreneurship as a career. Several Korean entrepreneurs have returned to their motherland after living or studying overseas. A small number have founded billion-dollar startups. Examples include the commerce portals TMON and Coupang, founded by Korean-Americans Daniel Shin and Bom Kim, respectively.

Some of the success feels contrived and premature

There’s a ton of activity, but that needs to be backed up by more actual results. For example, while most Korean startups see China as a primary market, I can’t think of one that’s anywhere close to achieving success there. Likewise, the US market has been a primary target for years but Korean startups have yet to see any real success there.

In his closing paragraph, Nathan issues sentiments very similar to my own, both as they relate to the possibilities and the risks.

I’m genuinely excited by the opportunity I see in Asia, through Korea. I’m certain Korea will continue to emerge as one of the region’s key centers of entrepreneurial innovation, as long as the old ways don’t kill the flame.