KOTRA is a state-funded trade and investment promotion organization operated by the government of South Korea. KOTRA operates offices throughout the world, with the nearest U.S. location in Dallas.
The Silk Road was formally established around 130 B.C., connecting Asia and the Far East to the Middle East and Europe. This historic network of routes would serve as a critical driver of commerce and a pipeline for trade between the East and the West for centuries. But in addition to the goods that made their way back and forth along the route, the Silk Road became an artery for the exchange of cultures, ideas and created a shared history for communities of people on opposite ends of the world.
It’s 2023, and thanks to the access afforded us by the internet and modern technology, we no longer need to trek thousands of miles to reach a global marketplace. And opportunities on the other side of the globe abound, but perhaps none more so than in South Korea.
Nearly 60 years have passed since the Beatles led the British Invasion into the American zeitgeist and shaped the landscape of culture and entertainment for a generation. Today, we are witnessing a new cultural phenomenon, and it’s taking hold of a generation of American consumers and opening the door to even more opportunities abroad for startups and enterprises, alike – the Korean Wave.
The Korean Wave became a global phenomenon, thanks to the prevalence of digital platforms, and social media has spread South Korean cultural content more widely in global markets since the 2010s, and it’s led to an influx of capital and opportunity. According to Korean Development Institute, the export of every $100 worth of cultural content led to the export of $248 worth of consumer goods between 2011 and 2016. And while teenagers swoon over K-Pop sensations and K-Dramas rack up award nominations, the cultural bridge being built between South Korea and the West also creates space to expand on the bridge building between entrepreneurial ecosystems.
For the last couple of years, Startup Junkie has worked to be a part of that bridge building effort, serving as a conduit for commerce between startups and enterprises in both Arkansas and South Korea. In 2020, the Fayetteville-based entrepreneurial support organization partnered with the Korean International Trade Association (KITA) to conduct startup testbed initiatives with Korean tech companies in Northwest Arkansas. Dubbed the Arkansas Korea Alliance (AKA), the partnership was the first joint startup program between Korea and Northwest Arkansas.
By leveraging our unique geographic positioning with South Korea, Startup Junkie provides a gateway of opportunities for proof-of-concept product trials and other business-to-business collaboration opportunities for world-class Korean startups ready to enter the United States market. In addition, the organization has and will continue to facilitate the product offerings of Korean startups to retailers and partner enterprises in the U.S., and the partnership provides information sharing on the venture environment of both countries as well as an exchange of startup support, funding, and deal sourcing in the United States, South Korea and Asia-Pacific regions.
“For large enterprises, competitive advantage can come from partnering with the best new ventures from around the world,” says Startup Junkie founder Jeff Amerine, who spearheaded the organization’s work abroad, which now also includes Singapore. “The Startup Junkie team has developed strategic relationships with key players in the venture scene in South Korea and Singapore to help them prepare and engage in North America.”
And by establishing and strengthening this bond between Northwest Arkansas and Seoul, Startup Junkie is also creating opportunities for domestic ventures looking to enter the Korean market.
“Initially, these testbed program bridges have been in one direction – Asia-to-US,” Amerine adds. “Eventually, these relationships will be used to help engage Arkansas early-stage ventures with large enterprises in South Korea and Singapore. Our objective is to build strong reciprocal relationships with democracies that have aligned values and a strong rule of law. We believe programs like this will strengthen the regional economies of all concerned.”
South Korea is at the forefront of Asia in terms of entrepreneurship, having grown its ecosystem by leaps and bounds since the turn of the century thanks in large part to great governmental and cultural support. Over the last few years, the Korean government has built on that effort, including support for foreign entrepreneurs, with well-funded programs and accelerators like the K-Start Grand Challenge. In fact, the South Korean government is a world leader in per capita support of entrepreneurs.
“There is a surplus of world class startups thriving domestically in Korea, and many of them have matured to become true global competitors with solutions that any international enterprise would want to get their hands on,” said Louis Diesel, Startup Junkie Consulting’s Head of Asia. “Combining that with Startup Junkie’s HQ being in Northwest Arkansas, and all the great enterprise relationships on our side, this partnership brings a geographic arbitrage situation with in-house teams on the ground both in the U.S. and in Korea.”
And in doing so, companies in both Seoul and Northwest Arkansas can leverage expanded global networks without having to penetrate the bloated, overcrowded, and expensive ecosystems of the U.S. coasts.
“Korea ranks annually in top five in tech and innovation,” Diesel says. “And there’s absolutely no need to go to San Francisco or the East Coast when the world’s largest companies are in in Northwest Arkansas. Startup Junkie leverages both geographies with teams on the ground in both countries. We take growth stage Korean startups and select them based on their existing customer base and provide opportunities to test their technology with the world’s largest companies and help show that there is real market potential to be a global player.”
The work to strengthen the bridge between the two ecosystems continues in 2023, and fellow Startup Junkie and Fuel Accelerator Director Matthew Ward and I recently traveled to Seoul to explore how we might expand on those efforts.
Atop the bustling city on the uppermost floors of the Korean World Trade building, KITA works to expand the country’s economy through global trade and is the largest business organization in Korea with over 70,000 member companies. KITA provides hands-on support to new ventures and established enterprises, drawing trade cooperation from the private sector, formulating new trade strategies, nurturing trade professionals and building trade infrastructure. With a network of 13 domestic and 11 global offices, KITA has consolidated its position as a leading business organization dedicated to assisting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) gain foreign market entry.
Startup Junkie has locked arms with the organization in that effort and facilitated test bed programs for multiple cohorts of Korean startups, with plans to expand the work and strengthen the relationship in 2023.
“One of the trends in open innovation is the increase of joint proof-of-concept programs,” says Phil Jae Park, director of KITA’s Startup Global Scale Up team. “There is an increasing trend of startups with element technology collaborating with startups in different industries and small and medium-sized enterprises in other industries to participate in open innovation with large corporations in order to complement their own technology.
“In light of this trend,” he adds, “it is important for local startups to collaborate with international SMEs and startups and organizations like Startup Junkie, to come up with more comprehensive solutions to corporate.”
In June, KITA will host NextRise, one of the largest startup conferences in the world, designed to connect global founders, investors and others in the entrepreneurial space. The event presents another opportunity for Startup Junkie and Northwest Arkansas ventures to expand those networks within the Korean marketplace.
Seoul is home to a number of organizations that also work to grow the regional economy through support of local startups and investment in foreign ventures. Such organizations like KOTRA – the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency – also works to help SMEs expand into international markets and invests in domestic and foreign companies. With satellite offices across the U.S. and a shared mission, the potential for collaborating to better serve Arkansas and Korean startups is exciting.
Like KOTRA, the Korea Institute of Startup & Entrepreneurship Development (KISED) is a product of governmental support for entrepreneurship and international trade and are uniquely tasked with also cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit within the country. KISED works from the ground up, providing entrepreneurial education to students and helping to discover, train and provide resources to would-be entrepreneurs. For established startups, KISED assists with funding, human resources and marketing opportunities until a company is ready for global expansion programs.
The Korean government expanded on the support provided to entrepreneurs through KISED with the creation of a network of Centers for Creative Economy & Innovation (CCEI). With 19 centers located across Korea, operated by KISED, CCEI works to help Korean startups enter global markets through consulting, counseling, resources and much more. CCEI also provides support to startups looking to expand into the Korean market, making them an ideal partner for bridge-building opportunities between our two ecosystems. And in an effort to do just that, the Startup Junkie team has engaged with the CCEI in Gyeonggi Province, a sleek and modern commercial region just outside of Seoul that could be considered Korea’s own Silicon Valley.
Startup Junkie is certainly not the only organization working to reinforce the ties between Arkansas and South Korea. Thanks to the hard work of state economic developers at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the dedication of like-minded organizations such as the Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses, the prospect of tapping into one of the world’s most vibrant marketplaces has quickly gone from dream to reality. And it couldn’t come at a better time, as the Korean Wave continues to wash over the West and spark new interest in the region’s culture, content and commerce.
With an opportunity so great and potentially impactful for startups and enterprises, alike, the concerted efforts by public and private organizations to strengthen the bridge connecting Arkansas and Korean business ecosystems could pay dividends for generations to come.
Building Bridges to the World
As the world continues to reemerge from a pandemic in 2023, more opportunities to build bridges to global ecosystems are coming online. And tapping into those new markets could have a multiplying effect on the commercial success of scaling Arkansas ventures.
In addition to Korea and Singapore, the Startup Junkie team has worked to develop stronger trade relationships in other Asian countries, as well as across Europe and the Middle East, with formal partnerships coming within the European Union, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“After the pandemic, there were new opportunities for startups to focus on growth, enter new markets and generate revenue and access new capital,” says Jernej Adamic, Startup Junkie Consulting’s director of global business development. “Startup Junkie is supporting startups at home and abroad by helping them identify new market opportunities, facilitating relationships with relevant enterprise clients and providing access to the capital needed for growth.”
Growth is a major focus for leading startups, but it can also help strong teams from smaller markets or those that have reached a demand limit in their domestic market to become niche leaders.
“On the other hand,” Adamic adds, “tech innovation is not limited to one location. New solutions are emerging all around the world at an unprecedented pace. Startup Junkie’s programs provide leading enterprises with the opportunity to try out new innovative tools and implement them into their processes before their competitors.”
In short: Developing global relationships paves the way for world domination for Arkansas entrepreneurs.