Representatives from Startup Junkie, an entrepreneurial support organization based in Fayetteville, visited Seoul, South Korea, in early December to meet with leaders of the local venture ecosystem in hopes of creating a partnership to benefit startups in both countries.
Taylor Hasley, a Startup Junkie consultant and director of its Fuel Accelerator, spoke with Arkansas Business over the phone about how the trip went and the organization’s plan to establish a new accelerator focused on Korean companies. He also said that a venture capital firm funded with U.S. and Korean dollars may in the cards.
AB: What were the goals you set out to accomplish on this trip?
TH: One of the primary reasons we went over there was to get more familiar with the landscape and really see firsthand what the startup ecosystem was like over there. We were definitely thrilled by what we saw, so now it’s looking highly likely that we’ll be able to make another program come out of this.
So really the goal was to get over there, meet some key stakeholders — those being government agencies as well as local venture capital firms and co-working spaces. But we found a lot of success meeting with an organization called NIPA, the National IT Promotion Agency. They’re a big funder of the K-Startup Grand Challenge, which is an accelerator program that one of our clients here at Startup Junkie, Louis Diesel, went through a couple of years ago. He’s been hired on as an entrepreneur in residence there, and so he’s been our main point of contact on that end. And, actually, we’re accepting two of the participants, two of the cohort companies, from the K-Startup Grand Challenge into our 2020 Fuel Accelerator that we partner with RevUnit on to lead here in the state. That was one definite, successful, measurable outcome, meeting those companies and then giving them some exposure to the U.S. market.
Then, moving forward, we’ll be looking to create a program very similar to Fuel, but it will have a focus on Korean startups. The idea is to get six to eight of those companies to come over here, put them through a program that helps make them enterprise-ready, sell them to large enterprises here: Walmart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt and relevant suppliers. And then, upon the success of the initial program, which we hope to launch in the summer, but we’re still finalizing the details, we’ll then look at creating a venture capital firm sponsored half by Korean dollars and half from U.S. dollars.
So we can really help drive growth in the companies from Korea that are sent over here but also have a gateway for U.S. startups, especially from Arkansas, to enter the Asian markets outside of China and Japan, where it culturally can be difficult to enter. There’s a lot less regulation, so it’ll be a good test market, with their population and how accepting they are of emerging technologies, [it’s a good opportunity for] U.S. companies to go global.
What progress did you make toward those goals?
We definitely had a lot of success meeting with the government agencies. They have just invested heavily and created a vibrant startup ecosystem there. We’re currently working with our Korean representative, Louis Diesel, to create a proposal for NIPA that would be [for them] to fund for one year an accelerator program for Korean companies here in northwest Arkansas. As far as the timeline on that, we’re looking to have that closed in 60-90 days … Actively putting that together, and, hopefully, it’ll come to fruition this summer.
What did you learn about their entrepreneurial ecosystem, and how does it compare to ours?
It’s heavily backed by the government, or subsidized by government agencies over there. It’s very dense.
For example, they have about a $2 billion startup campus that the government paid for to run programs through for startups. It’s very similar to the Fuel program, which is funded by the state of Arkansas, just on a different scale. There’s about 23 million people in Seoul, as opposed to the 500,000 in northwest Arkansas.
But as far as the enterprises over there, they are very willing to work with startups, and we’re seeing that trend begin to emerge in the U.S. as well with our local corporate partners expressing interest and working with these startups who have innovative solutions and viable means for creating progress and increasing efficiencies within their organizations.
Is there anything they’re doing there that you’d like to see happen in Arkansas?
I’d like to see continued support from the government agencies, to continue to make programs like this and have opportunities funded on the U.S. side to help our companies here in Arkansas go global.
We’ll get an accelerator going on this end. A lot of the recruiting will take place over in Korea, so the idea is we’ll hire on Louis Diesel as Startup Junkie’s Korean representative. He’ll help us on the ground, vetting good opportunities for the cohort, and companies thereof. It’ll probably be 12 weeks, and two of those weeks would take place in Korea.
Then the next 10 would be here in the U.S., acclimating the Korean startups, [teaching them] culturally what it’s like in Arkansas, doing business, what expectations you need to set — from getting meetings scheduled to pilot contracts — and what to look out for.
Upon the success of that, the initial test run of the program, we would then be looking to raise capital to create a venture capital firm, match U.S. and Korean dollars and really start to invest in the global startup ecosystem. And ultimately expose northwest Arkansas to the culture that Korea could bring here. A lot of it is incredible tech talent and amazing technologies that the enterprise partners in our region could benefit heavily from.
What was their reaction to the idea that Korean startups can enter the U.S. market via northwest Arkansas, as opposed to Silicon Valley or the Boston area?
We were so well received. Many of the companies over there have tried to enter the U.S. markets, but there’s so much noise, especially in emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s really hard to differentiate yourself out in Silicon Valley or out on the East Coast.
Northwest Arkansas, by nature — there’s so many great people here that are willing to help. They were just thrilled with how we welcomed them with open arms and with the opportunities we have here in northwest Arkansas. … We immediately had probably 10 companies that made sense for us to start connecting with our network in northwest Arkansas. So, outside of a formal program, we’ve begun helping some of those companies, which, in turn, helps our local enterprises.