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Start-ups at Google's Campus Seoul | © KoreaNet / Flickr
Start-ups at Google's Campus Seoul | © KoreaNet / Flickr
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10 Start-Ups to Watch in South Korea in 2017

Picture of Mimsie Ladner
Updated: 13 June 2017
With a tech-savvy population that is shifting away from a traditionally risk-averse mindset and a $3 billion investment from the government, South Korea is quickly becoming a breeding ground for innovative start-ups. While many of them are attracting global attention for all the right reasons, here are ten that truly stand out from the rest.

Lezhin Entertainment

In 2013, Lezhin Entertainment introduced paid online comic services with its webtoon platform, Lezhin Comics. Smartphone-addicted South Koreans went nuts for the platform – sales quickly jumped from 980 million won (US$832,000) in 2013 to 31.8 billion won (US$27 million) in 2015. In 2016, the subscriber count reached eight million as the business landed a hefty 50 billion won (US$42.4 million) investment from a local private equity firm.

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Minds Lab

From machine learning to big data, this young venture is quickly rising to the top ranks of the country’s advanced technology start-ups. Backed by US$5 million in investments, Minds Lab is currently initiating an artificial intelligence platform that caters to health care and education services while providing tools for developers and start-ups to employ the technology. It has also created Ascar, a portable AI speaker that can be used in automobiles.

Memebox

Similar to subscription box companies like Birchbox and MyGlam, Memebox offers online shoppers a curated selection of sample and full-sized K-beauty products that are all sourced, packaged, and shipped directly from South Korea. However, the beauty company offers much more than subscription boxes, providing a wide selection of cosmetics and skin care products through its online and brick-and-mortar shops. The concept is an appealing one; they’ve raised over US$156 million from investors.

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AprilSkin

AprilSkin is yet another fast-growing beauty start-up taking advantage of the global K-beauty obsession. Since launching its debut product – the incredibly popular Magic Stone soap, which sold more than 2 million units in just two years – AprilSkin has transformed from a content-based multichannel network to an influential brand, with five shops around South Korea and distribution in some of the nation’s biggest cosmetics chains.

Coupang

In just two years, Coupang – South Korea’s answer to Amazon – has established a delivery network of customized trucks, algorithm-controlled warehouses, and 3,600 “Coupangmen” who deliver goods and communicate with shoppers. With the ability to get the majority of its orders to a customer’s doorstep in just a day at no extra cost, the start-up has already raised US$1.4 billion with a US$5 billion valuation.

Spoqa

To help food and drink businesses simplify customer loyalty stamp cards, Spoqa installs tablets at store counters that enable customers to easily input their phone number to accumulate Dodo Points for free swag. With no additional apps or registration required, the start-up’s service is already being used by some 10,000 merchants and over 12 million users in Korea – almost a quarter of the country’s population. Supported by over US$10 million in funding, it launched Spoqa Japan in 2015 and acquired its local competitor Tmon Plus in 2016.

Zikto

Zikto first entered the start-up scene with its posture-tracking smartwatch named Arki, which raised over US$160,000 on Kickstarter in 2014. Now, the company is taking things a step further by working closely with insurance companies, hospitals, and health officials to research various ways to utilize wearable tech in the health care industry. Valued at approximately US$15 million, Zikto recently launched a “D2B” (device-to-benefit) service model that connects its IoT device with online and offline wellness services.

Withinnovation

Withinnovation, a rapidly developing travel start-up, claims 1.85 million monthly active users on its booking app Yeogieottae (meaning “How about here?”), which is the top startup-made free travel app on Google Play. In 2016, the company reportedly booked 140 billion won (US$118.9 million) in reservations for around 30,000 accommodations, while its focus this year is on integrating VR, AI, and IoT to develop a more comprehensive travel experience.

Socar

Socar, the largest car sharing service in South Korea, allows travelers to book and share cars with others traveling in the same route through a website and smartphone app. Dedicated to creating an eco-friendly economy through the reduction of pollution by way of ridesharing, SoCar has raised US$18 million in 2014 with funding led by Bain Capital. Without the competition of Uber (which failed in South Korea), the service is rapidly expanding.

Viva Republica

Perhaps no other country has embraced mobile banking more than South Korea. Viva Republica has capitalized on this with Toss, a mobile payments app launched in February 2015 that turns the dozen steps required by the country’s out-of-date online banking system into just a few. As one the top-five payment apps in Asia, Toss currently handles US$330-$423 million in transactions per month. Following a 26.5 billion won (US$22.5 million) investment in 2016, Viva Republica plans to introduce new financial services such as loans, overseas remittances, and donations through Toss.