Korean tech start-ups offer life beyond Samsung

Korean tech start-ups offer life beyond Samsung

SEOUL - As an engineering major at Seoul's Yonsei University, Yoon Ja-Young was perfectly poised to follow the secure, lucrative and socially prized career path long-favoured by South Korea's elite graduates.

But the idea of corporate life in an industrial giant like Samsung, however well-remunerated, simply didn't appeal so instead Yoon joined the swelling ranks of young Koreans looking to make their mark in the volatile world of tech start-ups.

In her final year at college, Yoon, now 26, created a Pinterest-style image-sharing app, StyleShare, for fashion-conscious young women.

"I was always into fashion, and there were so many moments that I wanted to grab someone on the street and ask what is that pretty dress or pair of shoes she's wearing," Yoon told AFP.

"All the fashion magazines only talked about expensive brand clothes, which didn't help ordinary people like me," she said.

The app became a hit and now has more than one million users.

Yoon said her parents initially panicked when it became clear the app was more than a fun hobby and she wasn't going to get a "real" job.

"But they soon became strong supporters," she said.

Her father, a loyal LG employee for two decades, even offered some of his retirement savings to help kickstart the business.

For her parents' generation nothing matched the stability and prestige that came with a job in one of the family-run conglomerates, or "chaebols", that dominate the national economy.

The likes of Samsung, LG and Hyundai remain magnets for many of the country's brightest graduates.

But with the global economy in low gear and the smartphone era opening new doors, an increasing number like Yoon are forsaking a rigid career structure to try tech entrepreneurship.

'Astounding amount of money'

The number of new "venture firms" - high-risk, largely tech-related enterprises - stood at 30,053 last month, according to the state-run industry tracker Venturein.

That figure was almost double the 15,401 registered in 2009 - a milestone year when the first iPhone went on sale in South Korea and brought the app-making industry with it.

Under President Park Geun-Hye, the South Korean government has poured billions of dollars into startups, in line with her push to foster a "creative economy" that would move beyond the country's traditional manufacturing base.

"There is an astounding amount of money, from both the private and state sectors, flowing around in the market right now," said Jang Sun-Hyang, investment director at Mashup Angels, a Seoul-based startup incubator.

"The word 'startup' didn't even register in the public consciousness in, say, 2011. Now it's one of the hottest buzzwords among college kids," Jang told AFP.

According to government data, the pool of private and public investment available to tech start-ups stood at 2.5 trillion won ($2.3 billion) in 2014, up 62 per cent from a year ago.

South Korea's hyper-wired populace also offers a fertile ground for tech businesses - most households have broadband access and 80 per cent of people own smartphones.

More than 60 per cent of smartphone users - the highest ratio in the world - use ultra-fast 4G service that allows users to download a feature-length film in a few minutes.

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