Alp Malazgirt is a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur who showed up in Daejeon Korea in March to try his hand at Korean technology. He is currently advisor to the Sejong Technology Transfer Company located on the KAIST campus which is responsible for such projects as the commercialization of technologies for lithium extraction from seawater. He also serves as the Research Director for the Biotechnology Division at the Asia Institute at the SolBridge International School of Business, working with researchers and policy makers at the Korea Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology (KRIBB) to develop innovative approaches to international collaboration.
A serial entrepreneur, Alp Malazgirt started Go-Solar, an innovative silicon based solar cell company that supplies solar panels to large box buildings such as those that house Home Depot, Costco, and Wal-Mart, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in California. The company achieved positive cash flow in only 6 months based on its highly competitive pricing and its innovative installation techniques.
Q: What was it about Korea that was attractive to you as an entrepreneur
A: I have combined a love of entrepreneurship with my high tech background to make a career in Silicon Valley. It was essential that I find the most promising place for entrepreneurship and I found it here in Daedeok, Korea. You see, I had offers from Singapore and elsewhere, but none of them matched what the Daedeok Innopolis offers in terms of potential. I wanted to be in a center for entrepreneurship and it is right here. The research institutes are constantly forming venture companies in a remarkably wide range of fields. Korea is high in the global entrepreneurship index and one of the top in Asia for entrepreneurs. The universities and research institutes here in Daedeok Valley offer immense opportunities for commercialization and innovation. Other countries are at capacity; Korea is just starting its push to internationalize.
Q: What has impressed you since you arrived here in Daedeok
A: Everyone that I have met in the venture companies and research institutes is putting a remarkable amount of hard work into creating real value. There is no hype; if anything, their work is underappreciated. I am excited about working with KRIBB (biotechnology collaboration), KAIST (venture companies), KIGAM (lithium extraction from seawater), KISTI (supercomputers) and other institutes. From the big research institutes to the three-man operation venture companies working on new gadgets for portable healthcare applications, everyone is putting in 70 hours a week of hard, smart work. The venture capital companies are putting in even more than that. What they need is exposure in the world as a whole and that is something I can help with.
The array of technologies in Daedeok is breathtaking. Everything is here: robotics, nano-materials, helicopter technology, healthcare telemetry, nuclear power and nuclear fusion, mechanical engineering, water treatment and design. For someone who loves high-tech, one just never gets bored in Daedeok.
In Silicon Valley, people say that the actual deals are done on the back of a napkin at an Italian restaurant. People convince investors to write a check for $100,000, hand it over while sipping a liqueur, and start up a company. But in order to start a company in Korea, that sort of transaction is just not sufficient: it is not enough to persuade someone of a good idea in this culture. There is real need for a broad range of institutions to back up efforts in Korea and there is a need for a wealth of information and patents in place for the innovator to turn the concept into real value.
The process of commercialization for an idea is painfully long in Korea and the prospects for real success are thin because of a lack of money available. There are too many hoops to jump through. We find that money is tight and there are very limited options available to the entrepreneur for access to capital-especially for small venture companies. The perception is that there are such much higher risks for starting a new company than doing something like building an apartment building.
If we can simplify the process by which Korean innovators commercialize their technologies and their concepts, Korea will become a world leader. If we can create a culture in Korea where failure is not looked down on, in which challenges are embraced, we can go far.
Innovation, technology improvement, packaging devices, marketing and creating a strategy to penetrate the markets are difficult projects and those who take them on should get full support they deserve. Fundamentally, the Korean economy is export based, requiring a good understanding of international markets and a greater sense of agility regarding penetration of foreign markets. Venture companies do not have that sophistication, but we can get it to them and transform them into global players. You need an excellent global strategy to be successful in exports and create a real cash flow with liquidity for the company.
Foreign investment is a possibility for Korea that could turn things around. But so far foreign investment has been extremely restricted and quite limited in its use. We need a massive increase in foreign investment to supply necessary liquidity to allow these creative ideas and technologies to take off in Korea. The potential is great, and Korea can become the world leader. But right now we simply do not have the proper amount of funding available for Korean innovators. We need liberalization that encourages joint projects between Korean and global companies.
In a more practical sense, we also need to see a vast improvement in the communication skills of Koreans in addressing the global market. They must speak English and they must be completely unafraid to cold-call customers or come up to people at trade shows and engage them in English. It is not so much a matter of fluent English as it is self-confidence that makes the customer feel at ease. When that is combined with sophisticated websites in English aimed at the needs of the global market, Korea will go far.
We see incredible creativity in Korea among designers. New products are coming out that are both beautiful and practical. I read trade journals and visit important websites. There is extremely impressive work going on. The Koreans doing this work are often individuals who have spent some time abroad and have real skill. Bringing in internationals with specialized skills also helps. For example, when KIA brought in a German chief designer it made a tremendous difference.
Q: What does Korea need to do right now
A: Korean firms have remarkable potential but they face challenges in international marketing right now. Companies must adapt to new global values, create a new vision. That vision should not be a corny statement on the brochure, but way of life embraced by all employees.
Also more creative approaches to overseas marketing are necessary. If a company makes a gadget, it must imagine how the Indian or Chinese customer would respond. Role playing among the Korean staff to figure out what the competition is thinking is essential. That is the sort of training I would recommend.
Let us think about a foreign investor debating whether to invest in Korea or India. Well, the Indian business or university has material about its technology and strategy in English right up there where you can see it. If you look at the Korean company website, the English is poor-or nonexistent-and there is no description of why the company is worth investing in. In part this state is because Koreans have only thought about trade, and not about getting investment Poor communication discourages the investor who has limited time to be attracted to technologies.
One rule in Silicon Valley is that the venture company representative should be able to present his or her ideas in two or three minutes-or just 30 seconds in an elevator. That skill is essential to success. Being able to distill everything in a concise manner is something I want to teach to entrepreneurs in Daedeok. I have seen how smart the people here are. Give them communication skills and accurate information about foreign markets and they will soar.
Q: What does Daedeok need right now
A: Daedeok needs a control tower. Daedeok Innopolis should serve that function, but because it does not work closely enough with the individual universities and research institutes, venture companies, it has not been able to fulfill the role.
If I were at Daedeok Innopolis, I would first classify the companies that we have. I would also classify the laboratories within universities and research institutes (not the universities themselves). These are the important players and they deserve loving attention and careful analysis. What do they really need to succeed and what are the possible applications for their technologies. Maybe the team is working at ETRI on telecommunications technology, but the breakthrough has an application in medicine. We want to make sure that idea is brought to the attention of the team.
Next I would want to see exactly where those companies are in their development. What do they need to go to the next step I would want to see exactly what the appropriate markets are for these firms. What exactly are they aiming for and how can we get them there. We want to sit down with those firms and explore the specific difficulties they are running into.
I would want to come up with a viable, realistic strategy for those companies to find reliable funding. I would want them to get the right training for their employees and know where to go to find partners abroad.
Finally, I want to create brainstorming time for the employees. Everyone should spend an hour a day around a table just throwing out ideas about what could be done and how.
Q: What do you bring to the table
A: I can bring a very different perspective than you normally find in Daedeok. The Silicon Valley model can be quite effective if done in a consistent and systematic manner. Workshops, seminars, brainstorming sessions with the high tech executives and marketers, technicians, and developers can quickly bring Daedeok up to speed. All this is most exciting for me. That is why I am here.
Q: In your opinion, what are the required factors to make a successful enterprise
A: There are three players in forming an enterprise or a company: The organizers, the creators and the sponsors. The organizers are those who set in motion the sequence of events to get the product to market. Creators are the ones who produce products or processes. Sponsors support the entire project financially through funding. A successful enterprise requires professional managers with creative perspectives, creators with high technical skills and sponsors who understand the full market potential and investment opportunity.
Just having excellent technical skills is not enough in business. There are thousands of skilled employees out there, but a talented manager is impossible to find. In Korea, it is more and more difficult to find good managers and sponsors. Due to the education system here, a huge number of skilled employees are trained every year. However, we find that these highly educated individuals lack the training in creativity and innovation essential to make them effective managers.
Inculcating creativity and innovation is not that difficult. We just need to be curious about the surrounding environment. There are chances for us everywhere. Do not try to follow others. That is the way to stifle creativity and innovation. In business world, copying what other people have done or are doing is a dead end.