You worked in a range of businesses for many years, and reportedly received several offers from various institutions before your retirement. Is there any specific reason that you chose Korea University?
When I was head of SRFC, I had many opportunities to interact with university professors. As there are a growing number of them who have world-class research capabilities in Korea, the research potential of domestic universities has been increasing as well. Observing this, I had a vague idea in mind of forming a bridge between the R&D capacities of universities and those of large companies or venture firms in order to create synergistic effects. At that time the president of KU proposed that I assume the important position of CEO of Korea University Holdings. The strongest motivation behind my acceptance of the offer was my belief that universities today are playing a more important role in technological and social progress than ever and that it was time for me to pursue something more meaningful than mere personal gain.
When did you meet President Chung, Jin Taek Jin Taek of Korea University for the first time?
We met first when I was Head of SRFC and President Chung was Dean of the College of Engineering. In the beginning of last year, I planned something else to do, as I was able to spare some time off from the work I was doing in SRFC. I was about to leave for the U.S. within two days when President Chung gave me a call. I said I would be gone for a month, so we immediately arranged a meeting for the following day. Right now I feel like my energy is being renewed every day because of my sense that I am doing such meaningful work, and thus contributing to the development of KU as a member of its 300,000-strong community.
Is there any difference between the work you are doing and your expectations before coming here?
Businesses provide a positive environment where employees set specific goals and dedicate available resources to achieving their targets. However, professors have to teach and research simultaneously, so they have various considerations in mind in doing their work that don't pertain to those who work in business. Building consensus and shared understanding within the school community also matters.
In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, why do you believe universities, not companies, should spearhead the establishment of startup companies in the field of new technology?
It is hard for companies to engage in novel or challenging tasks, or to undertake high-risk research. However, universities are in a position to support high-risk, high-return research. Farsighted R&D projects which aim to provide solutions to long-term or potential future needs, and which don't focus on immediate issues, are therefore most viable for universities. In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have to chart new areas of innovation and act as trailblazers in new industries. Therefore, I believe the advantages that universities have in this respect will help them outshine their competition in this new era.
What is the situation in other countries in terms of the commercialization of technologies on the part of universities? And what is the role of KU Holdings?
There is a growing recognition that in the future universities should be the bedrock agent of technological innovations and startup ecosystems. It is widely known that the majority of high-tech companies located in Silicon Valley, including Google, Facebook, HP, Apple and Microsoft, were started by college students. These firms are leading American industries today. KU has long been examining changes in the role that universities are expected to assume in the 21st century, and has thus been striving to contribute to the creation of start-up ecosystems. We need to develop a virtuous cycle between technological innovations and such ecosystems in which universities lay the foundation for the commercialization of technological innovations, technological holding companies incubate startup companies and attract venture capital to accelerate their growth, and then their technologies are transferred to large or medium-sized businesses for further scale-up.
What competitive edge does KU have over other universities?
One of the advantages of KU is the remarkable growth that it has achieved in the fields of the natural sciences and engineering. In the university rankings, KU outperforms others in terms of the research achievements of the College of Engineering in particular. However, in relation to starting businesses or commercializing ideas, I believe the pioneering spirit that is in the DNA of KU members is the most important element. KU’s ethos, which challenges the status quo and focuses on building unity and harmony among its members, is an important asset for students in starting a business. I am living proof of this spirit. I am still a member of the Korea University Glee Club, the choir that I joined when I was a college student. I loved to sing my favorite songs together with my friends back then, but what I learned from my club activities was that the ways in which people work together, and communicate and coordinate with each other, were the truly valuable things. In addition, my experience of assuming the role of a leader and performing many tasks together with my peers during my school days was really helpful for me in working in the private sector. In this sense, the greatest strength that KU has is less the classes students take than the four-year-long campus life they experience, during which they gain hands-on experience and acquire the capacities required to be entrepreneurs.
What do you believe is the most urgent matter that universities must address in order to commercialize their technologies by establishing startup companies?
When starting a technology-based business, the two most important elements are the people you work with and the issue of intellectual property. Professors usually apply only for domestic patents for the results of their research, and consequently many argue that although Korea is broadly recognized as a powerhouse in terms of generating new patents, it has achieved such status only in terms of quantitative growth but not qualitative. It is important for researchers to be strategic and thorough in performing research from the initial stages on and in preparing to make patent applications constantly keeping in mind the possibility of commercializing their technology. In order to acquire the exclusive right to exploit the technology they have developed, it is vital to apply for patents in other countries in the appropriate way, and substantial policy support must also be in place. Having strong underlying fundamentals is an essential prerequisite for boosting the startup rate of technology companies.
What is the most important role that KU Holdings is envisaged to play?
The Research and Business Foundation will help KU professors and students during the application process for global patents for their research results, while KU Holdings will support them in commercializing their patents by helping them to establish startups. The role of the latter is the incubation of startup companies to overcome the “valley of death” faced by startups in their initial stages, and to gain global competitiveness. To achieve this, we will engage with startup companies from the initial set-up stage, partner with them in resolving issues or difficulties they face, consult with them in terms of their growth strategy, and help them attract investment as needed. So our support will be more than simply investment-related. I firmly believe that serving as a bridge between startup companies and people with thoroughgoing business and investment experience, as well as being a reliable partner for startups on their way towards achieving sustainable growth, is the most important role that KU Holdings has to play.
Many students have recently jumped into the startup arena. Do you have any advice for them?
Students these days are more talented and capable than was the case in my young days. However, a strong can-do spirit is relatively difficult to find these days. I want KU students to have confidence in themselves and just go for it. There will surely be trial and error, and sometimes failures as well, but this can be very helpful in understanding how to improve and make progress. The privilege of being young is that you can try new things without being intimidated by the downside risks. It saddens me to see some young students just give up without even trying because they are too averse to taking any risks when they think there is only a slim chance of success.
It has been less than a year since your inauguration. What is your goal as CEO of KU Holdings?
In the short-term, I aim to enhance the capabilities of KU Holdings and promote awareness of it across KU. We are currently operating a fund worth KRW 20 billion, on which there is a 2-2.5 percent management fee. This means that we are not financially independent. Therefore, my primary goal is to secure additional financial resources to scale our fund up to KRW 40 billion, and thereby achieve financial independence. The fund will be channeled into supporting KU professors and students who want to commercialize their technologies and start their own businesses. In the process, the creation of a global success story on the part of at least one startup will be important. Once we achieve this, I believe a hopeful, dynamic atmosphere in which starting a company comes to seem natural will take hold, which will create a virtuous cycle in which profits are reinvested into the incubation of startup companies in KU. I believe this can happen in the near future. The Korean government plans to invest KRW 600 billion in university technology holdings by 2022, and I expect that some positive outcomes can be achieved on the basis of this investment, and we may be able to achieve our goals more rapidly still. I am looking forward to KU Holdings growing and prospering, together with KU startup companies.