For South Korean millennials born into bright lights, cheap energy and bustling modernisation, the country’s dimly lit, war torn past is a thing of the history books. This made Akas Kim’s trip to rural India, seeing remote villages struggling to secure running water and power, all the more shocking for him. He was determined to make a difference.
On his return to South Korea, he invested 10m won (£5,860) of his own money into founding Energy Farm, which teaches communities in developing countries across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – including Tanzania and Myanmar – how to make their own wind turbines, solar-powered cookers and power-generating bicycles.
Kim is now one of a new niche of Korean tech entrepreneurs taking advantage of the country’s energised start up scene to tackle energy solutions for low-income countries. They are creating devices that are light, portable and affordable for households to buy on their own.
One of Kim’s new projects is developing the Solar Home System, a solar-powered battery with increased efficiency which he is piloting in Cambodia, where only 57% of rural households have electricity. Instead of lugging a 30kg lead storage battery to a shop to charge all day, families will be able to install the rooftop panel to watch TV and light their homes for four hours, he said. “They’ll be able to watch TV at home and children can study at night. Their lifestyle will improve,” he said.
Kim plans to sell the final device directly to households for around $550 (£390) – an upfront payment of $200 (the equivalent of a family’s combined monthly income in Cambodia) and the rest in monthly instalments – and help the country exceed targets to ensure electricity supplies to 70% of rural households by 2030.
Growth of Korea’s social startups
Kim’s story is part of a boom in socially-beneficial tech-startups in South Korea, given a boost by the Social Enterprise Promotion Act in 2007 which provides benefits including easier access to public funds, co-working spaces and mentoring. And the government along with Korean businesses such as Samsung and Hyundai have also set up competitive funds and support programs for startups with social purpose. There are currently more than 1,500 registered social ventures.
“I think there is increasing awareness of global issues in Korea as it becomes more developed, as more Koreans are traveling and recognising there are issues in the world besides in Korea,” said Diana Won, a consultant at local impact investor MYSC.
Different products for different markets
Another start-up, Enomad, made headlines after putting hydro-powered cellphone-charging stations in downtown Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream. They downsized the idea even more to develop the Estream, a water bottle-sized USB charger powered by moving water. A fully charged device powers a lantern for eight hours or an iPhone 6 two or three times. Her aim is to put the power into the hands of individuals.
Lumir, founded by engineer Jehwan Park, also aims lower the cost of power. The startup has created a lamp that converts heat into brighter electrical light. Lumir’s tea candle powered LED lamps debuted this year on Kickstarter from $59 each. It aims to use the product’s profit to develop its kerosene-powered device, the Lumir K, for developing countries and lower the cost to $10 each.
Both Enomad and Lumir have two-prong strategies – developing a device for developed countries and adapting the parts to lower the cost for low-income countries. Like Energy Farm, they want to allow households to afford their own energy solutions. At present Lumir is working with NGOs in the Philippines and Hyundai’s CSR project in India which will buy and distribute the Lumir K devices for free to those who need them.
It’s a challenging model, says Lumir’s Park, as Korean public social awareness is relatively low, making it hard to promote social causes. He says the money and mentors often flow to “hotter” tech sectors geared to mass consumers such as e-commerce and the Internet of Things.
Enomad wants to debut the Estream in the US camping market, where it can retail for $180 or more. Part of the allure of beginning in the US is to gain the traction to attract an appropriate impact investor that can provide the mentoring and developing market access help that her startup needs, said CEO Hyerin Park.
“For a hardware and cleantech startup, it was really hard to find proper investors in Korea,” said Hyerin Park. “There was no investor pool or expertise in renewable energy or familiar with this business and industry.” But she thinks Korea’s ecosystem is improving as more tech ventures pop up. “I think they will inspire our market and environment, definitely. It will change and it should be positive.”