* If you have inquiries regarding these examples of youth-led innovation, or wish to seek support in learning more from ROK’s experiences, please complete this survey.
Since the first COVID-19 outbreak, the Republic of Korea has proactively implemented innovative measures to help flatten the curve in the country. Among those at the forefront of tackling the crisis are young entrepreneurs sparking rapid technology-driven innovations through creativity, problem-solving skills and networks with public institutions and fellow private sector actors to help communities cope with their daily lives.
In this video co-produced by the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre and Youth Co:Lab, three such examples from Korea – of businesses that leverage technologies to innovate contact tracing, remote learning and redistribution of goods – illustrate how young entrepreneurs can be a driving force to respond to crises and contribute to long-term, sustainable recovery.
Below are some key takeaways and lessons learned from the experiences of young startups in Korea:
Creating collective impact through public-private collaboration
Cross-sectoral collaboration has provided an enabling environment for youth-led startups to turn ideas into actionable solutions. Coronamap, a web-based map visualization service providing real-time contact tracing information across the country, utilizes public datasets supplied by the central and local governments. Alongside the government’s efforts to make data readily accessible to developers, private ICT companies have contributed their Application Program Interface (API) services and servers at no cost.
While in the past, it was conventional for government to take lead on the development of public services, the government now supports and relies on the technical expertise of the private sector, from startups to large corporations, to expedite the development and deployment of solutions for rapid crisis response. The formulation of relevant policies and regulations – providing R&D support, investing in enhanced testing capacities of private laboratories run by SMEs, and fast-track approval of diagnosis kits – was a positive contributing factor.
Such public-private collaboration is nothing new in the Korean context, especially when it comes to supporting startups. The Ministry of SMEs and Startups, for example, connects early-stage tech startups with designated tech enterprises, angel investors and venture capitalists by providing matching R&D funds through the Tech Incubator Program for Startups (TIPS). In turn, capacity-building support, including networking, mentorship and investments, is driven by private sector partners, activating the innovation ecosystem as well as enabling startups to focus on advancing their products and services.
Harnessing digital technology and data for unforeseen future crises
The pandemic has given rise to digital tools leveraging frontier technologies such as AI, big data and blockchain that help manage crisis and address various socioeconomic challenges more efficiently. CLASSUM’s online learning and communication platform not only encourages students to easily communicate and pose questions in diverse formats, but it also enables instructors to utilize AI-driven data analysis to improve class management and better understand student interactions. Thanks to subsidies offered by the National IT Industry Promotion Agency (NIPA) under the Ministry of Science and ICT as part of its emergency COVID-19 response scheme to support SMEs and small business owners, CLASSUM has offered its services for free to educational institutions in lack of a remote learning system, thereby contributing to bridging the digital divide.
Coronamap’s development of the web-based visualization tool for contact tracing aligns with the Korean government’s endeavor to make digital technology inclusive and accessible, and leverage open data for the public good. Open data portals operated both by central government authorities and local governments (e.g. Seoul Metropolitan Government, Gyeongbuk Province, Daegu) allow anyone access to public data in various forms, from visual data to open API.
One way to access and benefit from existing digital technology is to leverage open-source technology that allows individuals and institutions to customize royalty-free technology sources to fit their needs and context. Utilizing such decentralized, shared tools is timely in the context of COVID-19, in which established best practices can be adopted for effective response and recovery, while at the same time enhancing countries’ digital capacity. To gear up for unforeseen crises beyond COVID-19, digital cooperation among stakeholders, from governments and international organizations, to private sector, civil society and individuals (e.g. Tech Access Partnership – TAP), is of great significance.
Tackling uncertainty with entrepreneurship
SMEs and startups are often the hardest hit in times of crisis like COVID-19. In March, Youth Co:Lab conducted a survey among 410 young entrepreneurs across 18 countries, to understand the impact of the pandemic on young startups. 86% reported that their business had been negatively affected, with 1 in 4 having completely stopped operating.
Turning COVID-19 challenges into business opportunities calls for flexible adjustment of business models to sustain enterprises. The example of DamoGO illustrates how young entrepreneurs can swiftly pivot and re-purpose their businesses, while at the same time bringing support to those in need. This, nonetheless, calls for adequate policy and programmatic support driven by the government to strengthen the ‘safety net’ for young startups and small businesses. Measures such as tax exemptions, emergency grants, and concessional loans can help mitigate the challenges.
In the Korean context, as part of the COVID-19 financial scheme outlined by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, a special credit guarantee service is provided to tech startups within seven years of establishment. In the long run, such means should be coupled with capacity-building support facilitated by ecosystem intermediaries including incubators/accelerators and academia. Through measures including upskilling training and education, mentorship, as well as peer-networking, young entrepreneurs can grow to be more resilient and accelerate the achievement of SDGs.
* If you have inquiries regarding these examples of youth-led entrepreneurs and their innovations, or wish to seek support in learning more about ROK’s experiences, please complete this survey.
 Korea’s response using ICT and open data explained in the National Information Society Agency, “Korean ICT services against COVID-19 pandemic,” p11-15 at https://eng.nia.or.kr/common/board/Download.do?bcIdx=22150&cbIdx=31975&fileNo=13
 The Korea Herald, “Public-private partnership enabled Korea's COVID-19 response”, 28 May 2020, available at https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/biz/2020/05/488_290279.html
 UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, “The Age of Digital Interdependence”, June 2019, available at https://www.un.org/en/pdfs/DigitalCooperation-report-for%20web.pdf
 Key findings of the survey are listed in: https://www.youthcolab.org/post/young-entrepreneurs-explain-how-covid-19-is-affecting-their-businesses
 Ministry of Economy and Finance, “Safeguarding economic resilience: In responding to the economic impact of COVID-19” at http://english.moef.go.kr/pc/selectTbPressCenterDtl.do?boardCd=N0001&seq=4917
* The UNDP Seoul Policy Centre coordinates the Youth Co:Lab programme in the Republic of Korea. Co-created in 2017 by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth, so that they can accelerate the SDG implementation through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship.