A Word from Last Year's Winners
Co-hosted by UN ESCAP, WFUNA, UNDP, and Seoul Metropolitan Government, the 2017 Citypreneurs startup competition drew applications from 146 different startups hailing from 46 countries to help solve urban problems in Seoul under the themes of health tech, education tech, and transportation/environment tech.
After several rounds of pitching and a 3.5-week incubator program, 3 of our 30 finalists claimed the top spots in the competition thanks to their competitive and groundbreaking business models, and have gone on to achieve additional milestones in their startup journeys.
Taking the Grand Prize was DoBrain, a company driven to help educate children with learning difficulties from underserved communities. Their app contains a constantly updated stream of educational activities designed to enhance cognitive development through interaction. The digital delivery method of cognitive training is much more affordable than current alternatives for children with cognitive development challenges. DoBrain was awarded 10 million Korean won prizemoney and received 20 million Korean won in seed funding with an additional 500,000 USD research grant from the Korean government. DoBrain was approached by multiple outlets for private investment leading up to the Citypreneurs Demo Day last December.
Winning the First Prizes were EIDware and LIBERTY. Both were awarded 7 million Korean won prize money. They also showcased their businesses at various conferences such as the BIXPO Smart Cities Conference and the D3 Impact Night Gobal Impact Investment Forum. As a direct result of winning Citypreneurs, EIDware and LIBERTY secured partnerships with clients such as Samsung Electronics, Kepco (Korea Electric Power Corporation), and local city governments.
EIDware develops voice recognition software tailored for non-mainstream users such as the disabled, children, and the elderly. Their app, soundmind, is designed to help pre-dementia patients with daily tasks. Users complete brain training exercises to maintain a sound state of mind. Progress is carefully monitored by the app and used to create a personalized curriculum to suit a particular user’s needs. Citypreneurs branding was particularly effective in helping EIDware get contracts with various telecommunications companies.
LIBERTY designs innovative wind turbines with the dual mission of generating green energy while decreasing urban air pollution. The turbines are attached vertically to buildings to use natural updrafts and recycled air to generate renewable energy. Compared to traditional wind turbines, this product is not only more efficient and cheaper to produce, it also works silently and can attach to a variety of buildings. The startup team is currently working on developing prototypes of wind turbines with Kepco that can function in different local contexts. An interview with LIBERTY was featured on Arirang TV and the company also won the Excellence Award in the Youth Startup Contest hosted by Korea Western Power.
We caught up with representatives of the three companies this month and interviewed them to see how winning last year’s Citypreneurs competition helped the development of their businesses. Representing Dobrain was CEO Yejin Choi. Representing EIDware is CEO Daejin Shin. Finally, representing LIBERTY is CEO Jenis Lee. The three interviews are edited and compiled into one transcript below for your convenience.
What’s the story behind your startup? What goal did you hope to achieve?
DoBrain: While working as a volunteer, I met many children with cognitive development disorders such as North Korean defectors who had hidden in China for three years before settling in South Korea. When we took these children to receive treatment at hospitals, all the treatment programs felt too expensive, outdated, and uncomfortable for them. From that point on, I pledged to make my own program, not for profit, but for the betterment of children worldwide in similar situations. Our business will help create the future by intervening in children’s underdevelopment from a very early age. We believe inequalities in opportunities for treatment and education at such an early age exacerbates income inequality and impacts well-being later in life. Through our story-telling approach, DoBrain is destined to be the most effective treatment for cognitively delayed children in the short-run, and one of the most powerful promoters of equality in the long-run.
EIDware: EIDware essentially got its start from a group of voice recognition software developers. To stand out from the field of voice recognition software, we decided to focus on serving age groups outside of the typical target of 18-40. From there, the app soundmind was developed to aid the elderly suffering from cognitive developmental disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. EIDware is beneficial to pre-dementia patients and other older adults because it replaces typical pencil-and paper-based treatments with voice recognition programs on a smart device. It also has a more flexible platform, allowing content to be modified to suit global cultural needs. In order to reach global markets, EIDware is preparing its core programs for various world regions and dialects.
LIBERTY: Before starting my own business, I thought long about what I should really set out to accomplish, and what came to me was to improve the quality of human life. LIBERTY had the potential to develop a wind turbine designed specifically for cities that solves both environmental and energy problems. We can promote our business with pride because we supply sustainable energy sources. In the near future, energy and electricity can become a type of environmental currency that people can buy and sell. LIBERTY's goal is to become a global energy platform used by each and every building to self-generate its own energy. For now, Asia is a good testing ground for our product since tall skyscrapers are prevalent in its cities.
Which social problems were you trying to solve by creating your company? Why do you think the method you developed is helpful for solving that problem?
DoBrain: We hope to change the future for children who face limitations due to their social status by unlocking their full cognitive potential. Children from lower income, single parent, or abusive households may be neglected and spend long hours in front of a screen watching Youtube or playing games. Since even children in developing countries have access to wireless technology these days, we hope the benefits of cognitive therapy can reach the kids who need it most. Our particular solution uses methods favored by children such as games or animation. Two members of our staff formerly worked as a Simpsons editor and a Pororo design manager, so we have expertise in knowing what children enjoy. Children who already are comfortable interacting with smart devices can look forward to therapeutic educational content delivered directly to them each week through our platform.
EIDware: Our goal was simply to facilitate seniors’ access to quality cognitive therapy. Voice recognition technology allows both intuitive and simple-to-use interaction for older people. Our Expert-system uses AI technology to prepare a personalized curriculum for each patient and user. Providing quality care for elders will be an increasingly important problem to solve as South Korea and other societies continue to age. Nowadays, once being diagnosed with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment), a pre-dementia stage, there is an 80% chance the diagnosis will develop into Alzheimer’s within 6 years. Our goal is to reduce that rate to 50% in the next 5 years. In the past, cognitive therapy was carried out face to face with therapists. As seniors respond best to a vocal input/output method, our app uses voice recognition technology to interact effectively with senior citizens, providing the feeling of being “in session” with a therapist.
LIBERTY: The specific UN SDGs we set out to solve are Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy, Goal 9: Industry innovation and infrastructure, Goal 11: Sustainable cities, and Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals. Air pollution is such a big problem in large cities, especially in Asia, so we want to reduce harmful ways of creating and using energy. More than just manufacturing wind turbines to generate power, LIBERTY hopes to become a platform for generating renewable energy in urban environments. Our turbines are more city-friendly because they are designed vertically to make use of various types of wind: natural wind, ascending air currents, and often wasted wind such as that produced by a building’s air circulation system. Typical, large wind farms face the problem of being located far from cities, leading to potential loss of the energy generated. LIBERTY avoids this issue by placing its turbines directly on buildings in urban settings.
DoBrain CEO Yejin Choi with WFUNA Facilitator and Interviewer Shawn Ju.
What was the most important lesson you learned developing your startup? What tips would you give to other startups?
DoBrain: Besides learning from your mistakes and scaling up your business gradually, the key lesson I learned was how to create sustainable values through a well-developed business model. The competition is, after all, a test of entrepreneurship as well. The judges last year deemed DoBrain’s biggest strength was the ability to offer a platform that was attractive to investors while also making a social impact and it was a big reason why we won the competition.
EIDware: As a tip, make sure to seriously ask yourself whether or not your product has the potential to sell well in the market. When you start a small business, your team becomes your family. How well your business does equates to the wellbeing of your family, so you must consider and constantly reconsider the profitability and plausibility of your business.
LIBERTY: Social skills and communication are crucial for any successful business: since startups are small in workforce, the role of a CEO is to create a harmonious environment for all employees to work with synergy at their fullest potential. Often, challenges can seem insurmountable and goals so far away, but if you chip away at a problem step by step, you will later witness how near to your goals you’ve come. Another tip is about a startup’s focus: most startups follow the trend from Silicon Valley by developing software and building content, but they shouldn’t overlook manufacturing. German pioneers of the 4th Industrial Revolution are building the future through manufacturing and more startups should broaden their perspective by embracing this method, which is not as old-fashioned as people make it seem.
EIDware CEO Daejin Shin with UN ESCAP Interviewer and Translator Kirim Kim.
How did Citypreneurs directly benefit the growth of your company?
DoBrain: The biggest advantage of Citypreneurs was its networking opportunities. Not only were we motivated by rival teams, but we were able to orient our product towards foreign markets thanks to the global network of mentors offered exclusively through Citypreneurs. After competing, we partnered with the Ecuador Education Ministry, schools in Cambodia, and even connected with another participant who took our program to his home country Brazil for a test run. We received investment offers directly following the competition and made strong contacts during the Demo Day. When we joined Citypreneurs, we were sitting at only around 10,000 users but within one year after winning, we rose to 85,000 users! This enabled us to grow from a small team of 4 members to a company with 9 employees.
EIDware: In our early stages, we were a team of developers with very limited marketing knowledge. The branding associated with winning Citypreneurs helped us market ourselves as a company associated with high level international organizations and corporations. Our increased brand value resulting from this also enabled us to convince future investors with much more ease.
LIBERTY: LIBERTY Co.’s main concern was to understand our target market not just locally, but also internationally. Through Citypreneurs, we were lucky enough to meet an American mentor who gave us realistic and helpful market analysis. Besides deepening our understanding of global markets, we were also able to expand our professional network through our connections to Seoul Metropolitan Government, WFUNA, and attending high level conferences following the win.
LIBERTY CEO Jenis Lee with a prototype.
Where do you see your company in the future?
DoBrain: I hope to one day replace cognitive treatment facilities with smartphones.
To achieve our vision of providing effective, customized treatment to children in need, we have created strong partnerships with 8 top-ranking facilities in Korea that specialize in treating cognitive impairment, with Yonsei Severance Hospital as one example. Through collaborating with these facilities and researchers, we have been designing a mobile cognitive impairment solution by accumulating user data, creating workable content, and building diagnostic AI.
The much-anticipated English version of our app is complete. Furthermore, we have collaborated with Yonsei HAPTIC and Seoul Asan hospital to run clinical trials to have our disability solution for children approved by the US FDA. DoBrain already has a strong following in South Korea, with over 100,000 users and growing. We want to expand into foreign markets through more partnerships to tackle the spectrum of developmental issues.
DoBrain can readily penetrate the market to diagnose issues and provide solutions. Because the value of children's education is universal, we believe that successful localization efforts will lead to creating new markets in many countries with weak educational safety nets for cognitively delayed children. We want to reach an estimated 100 million children to reduce educational and treatment inequalities.
EIDware: We’re excited to be collaborating with various companies, especially with startups, developing new technologies such as a state of the art voice recognition microchip, integrating non-invasive biometric sensors, and many more that will be used to help disadvantaged people all over the world. In the future, we will target overseas markets including Japan, China, and America. We want to take our technology beyond helping just the elderly to many other kinds of less-privileged people.
LIBERTY: There are many areas we would like to focus on in the future. First off, we are in the process of developing prototypes for new products that can be placed in specific locations such as private homes, apartments, and commercial buildings. If these prototypes find success, we can hopefully be registered as an Energy Service Company (ESCo) product manufacturer, which would further increase our brand’s prestige in the realm of green energy.
LIBERTY Co. would like to collaborate with municipal governments to change regulations so we can more quickly achieve the goals of reduced carbon emissions and the transfer to fully renewable energy. Ideally, civil society should also take a more active approach towards saving energy and even producing their own green energy. Consumers who install our products around the world will be able to produce their own energy, which they could then use to supply power to their property or even sell for a profit.
CEO Jenis Lee of LIBERTY Co.
Citypreneurs: What change has Citypreneurs brought to LIBERTY Co.?
LIBERTY CEO Jenis Lee: Last year was the most remarkable year for LIBERTY Co. We launched pilot models and test-beds in cooperation with a Korean regional government. Thanks to Citypreneurs, LIBERTY Co. was able to gather information and feedback from the overseas market, as well as build a strong international network and market identity through participating in various exhibitions. Through the pitching process, expert mentors helped LIBERTY Co. improve the R&D of our product, bringing us to the stage we are at now- working directly with large companies to obtain investment.
We hope these interviews were instructive to all you aspiring Citypreneurs out there. If you have any further questions about these companies or the benefits last year’s Citypreneurs competition brought to them, please get in touch with us.
Applications to the competition open on June 1 and last until August 29. Your business model should ideally take into consideration the interlinked nature of the UN SDGs. For more information, check out our website.
Feel free to get in touch with us via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, Youtube), we’re glad to assist you with any questions or enquiries you may have. We look forward to your application!
-Edited by Charlotte Arribe & Chris DiGennaro
-Interviews conducted by Kirim Kim & Shawn Jo
-Interviews translated by Kirim Kim, Hyunggee Choi, & Chris DiGennaro