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Nimble entrepreneurs help Korean Wave go global

Aug. 29, 2011 - 19:21 By
Web startups see business opportunities by making digital tools to tackle language barriers

As the Internet has paved the way for instant, worldwide access to Korean pop songs and soap operas, nimble startups are capitalizing on the demand for the country’s top cultural exports by making digital tools to tackle language barriers and digital piracy.

Since the 1990s, Korean pop culture has been increasingly popular Asia-wide. In recent years, the phenomenon, called Korean Wave, or Hallyu, has begun to gain growing appeal in far-flung places like Western Europe and Latin America with the help of YouTube and other popular online mediums.

“The rise of satellite broadcast fueled the spread of Hallyu in the 90s. (But) Hallyu fans are no longer content with satellite broadcasters as they can view the latest dramas instantly anywhere in the world on websites like YouTube,” said Han Koo-hyun, chief of Korean Wave Research Institute.

The phenomenon of “digital Hallyu” is particularly strong in North America and Europe where the Internet is becoming a primary gateway to Korean culture, according to a report by the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Despite the Internet’s benefit of the instant access, audiences face language barriers when viewing raw foreign movies online. In addition, cyberspace is rampant with piracy that plagues the local entertainment industry’s efforts to cash in on the digital Hallyu movement. 

Employees at Viki’s research and development center in Singapore (Yonhap News)
It is by creating digital tools to deal with these language barriers and copyright issues that fast-moving Web startups like Viki Inc., Soompi Media LLC and see new business opportunities.

“With proper translation and online marketing, we had a hunch that Hallyu will succeed on a global level,” Ho Changseong, a co-founder of Viki, operator of video streaming site, said in an email interview.

As its name stands for a hybrid of video and wiki, Viki adopted a user-driven approach akin to the way was built.

The company first acquires rights to TV dramas or movies and places them on a channel. Within a few days, they are subtitled into around 10 to 30 different languages by a community of volunteer translators.

The website attracts 8.7 million users every month who translate anywhere from one sentence in a dialogue to an entire episode into their native tongues at a much faster speed than an individual translating a foreign movie.

In one case, a work of drama attracted more than 1,000 volunteers who translated bits and pieces of subtitles, according to Ho. “Playful Kiss,” a Korean soap opera that aired in 2010, was subtitled in English in less than two hours by avid fans and then into 20 languages in 24 hours.

The company’s founder claims that is the most popular place for consuming Korean entertainment but the idea of transmitting local content beyond national borders through volunteers and digital software applies to any creative work available on its website.

“A more fundamental question that motivated us to start the company was whether it’s just the Korean content that is not living up to its potential due to the language and cultural barriers,”

Viki’s co-founder Ho said. In 2010, the company raised $4.3 million in investments.

Another startup called Soompi envisions itself becoming a new media group delivering Korean entertainment, online news and user-created content. Established in Silicon Valley in 1998 as a personal blog, it was acquired by Korean venture Enswers Inc. in February.

Like Viki, Soompi’s 6 million monthly users are both consumers and creators of K-pop and Korean drama news and discussions. In the long run, the company aims to offer instant and legal ways to enjoy Korean videos, with a help from its parent Enswers’ patented video fingerprinting technology that tracks down pirated movies.

“Hallyu is definitely present, but to continue to make a profit, it requires a strong will and new technology. Enswers has a technology for copyright protection and legal content distribution,” said JP Lee, Soompi’s chief executive officer. “We are planning to introduce a digital content platform that is legal and is a win-win for both copyright holders and users.”

Lee said Soompi is constantly getting takeover approaches as a rising number of companies are getting interested in using the popularity of Korean pop culture to launch global businesses. is the latest website trying to replicate the success of Viki and Soompi by meshing Hallyu with digital technology.

The one-month-old beta test site aims to become a real-time translation tool for what Korean movie celebrities say on social networking sites and for globalizing Korean cartoons, lesser known on the international stage than Japan’s manga. Ahead of its official launch in November, it will also add features to link volunteer tour guides in South Korea and the K-pop fans flocking to the country, its co-founder said.

“Thanks to Hallyu, fans do real-time translations of what celebrities say on their Twitter. They are usually driven by the desire to help their idols,” said Lee Il-jae, a 29-year-old entrepreneur and one of Flitto’s four co-founders. “As their work spreads through Twitter, we garnered a significant number of users who do translations without marketing activities.”

Like Viki, Flitto will ultimately cater to broader audiences seeking instant online access to any foreign culture. It is still difficult for a small startup to find business opportunities with Hallyu per se because consumers of Korean content are usually young, Lee said. Flitto is already in talks with a major venture capital firm to raise funding.

With a drove of startups that facilitate the delivery of local content to the global stage, Hallyu is attracting many eager investors.

“We thought that South Korean pop culture wasn’t just a fad but that it will continually appeal to worldwide fans. The missing piece was a channel to effectively attract fans, publicize and monetize (Hallyu),” Lee Kang-joon, an executive director at Softbank Ventures Korea Inc. said, recalling a seed-funding of Soompi in 2010. Softbank Ventures Korea oversees a 110 billion won ($10 million) fund.

“Softbank views Hallyu as an attractive item for global businesses,” he said. 

(Yonhap News)