CEO Sung Woon Lee of ‘RevoSketch’, a startup company developing digital PCR technology to provide early cancer screening service

CEO Sung Woon Lee of RevoSketch, a company that help researchers to detect early cancer and other diseases by detecting genes, joined us today. CEO Lee is known to be a serial entrepreneur, because he started 4 new businesses. RevoSketch, the company he is currently at, utilizes a digital PCR technology to conquer cancer.

Let’s meet CEO Sung Woon Lee of RevoSketch!

Can you briefly introduce RevoSketch and yourself?

I am KAIST class of ’92 and majored in Electrical Engineering. RevoSketch is my 4th startup, followed by AKCRON(1994), Star V-ray(2000) and 3DISC(2007). All of the startups became M&As to American companies.

RevoSketch stands for Revolutionary Sketch, meaning that all innovative products are born from innovative sketches.

As an undergraduate, I was always interested in startups, and there was an IT startup boom at that time. In sophomore year, I participated in the KITSAT-3 project at the Satellite Technology Research Lab, and decided to start a business while I was working as the main designer for two of the thirteen payloads in the project. At that time, some professors said that students funded by the government should not be involved in businesses, and some supported startups. I was suggested to close the business, so I re-established the startup after I graduated.

Lee’s success was achieved by challenging himself to actually start a business beyond interests. The company name shows that Lee is trying to achieve innovation.

How did RevoSketch decide on this item as its startup product?

First of all, I have more than 20 years of technical experience in the bio and medical fields. In particular, I became experienced in global supply while operating FDA certification and overseas branches. At the time of preparing a startup, I interviewed many representatives of bio companies, researched global market reports, then decided that digital PCR technology could create the most innovative item.

RevoSketch consists of members with long experience in optics, electronics, software, mechanics, and bio. The currently developed and released item is based on High Speed Laser based Fluorescence Scanning technology. Since we have experience in supplying more than 2500 precision laser-based medical devices, we have the development ability and mass production capability to maintain quality from design to shipment to anywhere in the world.

So, PCR technology was selected based on various experiences and preliminary research. We look forward to RevoSketch and its excellent team.

Can you explain the product High Speed Laser based Fluorescence Scanning Technology in detail?

High Speed Laser Based Fluorescence Scanning is not the product itself, but a basis technology. It is used in Digital PCR and Microarray scanner products.

Fluorescence Scanning is a method of measuring the amount of fluorescence by using the principle that when excitation beams are irradiated and then lowered to the base state, they release emission beams. Fluorescence Scanning allows for many possible the technology of aggregating various types of laser excitation beams to 10um, the optical filter technology of reflecting light and transferring light emission to the detector, SiPhoton Multiplier (SiPM) technology, low noise analog front end technology, high speed ADC technology, and high speed digital transfer technology.

In other words, it is a technology that scans fluorescence in a small area of 10um at high speed and creates a 2-D fluorescence image. In the bio field, there are various ways to use fluorescent materials to detect genes or proteins. RevoSketch’s laser-based high-speed fluorescence scanning technology is useful for delicate detection of small amounts of genes or proteins.

You have many experience in startups, so what was the reason to start your own business? How did you overcome the difficulties?

In the 90s and early 200s, there weren’t many VCs investing in startups, so I had difficulty of developing services and products and raising funds at the same time. The startup ecosystem of startups at that time was very poor. Despite the weak environment, we continued to develop the technology and overcame the difficulties by receiving investment from foreign companies that recognized our technology.

As mentioned above, CEO Sung Woon Lee started a new business 4 times. He was interested in startups since college, and successfully started businesses through technology development. Despite the difficulties of startups, he continued to proceed and became an M&A for an American company.

How is the digital PCR device developed by RevoSketch unique from other digital PCR devices?

Traditional digital PCR devices are considered as the third generation, but I believe RevoSketch’s digital PCR technology is considered as the 3.5th generation. The biggest difference is that traditional digital PCR devices uses the end-point scan method which detects 1 signal after 40 separate gene amplifications, while RevoSketch uses a real-time scan method that detects signal after each amplification stage. In other words, it is a real-time digital PCR technology that can accurately determine whether the signal is caused by amplification by detecting signals at every stage.

The detected bulk data automatically determines whether the signal is positive or negative through RevoSketch’s own neural network AI algorithm, solving the chronic “Rain problem” of traditional digital PCR devices. As a result, we remove the high error rate of traditional end-point scan methods that rely on the position of the threshold that can go up to 17%.

This difference can be seen as a significant improvement in the performance of sensitive and accurate measurement of limited Bio-markers for early diagnosis of cancer or dementia.

RevoSketch’s technology is one step ahead of traditional digital PCR technology by performing real-time scans. It seems to have a great advantage with its own AI algorithm that could solve existing “rain problems” as well. RevoSketch’s technology will help to treat diseases like cancer in a timely manner through early screening.

Is it possible to diagnose diseases other than cancer early with RevoSketch’s technology? What is the principle and how is it operated?

Digital PCR technology is 1000 times more sensitive than the widely used 2nd generation real-time PCR technology. The principle of detection is the same with real-time PR in that it selectively amplifies target genes. To explain further, target bio-markers are determined through primers and samples that contain these bio-markers are heated to 95 degrees Celsius. Then, the double helix of DNA falls off into a single strand, and when the temperature is lowered to 55 degrees, primers attach to the part containing the bio-maker, from which Polymerase replicates. In other words, once the temperature is raised and lowered, the gene part containing the bio-marker is theoretically doubled. Repeating this process 40 times, it will be amplified to 2^40, which is 1 trillion times.

The reason for detection after amplification is because the amount of gene itself is too small, so the detector must have unfeasibly high level of sensitive. Thus, the strategy is to amplify the gene through polymerase. Digital PCR uses the method of separating detection samples into tens to hundreds of thousands of microreactors (Partitioning) and amplifying them independently. This dramatically improves sensitivity because it can improve the ratio of surrounding genes to target genes.

The current digital PCR can be used for any disease that detects genes, especially early diagnosis of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Thank you for the detailed explanation of the digital PCR technology. It seems possible for digital PCR technology to early diagnose all diseases through gene amplification and detection. Although it is difficult with current technologies, I hope the technology could lead to the development of treatments with the early diagnosis of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Developing digital PCR devices is expensive, so how is RevoSketch managing the cost?

We invest a lot in development, secure funds from investment from VCs, and also work on government projects to cover some of the costs.

Developing digital PCR technology is extremely difficult and requires a lot of time and work force, so we are developing other products that utilizes RevoSketch’s technology. One of which is a product that has finished registering as a medical device by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety been set in production and generating revenue since last year. If we start earning profit from sales, we can continue development without receiving investment and we plan on being listed once we meet the listing conditions.

Fortunately, government and VC investment have been lively compared to the past.  Using revenue from the sales of other medical devices to develop digital PCR technology is also a good method.

What is unique about RevoSketch compared to other biomarker companies?

RevoSketch is a bio company, but we are different from normal bio companies. RevoSketch develops bio technology based on engineering, enabling convergence collaboration with many existing bio companies. Existing bio companies have excellent bio technologies but rely on foreign devices or software.

One representative example of convergence cooperation that RevoSketch has been doing is developing an optimized device and software for the isothermal PCR corona kit developed by Seasun Biomaterials. We entered the market with this item, which is being introduced to Bioneer, Osang Healthcare, Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology and the Armed Forces Medical Research Institute. In addition, we are preparing a cloud server with the collected field data to expand our business to Big Data.

Cooperation between Korean companies is very important for K-bio to be properly established, and RevoSketch’s technology can actively support the weaknesses in engineering technologies of other Korean bio companies. Currently, there are more than 10 companies working with RevoSketch.

The cooperation of domestic bio companies is crucial to compete against global bio companies. It would be beneficial for RevoSketch to develop its technology through the collaboration with other bio companies and apply it to various medical devices. K-bio does not pale in comparison to foreign companies.

Daejeon is emerging as the center of bio healthcare companies. What is the reason behind this? How is this affecting RevoSketch?

Daejeon is the hub for startups developing innovative bio-technologies. RevoSketch is currently collaborating with Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology, KAIST National Nanofab Center, Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials, and the Korea Research Institute of Standards and Science, and more than 10 companies developing innovative bio contents in Daejeon. Daejeon is concentrated with a high level of bio and other technologies, so it seems like a melting pot for convergence of technology.

Daejeon is emerging as the center of bio healthcare. There are many science institutions as well as startups, and I hope K-bio gains more stature with the infrastructure from Daejeon.

One word to KAIST students who are interested in startups?

There is no business without hardships. The most fundamental element of business is courage and passion, and I hope KAIST alumni start businesses without courage and passion.

All pre-entrepreneurs hesitate to start a business with the fear of failure. The post of process of starting a business is very difficult and the probability of success is very low. As CEO Chung Ju-yung said, “There may be distress, but no such thing as failure”.

Those who have courage and challenge can reap the fruit. There is already a road ahead that seniors have paved, so KAIST students can follow the road.

What is RevoSketch’s ultimate goal?

I started RevoSketch to live until 500 years old. My goal is to contribute my abilities to solve the problem of death, which is probably the last homework for mankind. Of course, it is difficult to solve “death” with one technology, but humanity has doubled the life expectancy in the past 100 years, and the process will accelerate.

RevoSketch will do our best to contribute to the healthy life extension of mankind.

RevoSketch aims to solve diseases like cancer by developing digital PCR technology, the core of next-generation bio technology, and medical devices. The company reveals the startup experiences of the serial entrepreneur CEO Sung Woon Lee. CEO Lee’s 27-year experience and know-hows and the skillful team will continue to develop RevoSketch’s technology.

In the future, more diseases and unpredictable events may occur. In the midst, we hope RevoSketch’s technology will be able to predict and deal with such incidents. In addition, we hope that RevoSketch takes the lead in promoting K-bio by collaborating with various bio companies.

This was CEO Sung Woon Lee of RevoSketch.

[Startup Interview] CEO Changki Hong of “H2K”, a startup founded by two Ph.D.s students servicing a Hangul education application ‘Sojung Hangeul’

The company we will meet today is H2K, a company servicing an AI-based Hangul application called ‘Sojung Hangeul’ for children with dyslexia. H2K is progressing Korean phonics education by developing a sound-oriented Hangul education application. Let’s meet CEO Changki Hong of H2K, one of the two co-founders of H2K from KAIST.

Can you briefly introduce H2K and yourself?

H2K was co-founded by Changki Hong and Woo-Hyun Kim in June 2017. We decided to name the company H2K by taking the initials of our vision ‘Happiness To Kids’. We are currently servicing an AI-based personalized Hangul education service called ‘Sojung Hangul’.

As introduced earlier, H2K is a company founded by two KAIST Ph.D. students, servicing a Hangul application called ‘Sojung Hangul’. Like the meaning of the company name, H2K focuses on children and learning Hangul.

How did you select this item to start a business?

Before I met co-founder Woo-Hyun at school, I met him for the first time in 2008 at church. Thanks to the graduate program which lasted longer than expected, we decided to form a startup team after discussing that we wanted to do something socially meaningful. Since then, we endeavored to select an item that could bring out our major ‘AI and Big data’, and decided on our startup item with the help of CTO Jaesun Han of FuturePlay (currently the CEO of Ground X) who was our mentor during the 2016 E*5 KAIST program. The final item was a personalized Hangul education service for children with dyslexia. We thought that developing personalized solutions for dyslexic children in the blind spot of the current education system was a meaningful item that could also bring out our expertise.

H2K is also one of the early startup teams from the Startup KAIST student startup support program E*5. H2K’s current Hangul education service was chosen after discussions with mentors among many other startup items. It is amazing to find a partner who shares the same values. We believe the co-founders have come so far because they are like-minded.

‘Sojung Hangul’ targets children with dyslexia and children who are slow to learn Korean, which may be regarded as a niche market. Are there any difficulties in terms of profitability?

We thought that the problem in the Korean dyslexia market was serious, and it was important to solve the problem regardless of the size of the market. Although we started a company, we were more like researchers focusing on solving problems rather than the market. After receiving investment from the Social venture incubator Sopoong Ventures and going through the accelerating process, I then started to think seriously about expanding the target market.

From our initial target B2G market to the B2C market, and from the child dyslexia market where 5% of elementary students suffer dyslexia to a slow learner market of 20%, our service underwent multiple prototyping and beta tests and in 2018 Hangul day, we launched ‘Sojung Hangul’. Luckily, in 5 months we were selected as ‘Today’s app’ in App Store and in December we were selected as ‘Great App of the Year’. We became more familiar to the public, quickly expanding from our target of slow learners to all preschoolers of age 4 to 7.

I thought Hangul dyslexia was a problem for adults in the old days, but I never imagined it was still a problem. Especially, it is surprising that children also suffer from Hangul dyslexia. People who start a business try to solve and focus on problems that others cannot think of, which also applies to H2K. It seems that H2K has reached the Hangul phonics education after several pivots and tests from the child dyslexia market.

What are the advantages and characteristics of ‘Sojung Hangul’ compared to traditional worksheets used in Hangul education?

‘Sojung Hangul’’s artificial intelligence teachers combine the learning material and game contents to provide an optimal customized curriculum based on diagnostic results and the curriculum changes in real time depending on the child’s achievement. Recently, traditional worksheets switched to online, but the form of teacher visit learning has not changed. ‘Sojung Hangul’ is unique and appealing to customers in that children can learn without the help of parents and teachers.

The traditional education methods for Hangul include parents teaching their children directly or learning from worksheets of visiting teachers. However, it has now evolved beyond digital to artificial intelligence-based methods. Although worksheets have switched to online, teachers are still necessary. ‘Sojung Hangul’ replaces the role of visiting teachers with AI-based teachers to allow self-learning and provide interesting learning materials.

Normally, people learn Hangul visually rather than listening to the sound. H2K introduced phonics to Korean like in English education, but how is Hangul phonics different from English phonics?

Sojung Hangul is the first in Korea to teach Hangul through phonics. Phonics is known as an early English learning method in Korea, but it is actually a common method to teach letters by sound.

Hangul is a suitable language to apply phonics because the sound of consonants, vowels, and final consonant is clear. However, phonics was not mainstream in previous Hangul education because the teaching method is difficult and children can easily lose interest. All of Sojung Hangul’s contents consists of about 60 games that apply phonics. In other words, since we teach phonics through games, children can self-learn without losing interest. After Sojung Hangul, phonics is no longer a minority in Hangul education. Sojung Hangul is changing the market little by little!

Hangul phonics education is an unfamiliar concept to me. Come to think of it, Hangul is a language based on sounds, but it has been taught mainly by seeing and reading the letters. Sojung Hangul’s key characteristic is that it provides phonics education through games so children can learn by themselves and enjoy.

For the one-to-one customized AI curriculum, how is H2K expanding the business model to educational institutions such as kindergartens and private institutes besides B2C, and operating the B2B service?

We are planning to release an elementary school version of Sojung Hangul – ‘Sojung Hangul School’ – in the second half of this year. Sojung Hangul is already utilized in more than 30 elementary institutions, and planning on dominating the B2G Hangul market with ‘Sojung Hangul School’, which includes a web dashboard for teachers. In addition, we are building business models for partnership with language development centers and private academies.

So H2K is expanding into a B2G business instead of B2B. If Sojung Hangul is distributed to educational institutions, it will be a great help in Hangul education. The combination of Sojung Hangul and teachers is expected to have a synergy effect that will increase the quality of education. We hope Sojung Hangul’s contents are well-utilized with various partnerships with educational institutions.

What were some difficulties while starting a business and how did you overcome them?

In fact, most of the moments after starting H2K were not easy. Most of the problems were due to the insufficient resources as a startup. In the beginning, securing funds were difficult, but now it is not easy to secure staff members.

The most difficult moment was the first half of 2018. At that time, our balance was hitting the bottom, and it was difficult to persuade investors with an idea and prototype. I was desperate at every presentation. When I received the results of being selected for a large scale government support project, I remember shouting of joy and relief with my team members.

It seems like a common problem that all entrepreneurs face. It must have been difficult to challenge with items and technologies at a stage without enough funds, but the startup ecosystem has been able to develop because of the respectful entrepreneurs challenging to solve problems in the society. Also, the problem of the lack of team members is also not easy, but it will soon be solved once people learn about H2K’s charms. It would be nice if H2K participates in the Startup-ting at Startup KAIST as well.

What is the next service H2K is preparing?

In the short term, we are preparing ‘Sojung Hangul School’, and in the mid/long term we are preparing an English education service. We received requests for both services from the customers’ side, so demand has already been verified. With our team who created a No. 1 service in a short period of time, we expect to create a satisfying service for both ‘Sojung Hangul School’ and the English education service.

Beyond Hangul education, H2K is expanding into a general language education service. With the success of Sojung Hangul, we expect that the English education service will be successful and distinct from other companies.

What is H2K’s ultimate goal?

If all children are able to easily read, write, and speak Korean through Sojung Hangul, we will have achieved our initial goal. Eventually, we want to be remembered as a company giving children the joy of learning.

Giving children the joy of learning is a wonderful expression. H2K is a company founded by two robot Ph.D. students. Although at first it was a niche market targeting children with dyslexia, it has opened a new market to Hangul phonics education. Sojung Hangul opened the horizon that phonics education is possible for Hangul like English. ‘Sojung Hangul’ allows children to learn by themselves and enjoy through games. It has also been introduced as one of the ‘2019 App of the year’ in Apple’s App store. We hope H2K grows into a larger language education service company by solving the problems of dyslexia and also cooperating with other educational institutions.

This was CEO Changki Hong of H2K.

[Startup Interview] CTO Tae-Ho Kim of “Nota”, an On-device AI company based on deep learning model compression technology

Today we will meet CTO Tae-Ho Kim of Nota, a company with a motto of creating a convenient world using AI.

The AI model compression technology developed by Nota supports a variety of products, and is cost and time-efficient for product and service development. Through an automatic AI compression platform called NetsPresso, Nota expands into a business utilizing AI and compression solutions. Let’s meet CTO Tae-Ho Kim of Nota!

Can you briefly introduce Nota?

Hello, Nota develops and researches deep learning model compression technologies to help other companies use their AI models more efficiently. We help minimize costs for customers with AI models on servers, and enable customers operating AI models on edges to use cheaper but higher performance models on the same edge. We also develop compression AI models such as face authentication and vehicle detection.

Deep learning compression technology for AI operated on edges like smartphones and drones will help efficient operation on other devices as well. Using Nota’s technology, compression technology that does not rely on high-performance servers will reduce costs in various aspects.

Why did Nota decide on this item as its startup product?

We initially did not start with this specific item. Our first startup item was an AI solution on smartphone soft keyboards that helps reduce typos. During the solution development process, we realized the difficulty of running AI on devices, and decided to pivot to solve the chronic issue of heavy AI models.

Although the item is different, it seems to be still based on AI. Nota is one of the early startup teams from the student startup audition program E*5. Since then, Nota has drawn a blueprint for artificial intelligence, which has led to the current AI deep learning model compression technology!

Recently, the number of AI companies is increasing. What is unique about Nota, and what advantages does the company have?

First, I believe that most AI companies develop AI solutions in specific fields. Nota has these AI companies as customers and help them streamline AI models through our AI compression technology. As the demand and solution for AI increase, the experience of Nota and our platform NetsPresso will help people wanting to apply AI in the real world.

Unlike other companies that develop AI solutions, Nota collaborates with other companies, pursues efficiency of AI models, and develops an automated AI model compression platform called NetsPresso.

Can you explain more about Nota’s automated AI model compression platform ‘NetsPresso’?

NetsPresso is an automated deep learning model compression platform. If users input their deep learning model, NetsPresso compresses the input model into a lighter model. NetsPresso receives AI models, datasets, target HW, and the customers’ requirements as the input.

NetsPresso consists largely of a compression technology pool, device pool, optimization algorithms, and compression pipelines. A compression technology pool includes various compression technologies like Network Pruning and Quantization, and other technologies that Nota is developing. NetsPresso selects various compression technologies in the pool to an input model, and the optimization algorithms decide how and which compression technology to use. When the algorithm determines the technologies, it chooses the optimal combination of compression technologies to the target HW inputted by the customer. Then, the device pool builds the model onto the connected target HW and measures the performance in that HW.

NetsPresso can solve the problems of heavy AI models and computations customers face, and reduce costs to customers. NetsPresso aims to deliver realistic values such as enabling AI on-devices.

NetsPresso is the optimized platform to apply compression technologies to AI devices. It can solve existing problems and increase efficiency by applying various compression technologies to input models through optimization algorithms. With NetsPresso, anyone can easily and cheaply compress AI models, which explains why any companies, including domestic large corporations, form partnerships with Nota.

What does Nota wish to establish through AI model compression and on-device AI solutions?

AI’s capabilities and growth are explosive, but there are many barriers until AI completely integrates with our lives, the main reason being the heavy size and computations of AI models. Through AI model compression and on-device AI solutions, we want AI to have positive effects on our lives.

AI’s growth rate is extremely fast and dynamic. In the midst, there are still challenges to be solved, but we expect NetsPresso to solve compression technology issues and reduce the time and costs involved.

What are the difficulties in compressing AI models, how does Nota overcome them?

AI models are extremely large and has a lot of computations. To compress AI models, there are various methods such as Network Pruning, Quantization, Knowledge Distillation, and Filter Decomposition. Each technique is mainly studied in academia. Thus, to utilize these techniques in the industry for compression, a deep understanding of the model and know-hows of appropriately utilizing techniques depending on the given model and dataset are required. NetsPresso is an automated compression platform that helps effectively compress models, which was previously done by humans. As I explained about NetsPresso earlier, NetsPresso can automate the compression process and make it easier and more effective.

Compressing AI model sounds like a difficult task. Nevertheless, Nota succeeded in developing an automated platform, NetsPresso, that has replaced human work, making the compression process more convenient.

Nota is known to collaborate with other companies. What kind of collaborations are there and how is Nota’s technology being used?

Nota’s business areas can be divided into three main categories – the compression business, face authentication solution, and an intelligent transportation system business that uses compressed solutions. For businesses that uses compression technologies, we collaborate with companies that already have AI models or are planning on commercialization through AI models. For example, a company that uses AI models on edge devices such as drones or AI cameras can use lighter equipment and more camera channels through AI model compression. In addition, we collaborate with companies that use cloud servers to service AI to help reduce the cloud GPU usage.

Other than compression businesses, we also provide solutions using compression technologies. Our face authentication solution helps manage entrance to construction sites, and buildings. You can check out more collaboration businesses through the link below.

It seems that Nota’s technology is competitive enough without the collaboration with other companies. We can see that compression technologies can be utilized in many businesses, and is already widely used. Nota’s technology has positive impact on our lives, including reducing traffic jams. (Please click the link above to see how the technology is used in the real world)

There must be a change in the environment since Nota first prepared to start a business. What are some differences, and what advice can you give to KAIST students who want to start a business?

Nota was established in 2015. As a graduate student, I focused on research, but I saw that the numerous research, including mine, was limited to academia. I wanted to directly solve the problems in society and decided to start a business. During the startup process, we experienced difficulties while pivoting, but overcame them with support of team members and the thought that we could still solve the problems in the society. When you are experiencing hardships during the startup process, remember why you started this journey.

It’s been a while since Nota first started the business. The success of Nota lies in the potential in AI and the team members. Unlike other AI companies, Nota went through pivoting, but successfully created an automated AI model compression platform. Paying attention to what the society and world needs is a good starting point in starting a business!

What is Nota’s ultimate goal and vision?

There is a huge difference between life 10 years ago and life today. I believe there will be a big difference in life today and 10 years from now as well. In an era of explosive growth in artificial intelligence, impacting people through technology is touching. When AI is projected into our lives and society and causes various changes, I want to solve the problem of size and computation of models that become barriers to these changes. Through this, I wish AI enriches people’s lives.

Who knew that the AI era would come so rapidly? Just two years ago, no one expected COVID-19 to invade our lives. When AI was first introduced, people thought that AI could danger our lives, but now there isn’t a device that does not use AI. In this era of AI, the company Nota not only provides AI solutions but also develops AI model compression technology that can help these solutions. With its groundbreaking AI model compression technology, Nota is attracting attention around the world and has also been introduced at CES 2020 as well as CES 2021. We look forward to the prospective work of Nota.

This was CTO Tae-Ho Kim of Nota.

[Startup Interview] CEO of Waddle, a startup developing ‘Sori Market’, an AI-based barrier-free shopping platform for blind people, Jihyuk Park

Today we will meet the CEO Jihyuk Park of Waddle, a student startup awarded with the special prize in the 12th E*5 KAIST.

Waddle develops ‘Sori Market’ that converts image data into audio so blind people can also shop online. Let’s meet CEO Jihyuk Park of Waddle!

Can you briefly introduce Waddle and yourself?

Hello, I am Jihyuk Park, the founder of Waddle, a startup that illuminates the blind spots of technology innovation.

Waddle started as a KAIST student startup team in 2018 to reduce the digital gap of blind people, and launched ‘Sori Market’, a barrier-free shopping platform that resolves the accessibility problems of existing shopping malls using AI. Currently, Waddle is researching an audio-based and more intuitive interface that benefits everyone.

Buying items with sound. A sound market for blind people sounds very unique! Let’s hear more about it.

Waddle develops technology for the digitally underprivileged. How did Waddle decide on this item as its startup product, and what made you interested in creating a technology for the blind?

When I was a junior in High School, I wanted to create a wearable robot like Iron Man and entered the Mechanical Engineering department at KAIST to research rehabilitation robots. I felt that technology is an area that can completely change someone’s life, and have been developing and researching disability aids for the past seven years.

I became interested in the problems that the blind face after I entered college, when I interned at a domestic startup developing braille smartwatches and met a blind customer, who became my friend. He had no problem in daily life, like eating or going to the bathroom, but had difficulty using simple features of smartphones, which made me reflect on the digital gap.

Before this digital gap became more serious, I thought about what I could do and started the team Waddle. I gathered team members who were also interested in the problem and worked together, which eventually led to starting a business.

So, Waddle’s item is based on CEO Park’s first-hand experience. It is easy to disregard a problem, but it seems like CEO Park’s passion and research to resolve the digital gap led to starting Waddle. In addition, it must have been a difficult decision considering the profits of the startup, but the consideration for the underprivileged makes Waddle special.

Compared to the existing screen readers of other startups for the blind, what is ‘Sori Market’s uniqueness and advantages?

Blind people can use smartphones using screen readers that reads the text on smartphones like VoiceOver in iPhones and TalkBack in Androids.

However, these screen readers can only read texts, and cannot read text within images or non-texts, which is problematic because most domestic online shopping malls include details of a product in an image file. Existing screen readers can only read limited information like the name and price of the product. However, Waddle’s Sori Market can extract text using OCR and post-processing technology to read text information in product images.

In addition, to solve the accessibility problem of existing payment modules that wouldn’t allow screen readers due to security programs, Sori Market supports a highly accessible in-app payment system and a review sharing community ‘Sori Village’ that allows sharing of reviews between blind users. This allows the blind to shop online independently without other people’s help.

I was not even aware of the existence of screen readers in smartphones. It seems like there is a limit to the existing screen readers, making it difficult for the blind to obtain detailed information. Sori Market opens the way for the blind to shop independently. We hope more companies and brands join Sori Market.

There might be a limit to delivering image information through sound. How does Waddle overcome these limits?

Currently, it is difficult to deliver non-text information like the color or texture of the product because of the limit in current technology. In addition, screen readers cannot deliver the size, font, position of the text in the image, so it makes it difficult for the blind to understand the context.

Thus, Sori Market was not developed to simply deliver the text in images, but focused on accurately delivering the information. Sori Market was designed for users to easily and quickly access the desired data by grouping text based on the paragraph composition and context, filtering unnecessary information, and classifying to which title a text belongs.

In addition, we research AI engines that extract the characteristics of products to guide non-textual information such as color or texture, and provide optimized speech interfaces.

Focusing on delivering the product accurately would be more beneficial to the blind. From the perspective of receiving information, it is more convenient to filter unnecessary information to purchase products. In particular, it is not easy for the blind to perceive information and also go through the payment process, but Sori Market will become a strong advantage. Continuously communicating through reviews and supplementing the interface will lead to a better service in the future.

Waddle is a technology-based startup as well as a social enterprise. Since Waddle targets a specific audience, there may be difficulties in profit aspects. Is there a strategy to strike a balance between the two?

Starting with the digital gap problem that blind people face, Waddle will continue to research and develop intuitive UXs that can embrace all the digitally underprivileged who are not used to the online environment. We will expand our business so more and more people will be able to use Waddle’s service. In addition, the technologies and services that help those who cannot easily use innovative technology will surely become helpful for everyone, and in this process profit will naturally follow. To achieve this vision, Waddle is developing intuitive voice interface solutions based on AI technology, and will prove that technology for the underprivileged can benefit everyone.

In the current digital era, everyone should benefit from technology, but there are surprisingly a lot of people who are underprivileged. Waddle is transforming the technology for the underprivileged using AI technology. As CEO Park said, we hope Waddle’s service develops and expands to the global market, becoming more available to everyone.

The Waddle team participated in E*5 KAIST, and also participated in another company’s venture program. What are some differences between programs by schools and companies? How can we improve startup support programs like E*5 KAIST?

Waddle participated in 2018 Spring E*5 KAIST and also won an award. I remember creating a team and quickly selecting the startup item to participate in the program. At that time, I didn’t know much about startups, but E*5 KAIST was an opportunity to learn about the customer discovery phase and how to create a service. The program was a valuable opportunity to receive support as an early startup team, such as office space in W8 (Startup KAIST), networking with startup seniors, and MVP production through Idea Factory.

The biggest advantage and difference of participating in programs by large companies or institutions after officially launching the service are the infrastructure they provide, like huge financial support and independent space. In addition, we receive support for business expansion and commercialization opportunities, such as investment attraction, scale-up, and legal advices.

In my opinion, rather than improving E*5 KAIST, I would like to tell people that startup teams can first participate in school startup support programs to gain basic knowledge and experience, then participate in programs by large companies or institutions to officially expand the business.

E*5 KAIST is the easiest way for undergraduates to try out startups. Startup support programs by companies is an opportunity for startup teams to scale-up after growing with school startup programs. If you are interested in startups, it is a good idea to first participate in school programs, then challenge in large-scale company startup support programs.

Waddle recently moved the office from Daejeon to Seoul. What are some advantages?

The headquarters is still located in Daejeon, and Waddle continues to interact with KAIST, startup-related institutions, and other Daejeon-based startups. We recently had an opportunity to move-in to a shared office in Seoul, and now most members work in Seoul. One of the advantages of moving to Seoul is that we became closer to other companies, startup institutions, and investment companies, and there are more opportunities for networking. In addition, we can meet many startups at similar stages to share and give advice on business ideas.

Having two offices in Daejeon and Seoul allows more opportunities for networking, and makes travelling easier! This sounds like a beneficial for entrepreneurs to work more efficiently.

What is Waddle’s next goal and future development item?

Waddle’s next goal is to develop an audio interface and related AI technology based on Sori Market to create a voice shopping platforms for all digitally underprivileged, such as the blind, the elderly, and people with development disabilities. Using the data accumulated on Sori Market, such as the review sharing community ‘Review Village’, we hope to develop a service that allows convenient search, curation, customer service, and payment through audio.

What is Waddle’s ultimate goal?

Waddle’s mission is to make technology more available to people, and create a technology that can benefit everyone. Starting with an online shopping platform ‘Sori Market’ for the blind, we will grow into a company that continuously develops audio-based inclusive designs and related AI technology to provide various audio interface solutions.

Waddle dreams of a digital world where everyone can enjoy and use technology easily. We look forward to contributing to this through Waddle’s intuitive audio interface.

Waddle develops technology that targets the digitally underprivileged as customers. Sori Market, an online shopping platform that uses machine learning to read details of products, allows for the blind to enjoy online shopping independently. We believe Waddle will reduce the digital gap between the underprivileged and the general public. For everyone to benefit from technology like Waddle’s ultimate goal, more companies like Waddle must arise. We support and look forward to Waddle’s global voice shopping platform!

This was CEO Jihyuk Park of Waddle.

[Startup Interview] CEO Gwak Kiuk of “bHaptics”, a CES2021 recognized company developing VR/AR haptic suits, TactSuit

The company we will meet today is bHaptics, the company who won the ‘CES 2021 Innovation Award’ for its haptic suit called Tactsuit X40 at CES 2021. bHaptics innovated the VR industry after developing the next generation haptic suit by combining VR and the sense of touch, and is well-known abroad.

Let’s meet CEO Gwak Kiuk of bHaptics!

Can you briefly introduce bHaptics?

Hello, we are bHaptics, a company creating a world where reproducing and delivering not only the visual and auditory but also tactile sensations is possible. Our vision is “Bring Haptics to Your Life”, and our goal is to commercialize the haptic technology HW/SW research and development to the B2C level so that our devices and services can be used in everyday life around the world.

Delivering tactile sensations remotely is thinking outside the box! Developing both hardware and software haptic technology is one of the strengths of bHaptics as well.

How did bHaptics decide on this item as the startup product?

One of the fields I was researching during my Ph.D. was Haptic, and the prospects of VR after Facebook acquired Oculus in 2015 was a big reason as well. However, the main reason was my recklessness because I was not aware of how difficult and frightening starting a business was.

Out of the various items we considered, Haptic devices were the most unfamiliar to the public and should be developed overseas rather than in Korea. The market we could refer to for devices and services was also unclear. And yet, I thought if we make a new device that people can use, we could directly contribute to the development of the world as engineers. Although it will be difficult, let’s try while we’re young!

I believe there was a prospect that the VR market will become active in 2015 but the hype went down. Recently, more customers are looking for VR due to COVID-19, and the interest in VR/AR markets increased as VR-related programs aired on TV. We look forward to bHaptics contributions to the VR market.

The haptics field is not familiar. Can you explain about the field?

Haptics is delivering information from machine to human, or human to machine through sensations of touch. For example, moving chairs in 4D movie theaters is a haptic feedback device. If we can also send an emoticon in KakaoTalk that also delivers vibrations, this is also a haptic feedback.

In the case of audio and visual sensations, this information can be stored and delivered to a level that is similar to what people actually see and hear through cameras, microphones, monitors and speakers. However, there is a lack of research on touch sensation, and haptic devices and applications have not been commercialized yet.

bHaptics’s device will have more demand because it is not a simple VR device, but a haptic suit that allows users to detect touch sensations. People usually consider visual and auditory sensations, but overlook touch. However, more research on haptic needs to be done. The challenge of bHaptics on haptics will broaden the understanding of the field.

What is unique about bHaptics TactSuit from existing haptic suits?

Our Tactsuit may not be very different from existing haptic suits because they have not been commercialized yet. However previously, 2~6 complicated and expensive vibration motors were attached to the front and back of the suit to create vibration waveforms with audio signals. Our TactSuit uses 40 relatively cheaper vibration motors that significantly improves spatial resolution and that detects not only audio signals, but also other digital signals using Bluetooth.

Through this change, TactSuit evolved not into am independently operating hardware, but a platform that adjusts to the software controlling it.

People who are not interested in this field are probably unaware of haptic suits. To summarize, existing haptic suits were more complex and expensive in the past, but bHaptics’ TactSuit can be controlled by Bluetooth and increased variability. The biggest advantage of TactSuit is the ability to adapt to various software.

bHaptics recently won the innovation award for TactSuit X40. What are some distinctions of TactSuit, and what has changed since receiving the award?

I believe TactSuit X40 was awarded the innovation award not only because of the innovation in hardware, but also for its compatibility with various software.

Our greatest strength is that our device is easily compatible with various contents due to our SDK. We are working hard to integrate our device with more contents through various software support such as an editor that easily creates spatial and temporal patterns using 40 vibration motors, visual scripting-based plugins that can be applied to various game engines, audio-to-haptic algorithms that transforms real-time sound content output into haptic patterns.

The connection and integration between software and hardware is becoming more important recently. As CEO Gwak mentioned, TactSuit itself is a hardware, but won the innovation award at CES 2021 due to its high compatibility with various software. We believe the compatibility to various contents and game engines became a positive factor.

bHaptics is more well-known abroad, and overseas revenue is the main sales. What are some ways to increase revenue in the domestic market?

There were many attempts but VR has not been commercialized yet in Korea. bHaptics is planning to launch consoles, and PC games along with VR. Although it will be difficult to overcome the difference between the overseas and domestic market and the number of customers, we believe the number of domestic customers will increase as we expand our contents and platform. Especially in Korea and China, we are considering connecting our devices to PC games and renting devices in PC rooms. We will be able to speed this process once COVID-19 is over.

Renting devices in PC rooms seems like the best way to promote, but the COVID-19 situation is rather unfortunate. It is also difficult to commercialize products because of the price. Nevertheless, we expect the VR industry will boom if VR game YouTubers and VR devices become more well-known.

There aren’t many hardware startups in Korea, and it is difficult to succeed as one. How did bHaptics overcome these difficulties, and how should hardware startups proceed?

All startups are difficult, but starting a hardware startup is more difficult than starting a software startup because of the lack thereof.

It is ambiguous whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage, but Korea is more of a manufacturing powerhouse. Starting a business in Korea has clear advantages than starting in the U.S./Europe with the same idea, in terms of hardware manufacturing. I didn’t know this when I first started the business, but it was really helpful to rule out competitors. In addition, hardware startups are more funded by the government.

Thus, if you want to start a hardware startup, I want to say that the domestic is not a bad option. The current software boom is a result of the smartphone hardware, so I hope more hardware startups arise.

However, in order to gain competitiveness, it is essential to note that not only hardware but also software must be differentiated from other companies. The hardware itself must be compelling, but there should be an extra barrier of software that can’t be overcome by others. In addition, the hardware will be more competitive if it can acquire and utilize data of users that can only be done at the hardware level. The essence is a hardware startup, but the company should internalize hardware design and planning, manufacture with domestic partners, and build software capabilities equivalent to software startups.

It may be difficult to start a hardware startup because there aren’t many hardware startups in Korea, but this can become an advantage. Utilizing government funding for hardware startups and gaining competitiveness will help become a secure company. bHaptics successfully gained its competitive edge, and is becoming well-known and secure abroad and in Korea as well. In addition, it is important to accompany software and hardware.

Can you give a word to KAIST students interested in starting a business?

To be honest, I thought 3 years would be enough to see the end of this business when I first started. It took me long to realize and accept how naïve I was back then. There are many other instances where expectations differ from reality. To overcome and survive these, one must have a set goal to hypnotize himself. Starting one thing is easy, but it is difficult to maintain. If you can survive and persist, time and world will give you an opportunity one day. It may be a long and difficult journey, but I suggest startups to those who want to contribute to the world. You can do it!

Beginning something is difficult, but ending it is another process. However, there is a means and end only if there is a start! Because bHaptics started a challenge, we were able to promote the field of Haptics and be recognized in CES2021. If you are hesitant on starting a business, I recommend trying it.

What is bHaptics’ next and ultimate goal?

We will continue to develop our haptic devices and software to deliver not only audio-visual but also tactile senses remotely to everyone around the world. In the short-term, we will develop various software services that can bring users to one interface and develop new devices. In the long term, this will become a standard in touch sensation delivery, which is important in the metabus era.

With the expansion of the VR market, bHaptics will become more influential in the market. Already well-known abroad, there will be more domestic customers looking for haptic suits, and the expansion to PC and console fields will create an environment where VR can be enjoyed with simplified haptics suits. The smooth integration of hardware and software will allow more realistic haptic sensations and lead to development of new devices. We look forward to bHaptics playing a pivotal role in the metabus era and open a new horizon for VR.

This was CEO Gwak Kiuk of bHaptics!

[Startup Interview] CEO Changhak Yeon of “Block Odyssey”, a company developing an integrated logistics platform using blockchain, data, and unique QR code technology

After graduating K-School and creating a Student Startup, CEO Changhak Yeon of Block Odyssey wishes to establish a Startup Learning Center to support startups by the younger generation. Block Odyssey is a logistics blockchain startup that develops the ‘Digital Signature Inserting QR Code’ technology to safely share data and creates an integrated logistics platform.

Let’s meet CEO Yeon of Block Odyssey!

Can you briefly introduce Block Odyssey?

Hello, we are Block Odyssey, a company building a logistics blockchain infrastructure. I started the company in 2017 Winter with 4 colleagues to innovate the logistics process through blockchain technology. We can bring various values by innovating the logistics process using blockchains, and the project we are focusing on is the “authentication solution”. This solution is becoming more widely used in areas like SCM solution and second-hand market solutions.

Authentication solutions can detect fake imported goods from China. Since fake products are prevalent in foreign markets, if the solution can detect such products at the logistics level, it will be able to prevent the activation of faked goods market.

Authentication solutions can detect fake imported goods from China. Since fake products are prevalent in foreign markets, if the solution can detect such products at the logistics level, it will be able to prevent the activation of faked goods market.

Our initial startup product was a completely different item from now. We were originally preparing pet-related item to resolve distorted information in the pet market. After looking for technology to overcome markets full of distorted information, we learned about blockchain technology and decided to utilize it in our business. While we were preparing the business, Initial Coin Offering (ICO) was a hot issue, so we prepared to issue tokens. As we researched blockchains more deeply, we decided not to proceed with ICO, and thought of businesses that does not utilize cribs, which was logistics. In addition, based on my experience with NFC-based authentication solution, I started this business with confidence that I could combine blockchain and QR code to create a more secure and cheaper authentication solution.

So this is an item that came up while looking for a business based on blockchain technology. Working experience comes handy when starting a business.

What is the difference between existing QR codes and Block Odyssey’s digital signature QR codes?

QR codes have recently been widely used to authenticate products and check information at distribution sites. Anyone can easily scan QR codes, but the low security that comes with it is a big disadvantage. To overcome this disadvantage, separate encryption or digital signature technology must be applied. However, applying encryption and digital signatures greatly increases the data capacity of QR codes. If digital signatures are applied to existing QR codes, standard QR code readers cannot read the codes, so a separate dedicated QR scanner is required. Block Odyssey solved this problem by developing a unique QR code with compression and encoding technology. Block Odyssey’s unique QR codes can also be read by standard QR scanners. Furthermore, scanning QR codes with our application will also show encrypted information, so we are using this as a marketing tool to induce app downloads.

Block Odyssey’s QR codes seem much more secure than existing QR codes! Is the exclusive QR scanner provided by Block Odyssey? Can we see the application developed by Block Odyssey?

An exclusive scanner can be used or QR code scanning feature can be implemented in each company’s application. Even when scanning the same QR code, different activities will be available for different applications. For example, if company A issues a QR code, customers who scan using a standard QR code scanner (e.g. Naver, Kakao) will only be able to see basic information like “This product is an original”. If customers want to get points or want to extend the A/S period, then they are encouraged to download the specific company’s application.

There are many fields that apply blockchain technology. Why did you specifically choose the distribution and logistics field, and what are some examples using the blockchain technology in the field?

As a person in the blockchain industry, I do not deny Crypto, but I thought issuing Crypto in the absence of solutions and a token ecosystem was against my belief. I first decided to create a blockchain-based solution, and to do this, a private blockchain that only authorized people can write and verify seemed more interesting than public blockchains. Since the logistics industry needed the sharing and connection of data between companies the most, we naturally selected the distribution and logistics sectors to start the business. Although logistics blockchain is at the beginning stage in Korea, various experiments and developments using blockchains are being carried out overseas, including the “TradeLens” project by IBM and Maersk, and the “Aura” project by LVMH and Microsoft.

Security seems to emerge as the main issue in the logistics field. Since overseas companies deal with security using blockchains, Korean companies should also do so. We hope domestic startups like Block Odyssey deal with security and leads the logistics sector.

How can blockchain technology provide open innovation on data sharing, when it is so highly secure? What will be the impact on the market in the future?

Data is the core of the fourth industrial revolution in the 21st century. Many companies are attempting digital transformation to make data-based decisions, and have been developing IoT and AI technology to collect and process data. However, large platform companies are monopolizing data, and the data gap between rich and poor phenomenon is accelerating. To compete with large companies, data exchange through collaboration between companies is necessary. The problem is that there was no reliable means for companies to share each other’s data. Blockchain is the most appropriate platform to solve this problem. Blockchain technology provides transparent data sharing and reward distribution. Through this technology, many companies will form alliances and joint business, which will be the opportunity to challenge large, powerful platforms.

In a data flooding era, the sharing of data seems to be important. If blockchains strengthens the security, it will lead to an Open Innovation where companies can safely and reliably share data. We hope Block Odyssey becomes the center and lead the collaboration processes in the logistics sector.

Block Odyssey currently mainly deals with B2B business. Do you have any plans to use this technology in the B2C field? If so, how will you implement it?

Block Odyssey’s blockchain logistics business endeavored to innovate the process from product manufacturing to consumer purchases. Now, we are trying to innovate the consumer-to-consumer transactions (secondhand) using blockchains. We are working to innovate the secondhand business using Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) technology.

I never thought of utilizing blockchains in the secondhand market. Secondhand markets like ‘Carrot market’ are growing, and introducing blockchains might become complicated for consumers. A clear and safe system seems necessary for customers.

Blockchains is a hot issue worldwide. How is Block Odyssey’s blockchain technology different from others?

Existing logistics blockchain startups have mainly been using “Hyperleisure Fabric”, but this was considered inappropriate in logistics. On the other hand, Block Odyssey uses the new “Hyperledger Sawtooth”, which is more appropriate for the logistics platform. Sawtooth is a blockchain specialized for logistics/distribution led by Intel and Salesforce, and is a framework that enables infinite node expansion with speed. Block Odyssey is the only Korean company that has succeeded in commercializing Hyperledger sawtooth, and we have been recognized for our technology on the official website of Hyperledge, the world’s largest blockchain foundation.

Blockchains have been used in the logistics sector, but with a limit to the existing technology. The new blockchain technology Sawtooth developed by Block Odyssey seems more appropriate for logistics and distribution. We look forward to the commercialization of the Sawtooth technology in Korea. We hope Block Odyssey’s technology becomes widely used in the logistics industry.

What is the next item Block Odyssey is planning or developing?

Block Odyssey’s next goal is the finance field, such as the meat mortgage market. Meat importers trade hundreds of billions of units per import. As a result, meat collateral loans are not reliable due to frequent frauds, such as changing the manufactured place or deceiving the meat grades. To solve this problem, Block Odyssey is developing a reliable solution by putting small cameras and IoT chips in meat import containers to record the status and distribution stage of meat in blockchains. We are also developing a solution that can predict changes in meat in real-time with other AI startups, and plan to release this solution in the second half of 2021.

Using blockchains in the meat industry is very unique! Blockchains and IoT will be able to prevent fraud, and customers will be more relieved. Working with other AI startups will also affect the startup ecosystem. We hope the technology you mentioned prevents illegal distribution and preserves meat conditions for the customers.

You mentioned building a startup learning center at KAIST. Do you have any words to KAIST students?

Starting a business is hard and difficult. However, many people say that the next 10 years will be the peak season for startups. Traditional large corporations like Samsung and Hyundai, and new IT corporations like Naver, and Kakao are actively investing as well as cooperating with startups. More than 7 trillion won in venture funds are being invested in startups. In addition, there are many excellent government funded startup support programs like TIPS. If you are willing to express full potential and capabilities, there are many support and opportunities from the government, other businesses, and seniors. Challenge yourself with courage and confidence!

I hope many students become more interested in starting a business after reading this interview. In the future, startups, not large corporations, will impact and create a new world. In Korea as CEO Yeon mentioned, large corporations are investing in startups, and KAIST as well is investing in startup activation. Startup KAIST programs are only available when you are a student, so keep in mind!

What is Block Odyssey’s ultimate goal?

We want to organize the standard logistics blockchain in Korea. Realistically, I don’t think a single blockchain platform can govern the world’s logistics data. The logistics process and ecosystem in each country is different, so blockchain platforms representing each country will emerge. The data exchange between these blockchain platforms will become important in distribution and logistics between countries. Although are currently a small startup, we will develop into a logistics blockchain platform representing Korea, work with global logistics operators like Amazon, Alibaba, Rakuten, and also grow into a company that provides reliable data exchange in global trade.

Block Odyssey creates a logistics platform using new blockchain technology to improve the distribution and logistics process. Block Odyssey’s unique digital signature QR code technology will prevent fraud and guarantee safety in the logistics sector. We hope the company becomes the bridgehead to prevent forgeries and financial frauds in the current data era. We also look forward to CEO Yeon’s startup learning center at KAIST and his influence on younger students interested in startups.

This was CEO Changhak Yeon of “Block Odyssey”!

[Startup Interview] Professor Young Seok Ju of ‘GENOMEinSIGHT’, a company of experts in cancer genome and whole-genome fields

Today we will meet a ‘GENOMEinSIGHT’, a faculty startup started by Professor Young Seok Ju.

GENOMEinSIGHT is a whole-genome big data company that was created by Professor Young Seok Ju, well-known in the cancer genome and whole-genome fields, in the KAIST Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering. Professor Ju is opening the path for using genetic big data in the development of new drugs.

Can you briefly introduce GENOMEinSIGHT?

GENOMEinSIGHT was established to contribute to the SMART drug development and precision medical care for cancer and rare disease patients by expanding the capabilities to analyze and interpret genomic big data accurately. The whole-genome sequencing (WGS) that my team and I have been developing and experience became the base for our data analysis technology. The company was established in January 2020, and we have 15 people working together as a team.

Hearing this makes GENOMEinSIGHT, which is based on whole-genome sequencing and data analysis technology, more interesting!

Why did you decide on this technology as the startup item?

I always believed our technology is globally at the top level. In 2009, the Korean whole-genome research that I participated in was published in Nature, and in 2019, a research about the mutational history of lung whole-genome conducted at the KAIST GSMSE lab was published in Cell. Our technology can revolutionize the medical science field, because it traces genes, the most fundamental material of life phenomena, at once. However, this technology needs to become more standardized and scaled-up system to be freely used in hospitals and industrial sites to create real products. This is difficult to realize and it is hard to match the demand and speed at the laboratory level. Demand from hospitals and pharmaceutical companies is high, but no company in the world can make it happen. That’s why I decided to start this business.

I heard that the whole-genome data technology can test structural variation, total amount of cancer mutation, fusion genes, and copy-number variation at once, and is seen as a complete type of genetic analysis. Starting from a laboratory, GENOMEinSIGHT’s whole-genome research will expand to enable more data analysis. We hope the whole-genome research becomes a key to treating various diseases.

What made you decide to start a business while doing research?

The amount of data available in the genome field is increasing at an astronomical rate. Thus, the convergence of medical science, computer, science, and statistics as well as a huge infrastructure that can handle big data are necessary. A single laboratory is not enough to carry out this large-scale research. If the role of labs is the development of core technology, large center or corporations should operate the technology on a large scale.

I believe our technology will be widely applied in the medical life science field in the next 1-2 years, and I will build the capabilities necessary for research and development to realize technology commercialization.

It seems that technology in demand should lead to startups to become widely-used. Thus, it is necessary to promote startups through technology commercialization and create an environment where teams like GENOMEinSIGHT can start their businesses.

What is the difference between analyzing whole-genome and genome data, and how can it be used?

Whole-genome is the final evolution of genome technology, dealing with the ‘whole’ genome. The word genome is made up of ‘Gene’ and ‘-ome’ (meaning whole), so whole-genome is actually a tautology for genome. On the other hand, the genomes that are used today, such as panels and exomes, are partial and not enough to call them ‘genomes’.

Panels and exomes only test part of our genomes. Depending on the size, panel can test 0.01-0.1% and exomes can test 1% of genomes. Whole-genome technology can test the entire genome (100%) at once and discover more mutations that could not be found through panels and exomes. The reason why panel and exomes are used is because data production costs are expensive and there is no technology that can handle big data. As technology evolved, the time has come to utilize whole-genome data. The mutations found through whole-genomes can precisely identify the cause of cancer, and provide the optimal drug based on it. Accumulating these data from many patients can become the target data in new drug development. Our company’s mission is to secure and apply these technologies and big data.

Until now, panel and exomes were the widely-used technology in the genome field, but whole-genome technology can be seen as the final stage of genome technology. As Professor Ju said, discovering mutations through whole-genome technology will accelerate the drug development process for various diseases. We hope the GENOMEinSIGHT team not only develops whole genome technology, but also accumulates data and utilizes it to contribute to the medical life science field.

Last year, which GENOMEinSIGHT technology helped identify the process of destroying COVID-19 related lung cells, and how can this technology be utilized in the future?

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unexpected misfortune to the mankind. To solve these infectious diseases, the convergence of medicine, virology, immunology, epidemiology, as well as the genome field is necessary. For example, the UK conducts a massive genetic analysis of patients’ genomes and each virus. Collecting and analyzing genome samples on a national scale can discover the cause of COVID-19 or knowledge on mutant virus. Korea has been successful in preventing the spread of the epidemic, but failed to lead research due to the lack of data collection, transfer, production, analysis system on a national scale. It’s very unfortunate.

Our laboratory and GENOMEinSIGHT received the opportunity to research the COVID-19 virus from a different angle. Our lab had the technology to establish a model for human lung cells growth (organoid) for cancer research. While thinking about how we could contribute to solving urgent social problems, we realized that we could infect our organoid with the COVID-19 virus. We used the resources for cancer research to study infectious diseases. Based on this, we became the first to establish a COVID-19 virus lung model in a laboratory, and tracked the virus using genome technology to find out how human alveoli cells are infected with virus and how they respond. For this research, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Seoul National University Hospital, and Cambridge Stem Cell Research Institute in the United Kingdom helped us publish our study in the journal Cell Stem Cell in December 2020. Our technology is expected to play a major role in identifying the infection mechanisms of various infectious diseases as well as coronavirus at the molecular and cellular levels in the future.

GENOMEinSIGHT’s technology will be utilized in many areas besides the whole-genome research field. The results of COVID-19 lung cell research are also seen as possible because GENOMEinSIGHT has been continuously researching in various ways. We hope the team continues to research and discover vaccines as well as infection mechanisms to prevent future pandemics.

A variety of platforms in the medical data field are emerging. What is the competitive edge of GENOMEinSIGHT?

Our competitive edge is that we have the know-how to precisely analyze and interpret whole-genome data, infrastructure and manpower. We are also trying hard to create a warm company environment so that the best of the best can do research happily. We will move forward with the goal of establishing an infrastructure for precision medicine around the world.

GENOMEinSIGHT’s technology will be the key. Nevertheless, the most important part is the team members who analyze and interpret the whole-genomes. The infrastructure of GENOMEinSIGHT and team members together will build and develop data on whole-genomes. We hope that the whole-genome technology establishes a precision medicine system and help drug development.

What were the difficulties of faculty startup, and how did you overcome them?

The most difficult part is leading a lab as a university professor and a company as a CEO. It may be a difficulty that is insurmountable. You must pay attention to both the lab and company, and cannot neglect either one. It’s especially difficult because I have limited time and strength. Fortunately, students and company members understand and help me.
It was also difficult for me to adapt to the startup environment because I had never run a company before. Meeting investors and appealing the advantages and scalability of our technology in a short period of time was difficult than publishing a paper. I was able to meet great investors thanks to the help of many acquaintances and luck.

Health is more important than anything else. In order to be excel at both research and guiding future generations, one must prioritize health and distribute work. Starting a business is not easy, but difficulties can be overcome with team members.

How should Startup KAIST supplement and promote faculty startups?

I think it is very encouraging that KAIST is active in promoting faculty startups. KAIST professors are experts with the world’s best technology, and these technologies are seeds that can lead to startups. However, you have to deal with tasks other than research to start a business. After the school reviews and approves the faculty startup, professors will experience unfamiliar things such as establishing a company, arranging office space, attracting investment, and recruiting members. Startup KAIST provided a lot of help, but I wish there were additional support in these areas.

It seems that administrative support should expand to these areas. Currently, we are undergoing the process and trial-and-error of establishing the faculty startup system. The expansion of support is clearly necessary as faculty startup becomes more active.

What is GENOMEinSIGHT and your ultimate goal and vision?

As I mentioned, a large-scale infrastructure, expert team, and a research-industry ecosystem must be established to conduct and develop a world-class genome research. Cambridge, England and Boston, U.S. are cities with a well-established research-industry ecosystem. I hope this kind of environment is also established in Korea. I will also endeavor to create such environment in the company and at KAIST. Based on this, GENOMEinSIGHT will work to become a company and researcher that gives insight to reveal the mysteries of medical life science through genomes.

GENOMEinSIGHT is building an infrastructure that can analyze whole-genomes and interpret genome data. Professor Young Seok Ju and GENOMEinSIGHT’s whole-genome technology is the world’s best and effective in studying mutations. We believe the results and data of GENOMEinSIGHT will build a precision healthcare system in the near future. We look forward to the innovation of the medical community and the development of new drugs that GENOMEinSIGHT technology will create.
This was Professor Young Seok Ju of GENOMEinSIGHT.


KAIST-BORN TIPS STARTUP MAP is updated to v 1.7.

This map is created based on new KAIST-born startups entering TIPS during August ~November 2020. Please refer to the map above. 12 startups were added in this map, accounting for about 16% of all KAIST-TIPS startups.

Download the map and click the logo of startup to visit the homepage of the startup and find more information.

KAIST Student Startup Map V 1.2.1

KAIST Student Startup Map is updated to v 1.2.1. This map is updated by adding new registered startups.

[Startup Interview] Communicate with plants. CEO of ‘Dearplants’, a data-based plant interaction service startup, Jeong Hye Kim

Today we will meet an award-winning team from 2020 Fall E*5 KAIST, ‘Dearplant’. Dearplant provides ‘Plity’, a service that allows communicating with plants using smartphones by detecting the surrounding environment (water, temperature, etc.) through IOT devices and the interaction between plants and objects.

The number of people growing plants is increasing due to the increased time spent at home nowadays. Let’s meet Jeong Hye Kim, CEO of Dearplants, who is leading a company that helps grow and communicate with plants.

Can you briefly introduce Dearplants?

Dearplants is a startup created by plant-loving KAIST students. We are creating a service that allows communicating with plants by giving them sensation. Through this, we hope to ultimately develop plants into ‘companion’ plants. Dearplants is at the center of the groundbreaking challenge of sharing daily life and harmonizing with plants.

As CEO Kim mentioned, the number of people growing plants is increasing to the point where the word ‘companion plant’ has been coined. However, it is difficult to grow plants, and it will become much easier if people know what plants really need.

How did Dearplants decide on this service as its startup product?

I always wanted to do research on healing people through computer science due to my major in computer science and interest in psychology. Last spring, I received a few plant presents for my birthday and often found myself talking to plants. I shared this experience in a plant community, and a lot more people than I thought agreed with me. During this experience, I thought plants as a medium of communication and that they had great potential in the role of communication and healing. If I could bring this potential out through my computer science major, I believed I could do research and provide a service that heals people. That’s why I decided to start a business.

There are many student entrepreneurs who research solutions to the problems they face and actually execute the solutions. This seems to apply to CEO Jeong Hye Kim as well. CEO Kim started Dearplants based on her hope to heal people, her major in computer science, and interest in psychology.

A plant growing application will be helpful because it is difficult to maintain the optimal environment for plants. It’s also interesting that plants talk to users. Do plants talk like AI? Or is it like IOT? What kind of technology did you apply?

We use both technology. First, IoT sensors sense the plant-human interaction and the surrounding environment of the plant. Using this information, our algorithm figures out the state and feelings of the plant. Then, through an AI-based chatbot in the application, a user can have a conversation with the plant depending on its situation. The application analyzes the condition of the plant, so it is easy to see what the plant needs (water). Our service will make growing plants fun and easy.

There might be limitations to Dearplants as an application service. It is important for businesses to earn profit, so where do profits come from?

Our service consists of an IoT device that connects to the application Plity. So, we can generate profit from device sales and in-app services. For in-app services, we plan to introduce various gaming services with plants, like a plant Damagochi, and add a few paid contents. There are about 300 users on our android application a day, and if this figure exceeds 500, we plan to activate a community to recommend various plant-related products and charge commission fees. Lastly, we plan to launch a premium care services to users who grow expensive orchids.

It is important to help people with the app service, but it will be difficult for businesses to continue without profit. If there are more users, the company will be able to generate profits in different ways.

How did the team get together? How do you overcome difficulties in coordinating with team members?

We started with 3 team members. In the beginning, my friend was preparing a startup with another friend, and I joined the team as a developer. When I joined the team, we started on a blank page and to decide on a startup product. During the process of deciding on an item, I took on the role as a leader and recruited a few of my acquaintances. Some team members joined through Ara’s recruitment board.

As more team members joined, it was difficult to create a team culture. In fact, we are still in the process of forming the culture. In the beginning, there were only a few members and not much to discuss, so there were no big disagreements. If there was a disagreement, it was easily solved after a few words. However, as the team got bigger, there were a lot more disagreements.

So we first decided to define the company’s mission, vision, and core values. Basically, we were setting the standard for decision making. When we have a disagreement, we don’t simply express our opinions, but explain that “this is more correspondent with our mission and core values”. Doing this makes us more cohesive that we have a common goal, and there is less disagreement.

It seems difficult to create a team. Although the team members came together with one goal, each one has a different opinion so it is important to have a define frame. Good job on defining the company’s mission, vision, and core values!

What were some difficulties starting a business and how did you overcome them?

I always wanted to start a business, but I never knew I was going to start like this. I jumped into this business without knowing anything about startups. Everything about startups was unfamiliar, and I felt pressured to study and produce results.

Thankfully, I received a lot of help and was able to quickly adapt to the startup ecosystem. When starting the business, I received many advices from Professor Jae-Min Koo from K-school. Professor Koo helped us in the overall aspect of the business and how to approach customers, so I was able to successfully establish the company. We have been able to grow further thanks to our investor Bluepoint Partners and representatives who I met while doing business who actively helped and taught us. There’s still a lot to learn and business is still difficult.

Why did you participate in E*5 KAIST, and what did you learn from it?

Our biggest motivation to participate in E*5 KAIST was mentoring. As an early startup team, being able to receive mentoring from the best ACs and VCs is a great advantage. As I expected, I learned and developed a lot from mentoring. E*5 has a total of 3 missions, and in the first and second mission, we were able to receive mentoring from one of the 5 mentors. In the final mission, we received specialized mentoring from our own mentor. The program was divided into two stages, so in the beginning we were able to receive various opinions and advices from different mentors. At the end of the program, we received strong and specialized support from our mentor.

창업에 대한 어려움을 E5 멘토링을 통해 극복하는 데 도움이 되었던 것 같네요. 처음 창업을 하면 아무래도 압박감도 오고 힘들 것 같은데 그럴 때 함께하는 팀원들과 도움을 주는 사람들이 필요하다고 느낍니다. 때에 맞게 E5에 지원하셔서 이미 창업을 경험하시고 스타트업 생태계를 잘 아는 멘토분들께 의견 및 조언을 구하신 부분이 좋았을 것 같다고 생각이 됩니다.

When was the most rewarding time when starting Dearplants?

It is really rewarding when we receive comments that users healed and got consoled from our service. Especially these days, there are a lot less healing moments due to COVID-19. I am proud that I can provide comfort and amusement during this time.

Starting a business is difficult, but it is rewarding to receive nice comments and see many users using the company’s service. As CEO Kim said, the Plity service is especially a healing at a time like this.

What is Dearplants developing next?

Before any further development, we are looking for ways to expand our current service. We are positively reviewing the introduction of our service in botanical gardens or preschools, where our service can give positive impact.

In addition, we are planning various projects to provide a fun plant growing experience for people in their 20s and 30s. Many people have grown plants in the past, but they became reluctant to grow plants because plants die easily. It’s easy to grow plants once you become close to them, and we want to introduce the advantages and methods of growing plants. We will try these things within the first half of the year.

It seems like a good idea to provide the service to daycare centers. If children can learn how to grow plants and become accustomed, they will also learn about the value of life. I myself am uncomfortable growing plants, and if I can grow them properly, I want to try again. The service is currently available on Android, but I will wait until the service is also available in the App store.

What is the ultimate goal of Dearplants?

Dearplants’ mission is ‘Creating the most comforting life partner’. Our goal is to comfort people and create a life partner. I believe plants will play a huge role in accomplishing this mission. Plants are just quiet, green creatures, but its simple presence makes you feel refreshed and healed. We believe plants have great healing potential and will try to maximize it.

Dearplants started from a small idea to comfort people, and is creating a world that plants can coexist in the Corona era. The service ‘Plity’ will comfort people by bringing warmth to and allowing communication with plants. Using IOT sensors and AI will make Plity services more common and collaborating with flower and plant industries will create great synergy. We look forward to Dearplants’ future!

This was CEO Jeong Hye Kim of Dearplants.