Startup Interview

  • [Startup Interview] CEO Changki Hong of “H2K”, a startup founded by two Ph.D.s students servicing a Hangul education application ‘Sojung Hangeul’
  • 창업원
  • 2022-10-30 20:27:57
  • 208

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.