South Korean entrepreneurs wrap up ‘whirlwind’ trip to Milwaukee

Silicon Pastures members evaluate potential investments

Jae Hyung Kim, Jin ah Hwang, David Choi, Gilje Park and Andrea Kwon pose for a photograph in front of the statue of General Douglas MacArthur near the War Memorial on Lake Michigan.

Jin ah Hwang’s business card is unique. It’s a thin, clear film with a rectangle that has been turned an opaque white, superimposed with multi-colored text.

The card is a demonstration of the products made by her company, Chungju, South Korea-based Livicon Co. Ltd. Its 0.39 mm to 0.12 mm thick film can attach to glass or plastic and has a range of potential uses.

Jae Hyung Kim, Jin ah Hwang, David Choi, Gilje Park and Andrea Kwon pose for a photograph in front of the statue of General Douglas MacArthur near the War Memorial on Lake Michigan.

Hwang described those possibilities this month at The Milwaukee Club upon meeting Robert Tatterson, an advisor and investor in early stage companies. Having retired a few months ago from his position as chief technology officer at Sealed Air Corp. in Racine, Tatterson has been evaluating new technology companies for investment and mentorship opportunities.

“It’s been interesting to meet businesses in all different stages of maturity,” he said. “I have a background in technology and I’m really passionate about new product development and innovation.”

Livicon films are installed at the tallest building in South Korea, the 123-floor Lotte World Tower, on a glass skywalk floor. Visitors walk out onto the opaque skywalk, and suddenly it turns clear, revealing Seoul below. The films are also installed in some offices’ glass-walled conference rooms to offer privacy during meetings, and on companies’ storefronts to either allow customers to see in during the day, or display a large advertisement on the opaque screen off-hours. The films could be used as blinds in a home or to block the sun on car windows, she said.

“We just contracted an apartment where the living room glass is our film” in a 1,000-unit development, Hwang said.

Hwang told Tatterson she was seeking a U.S. distributor, as well as an office and investors. He recommended she speak with a friend who works at a display manufacturer in California. Both technology-minded, they discussed the haze and transparency on Livicon’s films and its supply chain solution.

Hwang is a member of a group of 12 South Korean entrepreneurs who mingled with Milwaukee angel investors like Tatterson at The Milwaukee Club downtown, hoping to make connections that would lead to a partnership or investment. Their visit was arranged by Teresa Esser, managing director of the Milwaukee-based Silicon Pastures Angel Investment Network. The entrepreneurs are taking part in an accelerator program at the Midwest Energy Research Consortium and participating in a whirlwind of networking opportunities. Gov. Scott Walker met with them, ahead of their visit, on his recent trade mission to Japan and South Korea. Esser formed a partnership on behalf of MWERC with South Korean university Daegu Gyoungbok Institute of Science and Technology and Madison-based Greenpoint Asset Management to create the four-week business accelerator exchange.

At The Milwaukee Club event, about 25 investors from Silicon Pastures shared a meal and heard presentations from each company, then asked them to leave the room as they discussed whether to move forward with due diligence and a potential investment. But it will still take about three months of due diligence to determine whether investments will be made in the end.

“It’s too early to tell. Obviously angels (investors) need to perform the due diligence and we’ve been unable to do anything because of the whirlwind (of Milwaukee activities for the entrepreneurs),” Esser said. “There was a significant amount of interest expressed and I can’t say more than that until we do our process.

“As a selfish investor, I’m hoping to get companies that I can invest in myself. As a member of a group, I’m hoping to share my find, what I consider my treasure, with my fellow investors. I think that we’ve got something very unique and special with this program.”

Jae Hyung Kim, for example, presented his chatbot development company, Seoul, South Korea-based Fount AI.

The natural language processing technology is being targeted to financial institutions so they can provide answers to customers 24 hours a day online.

“Basically, a chatbot is a Q&A machine,” Kim said. “These simple questions, it’s really just playing on your smartphone gadget and it will give you all the answers. We give finance all these questions to be answered 24 hours every single day without people always having to be there for you.”

A spinoff of a larger company formed in February, Fount AI has been growing quickly and expects to have 25 employees by the end of the year. As of July, it was already breaking even and expects more than $1 million in revenue this year.

The entrepreneurs arrived Oct. 14 and spent time touring open houses and looking at school districts in the area, for those interested in moving to the area as they expand their business relationships here.

At the Paragon Development Systems IT conference, the entrepreneurs networked with about 500 IT professionals at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

“It felt like it was a really good opportunity for them to be exposed to an aspect of Milwaukee and the IT community that they haven’t had a chance to see yet,” said Lance Wand, director of vendor relations at PDS. “We were thrilled to have them. As I reviewed a lot of the organizations from where they were coming from and what their business was actually about, there was definitely a lot of synergies.”

The other companies represented on the trip were:

  • Moim Soft. Manufactures a hair and skin analysis device and linked smartphone app that cosmetics sales clerks can use to advise consumers on products.
  • Endovision. Creates medical devices such as specialized plasma probes and spinal scopes used by spine and orthopaedic surgeons, plastic surgeons, and urologists and gynecologists.
  • Jinsung Industrial. Manufactures cable ties that construction companies use to hold air ventilation ducts in place.
  • Crespirit. Developed customizable Internet of Things module to monitor factory equipment and fleets by attaching sensors.
  • Haebora. Makes noise-canceling earsets under the name Ripple Buds.
  • Lab by Lab. Created software platform to encourage collaboration between universities and research labs.
  • Jinjoo Soft. Developed web application and web-based logbook for hotels.
  • GIB Korea. Manufactures thermal camera and analysis algorithm to detect slag in the steel manufacturing process. The system is used by POSCO.

Most of the entrepreneurs stayed for two weeks, though some arranged a shorter or longer stay in Milwaukee. Two of the firms, GIB Korea and Moim Soft, are seriously considering opening branches of their companies in Milwaukee, and looked at potential office space, Esser said.

“GIB Korea is very serious. I think that there’s going to be activity here in the (M-WERC Energy Innovation Center) building related to GIB Korea,” Esser said.

They also took classes and met fellow entrepreneurs at the TIC, and networked with M-WERC members at the organization’s annual meeting. The entrepreneurs met with attorneys at Godfrey & Kahn, and learned about immigration and business laws from Husch Blackwell and the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinics.

“There was desire on the part of a couple of the entrepreneurs to set up a business here, so we learned blocking and tackling,” Esser said. “It’s important to understand what you’re doing and get legal help.”

The entrepreneurs also had some fun and got a feel for Milwaukee’s culture, viewing the Ghost Train in Shorewood, visiting with a diverse group of residents at the On the Table event at Milwaukee City Hall, posing for a photo with the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the lakefront, visiting Discovery World and eating at the Milwaukee Public Market.

Esser plans to host the Korean accelerator program at least once a year. She hopes they got a good impression and it will lead to business partnerships.

“I am selfishly ambitious that they will build their businesses in Milwaukee, that they will decide to move here and set up businesses here. It’s the kind of thing that would evolve over months,” she said. 

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Molly Dill
Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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