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[Column]Korea’s healthcare industry: Do flowers blossom in desert, too?Choi’s View on Healthcare Innovation
  • By Choi Yoon Sup
  • Published 2018.10.31 11:28
  • Updated 2019.03.22 18:04
  • comments 0

A few days ago, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety held a conference under the title of “Smart Healthcare 2018.” Unlike in previous years, more than a thousand people signed up for the workshop, reflecting rising interests in the digital healthcare. This writer, along with other experts, was on the panel, discussing whether Korea’s digital healthcare industry has any hopes or what the nation should do to develop this industry.

Choi Yoon-sup

To tell the truth, it is hard to say that digital healthcare industry exists in Korea. For a nation to say it has an industry, it should have more than a certain number of companies. Those companies should have sales of certain scales and their business activities offer meaningful value to clients. In this process, investments into the businesses and returns from them are made. By these standards, this industry does not exist in Korea yet. Above all, the number of domestic digital healthcare businesses does not exceed 100, and that number even gets smaller if one adds to it the standard of “producing meaningful sales.”

In other countries, such as the United States and China, the digital healthcare industry is rapidly growing enjoying a tremendous boom. The U.S. investment into digital healthcare sector has kept breaking records to show explosive growth. In 2017, there was a record high investment in the U.S., and the money invested in the first three quarters of this year has already broken last year’s record.

Global giants are also speeding up their moves. Apple has won the approval for Apple Watch as a medical device (the company will exclude the function in its cellphones sold in Korea), Amazon has taken over distribution startup Feelpack (delivery of medical goods are prohibited in Korea), and Google has produced innovative results in medical artificial intelligence.

Also, Uber transports patients to hospitals (also forbidden in Korea as alluring patients), Alibaba is conducting telemedicine (also prohibited here), and multinational pharmaceuticals, including Sanofi, are stepping up cooperation with startups developing digital new drugs.

All these are the stories of faraway lands. In Korea, people who think of making those kinds of innovation will find them lucky if not caught for breaking laws, not to speak of turning their ideas into action. In this country, the market is small, and regulations are numerous, making it hard to turn out sales and receive investment. It is urgent to seek solutions but where should we begin?

In the panel discussion, this writer told a Zen-like story, saying, “Flowers can blossom in the desert, too.” Korea is a barren land for the digital healthcare industry. Only small number of seeds is sown, soils are arid, and it seldom rains here. In this analogy, seeds are founders, grounds are business environment including regulations, and rains are the investment.

Asked to cite one thing needed for the growth of this industry, I replied, “More seeds are needed.” Only when there are a more than a certain number of startups, can there be innovative examples. Particularly, there should be many founders who can read the market’s needs correctly and hit the targets effectively. Korea has too small a number of digital healthcare startups, first of all. However, increasing the number of seeds alone will not be sufficient. Actually, there are lots of investment fund in the financial market, meaning this is a rainy season. However, both seeds and rains are useless unless the nation makes the soils more fertile.

I am holding a healthcare hackathon jointly with a university hospital this weekend. Doctors, developers and designers will be up all night thinking up ideas and bodying them out. This will be third such event, and I made it a rule for the participants to present their ideas and have them examined in advance.

Why? Until last year, many of the ideas the participants presented on site had been illegal in Korea. As we had to sort out such items one by one, the event’s progress hit a snag.

After much consideration, the organizers’ solution was to notify the participants of whether their ideas are legal or not. If you have innovative ideas, check out whether they are legal or not. That is the not-so-funny reality in Korea.

Flowers are sure to blossom in the desert, too. Provided there are rare plants among numerous seeds, which do not require nutrients and water. There was recently a proud case of upstart, which made an initial public offering in this harsh environment. We should not generalize such an exception. Flowers blooming in the desert should belong to unusual cases.


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Choi Yoon-sup is a convergence bioscience expert, a future healthcare scientist, and an entrepreneur who studies digital healthcare. He is Managing Partner & Co-Founder of Digital Healthcare Partners (DHP, Inc.), a company that nurtures startup firms.—Ed.

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