[CAMPUS COMMENTARY]Student businesses are doomed to failHave you heard of any Korean college student starting a successful new business? For two years, I was a member of a college club at my school, Soongsil University, for students seeking to start a business venture. Of course, success means different things to different people. For most college students, it’s quite a success to sustain a business for three years. I entered the venture club because I wanted to help my father open a business producing a special kind of pillow that we designed together. But the lesson I learned from my two years in the club was to never, as a college student, start a business ― at least in Korea.
One big reason is that students simply lack the venture capital. But a bigger problem is that college students are particularly vulnerable to the theft of their ideas. For example, a group of young students at a venture club at Hongik University invented a plastic cover for laptop computer keyboards a couple of years ago. When you spill water on a laptop keyboard, the entire machine could break down, while spilling water on a desktop keyboard will render only the keyboard ― which is replaceable ― useless.
But not long after they announced their idea, a big established business stole it and started producing laptop covers. Sure, the idea was in the open and we live in a world of free market capitalism, but college students are dealt a lousy hand because they lack the funds and the technical skills to develop and distribute new products.
This case shows why it is so hard to find an Apple computer icon like Steve Jobs emerging among young Koreans. Of course, Steve Jobs’ success story is not an ordinary case, but the fact that a man in his 20s can create a firm that later brings huge financial benefit to his country shows how important it is to support college business ventures.
Big companies sometimes sponsor competitions for student business plans to stimulate ideas that they can support. I often hear of venture capitalists being impressed by the ideas they find at student competitions. They say no adult can catch up with the way today’s youngsters think.
But if you look at their company plans carefully, they do not nurture the students’ innovative ideas. Even if they were helpful, students would do well to heed this advice: Do not present your ideas at those competitions. There are no policies to protect the students. In some developed countries, if you win a prize at a competition, your entry is automatically registered as a patented product to protect the idea from being used by others.
However, in Korea, even if you win a prize in those competitions, it is very hard to get it patented. Sponsors of the competitions usually try to evade their responsibility to protect the students’ ideas.
Korea cannot forever depend on mobile phones and semiconductors for its future. This country will someday need new ideas to keep the technological drive moving. A good start would be protecting creative ideas when someone comes up with one.
* The writer is the editor of The Soongsil Times, an English newspaper of Soongsil University.
by Park Sung-jeong