Young inventors ditch homework to run app-maker

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Young inventors ditch homework to run app-maker

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Employees of Plasma Development pose for photos after discussing the answering machine app the company recently developed. [JoongAng Ilbo]

There were no school uniforms in sight as a precocious group of teenage employees at Plasma Development, an IT start-up that develops applications, weeded through errors in the company’s latest app at a recent meeting.

The bunch of middle school students that founded, run and split profits at the company were well-versed in all the right technical jargon and adept at trouble-shooting as they pored over problems on the agenda.

“Part of the problem has to do with the fact that some of the code of a deleted function has not been removed,” said one member of the group at a conference room in Samseong-dong in southern Seoul. “This means it’s solvable, but it will take some time because it’s all tangled up with other code.”

The meeting took place at Samsung Electronics’ Ocean Center, a support center the electronics giant set up in 2010 for aspiring app developers. Samsung leases the venue to applicants for free based on the merits of their case. Sometimes they get to use it for days and sometimes for months, with various facilities and office supplies thrown in without charge.

But most of the people using the center are entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s, which makes the seven middle school students from Plasma stand out even more.

They met last August through an Internet forum and began swapping ideas on app developments, a process that soon led them to establish their own company, Plasma, using a name meant to reflect their burning passion.

Making a Web page and name cards was easy. Finding a place to work was not, especially given their uncompromising financial constraints.

That is when Park Ki-han, a 15-year-old who had already developed an app for fighting insomnia called “Quick Sleep,” suggested the Ocean Center after reading about it. Their proposal won approval from Samsung and they were able to move in. Like its name, the company’s motto is fairly straightforward: to develop products the team agrees are useful. For stance, the answering machine app was the brainchild of Jo Chae-yeon, who considered it a useful function native to landlines but as yet unheard of among smartphones.

The youngest of the group is 14-year-old Choi Kyu-hwan, who came to Seoul from Ulsan some 414 kilometers (257 miles) away to study computer engineering at Ewha Middle School.

“I began studying computing because I wanted to promote the underground music that I love,” he said.

Park Hyeon-ju, the only female in the group, is in the top three percent of her class at Jeongui Women’s Middle School in Seoul. She said she got interested in computing as soon as she learned that the Internet can get infected by viruses.

“Some people tried to talk me into going to [a regular] academic high school, but I had my heart set on becoming a programmer,” said Park, who completed a special IT program for the gifted run by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. She will enroll in SunRin Internet High School in March.

Interestingly, they claim the company they run has no hierarchy.

“We divide responsibilities in consideration of our respective strengths,” said CEO Lee Han-gyu. “But when it comes to decision-making, there is no hierarchy.”

Ditto for profits. Take the answering machine app, for example. It costs 1,100 won (96 cents) to download, of which the company is entitled to 700 won. That sum is divided equally among all employees.

Moreover, their corporate vision is refreshingly original, as they gun to become innovators rather than successful imitators.

When asked which companies they were benchmarking for their future success, Kim Hyo-jun said with a wry smile, “a company like Plasma Development.”

By Jeong Seon-eon, Kim Hyung-eun [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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