Korean start-ups give tasty food a little more technology

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Korean start-ups give tasty food a little more technology


An increasing number of start-ups are combining information and communications technology with food, offering services ranging from restaurant recommendations to platforms that connect consumers directly with producers.

Ten of these so-called food tech start-ups took the stage at the Google Campus in southern Seoul on Feb. 15 to show off how they plan to transform the food industry as part of the Food Tech Start-up Competition.

The winner of the day was Park Jong-beom, the 37-year-old CEO of Farmingfund, who wore a straw hat and carried a young pumpkin in his hand during his presentation.

“We, customers and farmers, all want safe and tasty young pumpkins, but under the current market structure, that is very hard,” he said. “So, [Farmingfund] plans to do that hard work.”

Park’s idea was to create a crowdfunding platform that would connect customers directly to their produce while offering stable financial support to farmers. He also plans to release an accident insurance product for farmers at small and midsize farms.

He used to work at Chonggakne Yachaegage, a retail market franchise for seafood and fresh produce, but left last year to pursue his company. Farmingfund turns a profit by taking a 10 percent commission of total investment. Since last year, 170 farmers have already received funding through the platform. As a result, those farmers have been able to deliver their produce to investors at a 15 percent discount.

“If consumers want safer food, we have to invest in farmers, and that’s what we do,” Park said.

“His business model differs from already successful food tech companies, and he laid innovative ideas,” said Kim Bong-jin, one of the competition’s judges and the current CEO of Woowa Brothers, operator of the enormously popular food delivery app Baedal Minjok. “Food tech can bring enormous changes to real estate, logistics and the user experience, meaning that there is infinite potential for start-ups as well.”

An increasing number of domestic start-ups are jumping into the food tech industry, reimagining every step of the process from the production of healthy ingredients to the delivery of a finished meal.

In the delivery sector, top competitors Baedal Minjok, Yogiyo and Baedaltong are expanding the scope of their businesses to deliver food that wasn’t available before, including dishes from famous restaurant far outside of Seoul as well as staple side dishes.

The domestic market for food delivery is currently sized at 80 trillion won ($70 billion), but considering the range of related businesses such as agricultural production, its size could exceed several hundred trillion won.

Second place at the competition went to Lee Kyoung-jin, who used to work at a well-known food company before leaving to found Scan Food. The company analyzes a user’s health information like height, weight, sex, diseases and allergies, and then makes recommendations about dishes that best suit the user’s needs. It utilizes data provided by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety for domestically processed food products, and for all else, it plans to use Google’s image recognition technology.

Another notable competitor was Genoplan, which offers a customized diet plan based on DNA analysis. It was founded by Kang Byung-kyu, who also goes by Brian Kang and is a graduate of the Boston University School of Medicine. The start-up is among the first in Korea to connect DNA-testing technology and health management.

One of the most popular ideas, however, was a start-up that enables Seoulites to taste homemade dishes from around the world. Third-place winner OneFineDinner collects applications online from people who want to taste food cooked directly by people from different countries like Japan, India and Pakistan, and then connects them to foreigners residing in Seoul who are willing to cook for them.

Food tech is gaining attention from global giants like Amazon and Google, which have each rolled out a grocery delivery service - Amazon Fresh and Google Express - last year. Then there’s Uber, which started its Uber Eat food delivery service around the same time.

As a result, familiar concepts like “fast food” are rapidly changing. Thanks to more advanced delivery systems and enhanced customer-producer connections, fast food no longer just refers to hamburgers and fried chicken, but also includes gourmet meals prepared by actual chefs. Increasingly popular options are the New York-based Maple and China’s Hao Chushi.

Billionaires are also investing in start-ups that can come up with solutions to forthcoming food problems. One example is Cultured Beef, a start-up that allows beef to be grown from cultures in a lab rather than taken from a cow, which has gotten support from Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Paypal founder Peter Thiel and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla have all invested in Beyond Meat, which produces meat out of plant-based ingredients; Modern Meadow, also a cultured animal product provider; Hampton Creek, which makes mayonnaise with plant-based substitutes; and Impossible Foods, which makes cheeseburgers entirely out of plants.

Here in Korea, Kim Jung-ju, founder of gaming company Nexon, has invested in Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, but these kinds of hyper-technical food technologies have yet to take hold in Korea. Even those invested in the sector, such as Naver and Kakao, are still focused on connecting food producers and direct purchasers. One popular recent example was Kakao Farmer Jeju, which connected orange producers in the resort island of Jeju directly with consumers.

BY PARK SU-RYON [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]

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