Wearables startups highlight health of South Korean innovation

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Creators of health-related wearables including a shoe insole studded with sensors and an environmental monitoring device were among the 88 tech companies participating at the beLaunch startup event in Seoul last week.

Companies at the event were more lively and diverse than the e-commerce heavy field that exhibited at the first beLaunch three years ago. “Overall the trend right now is diversity, people are becoming a lot less afraid of doing different niche businesses,” said Saemin Ahn, a managing partner at Rakuten Ventures. “It’s a good time to be an entrepreneur in South Korea.”

Among the wearable devices on show was FootLogger from 3L Labs. The sensor-studded shoe insole provides activity track records and other biometrics such as foot pressure and stepping pattern. Each insole can log up to 50,000 footsteps on its flash memory. The built-in battery lasts at least a day and can be recharged by placing it on a Wi-Fi-connected “shoe station.” Users can access the analyzed data via smartphone app. Athletes could use this service to assess their form and balance, while patients in rehabilitation might use it to monitor their recovery. The Seoul-based company aims to launch FootLogger by the end of this year in South Korea and the U.S., at a cost of US$300 for a pair of insoles and a charger.

Another company, Bitfinder, presented a climate-tracking wearable named Wave. The device, the size of a USB flash drive, can be hooked to a key chain or worn on a bracelet. It has an accelerometer and six different sensors to collect environmental data such as temperature, CO2 concentration or UV radiation level, and can send alerts about extreme conditions to a smartphone via Bluetooth. It has a rechargeable battery that runs for up to a week. The Silicon Valley-based company plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign in October when it will release details of the device and its price, co-founder and CEO Ronald Ro said.

One regular beLaunch attendee has found it a source of investment opportunities. “We’re very interested in IoTs, hardware, smart devices,” said Eugene Kim, principal of Seoul-based accelerator SparkLabs, who attended the conference for all three years. He looks for companies that are globally marketable, often to the U.S. but also to other Asian markets. “To launch in Korea is one thing, to go global is another, and having a right mix of the team is the key.”

Sparklabs already invested in four startups that participated in the conference, many of which provide personalized data services on mobile phones, Kim said. For instance, MangoPlate, an improved version of Yelp, uses an advanced algorithm to offer personalized dining recommendations, and WePlanet’s Step is a mobile journal app that aggregates personal data based on a user’s social media history.

The conference’s closing “Startup Battle” was won by Victor Ching’s mobile dating app Chinchin, which matches users with other singles within their personal network, while Notivo won the global prize for an iPhone search app that provides alerts on real-time information such as weather reports or sports scores.

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