Even as the COVID-19 pandemic plays havoc with small and medium-sized businesses worldwide, the South Korean capital of Seoul is finding creative ways to turn the global health crisis into an opportunity for local startups.

In June, the city sent so-called “Seoul Made” personal protection equipment (PPE) kits to the greater New York area, delivering some 10,000 kits to the borough of Brooklyn.

The brainchild of Seoul Business Agency (SBA), a city organization dedicated to fostering the growth and competitiveness of Seoul’s SMEs, the kits included diagnostic kits, face masks, hand sanitizers as well as free trial passes for Korean online games and webtoons, all produced by Seoul-based startups and SMEs.

About the kits, SBA CEO Chang Young-seung said, “The reason I decided to send the ‘Seoul Made’ quarantine kits overseas is to promote the effects of K-quarantine (Korea’s widely praised response to COVID-19) to the world and to help SMEs with less brand recognition enter global markets.”

‘An optimal time to expand’

City authorities even enlisted the help of social media influencers in promoting the kits. YouTube has several videos of “unboxing” events for the Seoulmade kits, including one by popular Korean ASMR artist Kaya ASMR – it’s quite the sensory experience.

After being shipped to the United States, local charities and institutions in Brooklyn distributed the kits to vulnerable communities.

This extremely generous donation is a welcome reminder that even during extremely challenging times, the international community can step up to help others in need,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams at a ceremony marking the delivery at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in August.

Seoul knows from experience just how devastating COVID-19 can be, both for public health and the economy, and their assistance is coming at a critical time for New York City, as we prepare to re-open schools and plan out our recovery process. We thank the SBA for sending these pouches, and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce for creatively harnessing the power of small businesses around the globe to make a difference.”

While the kits may seem kitsch to some, they nonetheless highlight that Seoul’s response to COVID-19 – and that of South Korea more generally – has been far better than that of other major cities around the world.

Even with a recent upsurge in cases, Seoul has had just 9,716 COVID-19 infections with 97 deaths as of Dec. 4, while the hard-hit city of New York has had 326,000 with over 34,000 deaths.

South Korea’s effective combination of widespread testing and contact tracing has become the “gold standard” of pandemic response, earning widespread praise from the international community. Even U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cited South Korea as an “remarkable example” for other countries to follow.

Business leaders are taking note of South Korea’s growing international profile. Speaking at the August event in New York, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers said, “Seoul has had arguably one of the best responses to the pandemic globally, and we look forward to a continued partnership on issues impacting economic development and mutual opportunities for our small businesses.”

Speaking with South Korea’s Maeil Gyeongje business daily in September, SBA CEO Chang said, “With South Korea’s prestige rising due to its [effective] COVID-19 quarantine efforts and the online business environment improving, now is the ideal time for our SMEs to expand overseas.”

More kits will be delivered to Singapore and Indonesia this month.

Seizing opportunities in the Post-Corona world

Policy makers in Seoul are focused on taking advantage of the economic, social and cultural changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a condition many observers call the “new normal.” 

In June, the city government unveiled “three cultivation strategies” to make startups the “driving force” of the city’s economy in the so-called “Post-COVID-19 era.” These strategies seek to enable promising Seoul-based startups to get a jump on future markets by investing over USD 160 million in the ecosystem, particularly in growth-stage companies.

In particular, the city is supporting two major “strategic” industries: the bio-medicine industry and the “untact” (non-face-to-face) industry, including fintech, drones and robots.

City Hall also announced in November the creation of a separate scale-up fund of nearly $300 million.

The South Korean capital is finding other ways, too, to help local startups seize the opportunities provided by the “new normal.”

Late last month, Seoul hosted the awards ceremony of the “Seoul Innovation QuickFire Challenge.”

A collaboration between the city, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, the Korea Health Industry Development Institute Janssen Korea, the contest – four years in the running – selected two innovators with the best ideas that address potential healthcare solutions in the post-COVID era.

Winners receive up to USD 125,000 in grant funding, residency at Seoul Bio Hub – an industrial space for the city’s biomed startups – and mentorship and coaching from experts at Johnson & Johnson.

This year’s winners were DC Medical, a medical device company that developed a portable diagnostic device that uses Electrical Impedance Spectroscopy technology to detect the chance of premature birth for mothers, and deepmedi, which develops smartphone sensor-based health information estimation technology through deep learning and image processing.

As the world continues to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, forward-thinking innovations are critical to fill the gaps in medical care, addressing the needs of patients now and preparing for what may lie ahead,” said Melinda Richter, Global Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation. “COVID-19 has changed our everyday lives, and we recognize that this ‘new normal’ may likely be long-lasting.”

Marking its fourth year, the Seoul Innovation QuickFire Challenge has been playing the role of discovering outstanding biotech companies and bringing them to Seoul Bio Hub,” said Kim Eui Seung, Deputy Mayor for Economic Policy at Seoul Metropolitan Government. “Seoul City will provide tailored support throughout the entire lifecycle of the biomedical industry from startup to commercialization so that the innovative technology of the companies selected goes beyond the challenge phase.”