From Pangyo Techno Valley, 3 startups with world-changing ambitions

Despite its reputation, Silicon Valley is far from being the world’s one great tech hub. In 2022, the tech industry has become much more diffuse — here in the United States, we see folks fleeing the spiraling housing costs of the Bay Area, seeking out more affordable cities like Seattle, Austin, and Boise, which then become tech hubs in their own rights. And while individual cities in the U.S. certainly do offer financial incentives to make themselves attractive tech hubs, it’s nowhere near the level of planning we see in South Korea’s Pangyo Techno Valley.

The Pangyo Techno Valley is an attempt to build a Silicon Valley from the ground up, conceived and built out over the last couple of decades. It mimics what makes Silicon Valley work — beyond the tax breaks and infrastructure, it’s a geographical hub that allows tech companies to quickly exchange ideas and access venture capital, with facilities for comprehensive research and design programs. And it’s supported by top universities, with programs that link students and graduates to opportunities within the companies located there. It’s a mini-city designed with one purpose in mind — growing and cultivating tech startups.

It’s worked. Today, the Pangyo Techno Valley is home to over 1,600 companies, many of which have been founded by alums from Korean tech giants like Samsung and LG, much as many Silicon Valley startups have been launched by ex-Google or ex-Apple folks.

We had the opportunity to chat with three CEOs of Pangyo Techno Valley startups last week at the Pangyo Techno Valley Meetup, and it was a perfect representation of the breadth of activity there — 3D-printed eyeglasses, keyboards with the touchpad built right on top of keys, and a firm that links biotech companies to research partners to accelerate the development of life-saving treatments.

Breezm

It’s a tale as old as Silicon Valley — a startup that comes to be because something’s been done the same way for a little too long. In the case of Breezm, CEO Zenma Park decided that eyeglasses were the next thing in need of disruption. “There are so many different types and shapes, sizes of faces, but glasses have been manufactured under a one-size-fits-all philosophy so far,” said Park during our Pangyo Techno Valley Meetup. While your optometrist can make little tweaks here and there to get your glasses fitted, that didn’t sound like it was quite good enough for Park, who wants more out of the experience.

Glasses have come to rely less on the optometrist in recent years, with the rise of low-cost, fast-turnaround dealers like Jins and Zenni. But, you’re still getting one-size fits all frames that are adjusted after the fact — Breezm uses 3D printing and face scans to custom-make frames that fit your face.

It’s not just a matter of annoyance at glasses that slide down the nose — Park cited that 72 percent of glasses-wearing Koreans report pain or discomfort from ill-fitting glasses. With Breezm, customers come into a retail location to get a full 3D face scan, after which they can shop frames recommended by Breezm’s algorithm, which sounds like it’s in part based on what folks with similar head shapes to yours purchased. Once you’ve made your choice, your data is sent off to one of their 3D printing factories, which takes 12 hours to print a pair. The result? A pair of glasses that has just the right bridge distance, size of nose pads, and angle on the frames based on your temples and where your ears sit. No adjustments are required.

Fit isn’t the only problem Breezm is solving. Like it is with any retail-based industry that relies on mass production, unsold inventory is a problem. It’s wasteful, not just environmentally, but financially. With 3D printing becoming increasingly cheaper, made-to-order frames eliminate the problem of unsold mass-produced frames. It’s also more environmentally friendly, as the 3D printing process creates much less scrap material than the standard way frames are produced, according to Park.

While Korean laws mandate that people come to a physical location to get eyeglasses, we in the U.S. will be able to simply use an app, which can handle the facial scans and provide recommendations — it’ll be possible to upload an image of your prescription during the process. But, Park did say he has plans for Breezm retail locations in the U.S. at some point, so be on the lookout for that!

Mokibo

The worst part about a keyboard case for a small tablet? The keys are super tiny. One reason for that? The need for a separate touchpad. Jeff Cho, CEO of Mokibo, thinks that’s a waste of space. His company has developed fusion keyboard technology that turns the keys themselves into one touch-sensitive surface, making the entire keyboard a huge touchpad.

We’re not talking about a touch keyboard, either. These are real keyboards with physical keys that have touch-sensitive elements on board. “No need for a separate space for the touchpad, if you type, it works as a keyboard, but if you swipe your finger you start to move the [cursor], and it supports gestures,” Cho said, explaining the concept to us.

That touches on the main technical challenge that faced Mokibo — how to make the keyboard know when to act like a keyboard, and when to act like a touchpad. After all, you don’t want to click when you really just want to type a letter! Mokibo managed to create a touch surface that only reacts when it detects swiping motions. It’s even smart enough to have the left and right side of the keyboard act independently, so you don’t need to lift your left hand when swiping and using gestures with your right. When you start scrolling, only the right side of the keyboard will become a touch surface. But, if you drag your finger to the left, the touch surface will expand accordingly. Pretty neat feature for anyone doing image editing or working with big spreadsheets.

While Mokibo has already launched three products with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign — keyboard covers for tablets, and two specifically for the 11-in and 12.9-in iPad Pro — Cho has plans to get his keyboard technology built right into next-generation tablets and laptops. Mokibo has already had meetings with Apple, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and many others. So, if years down the line you start reading about the disappearance of touchpads because of touch-friendly keyboards, don’t be surprised if Mokibo is the company behind it.

Mediai Plus

Sometimes in the tech industry, the most impactful companies are the ones you never hear about. They’re busy behind the scenes, facilitating important work for everyone else. That describes Mediai Plus, helmed by CEO Ji-hee Jung. Mediai Plus is using the Pangyo Techno Valley as a hub to make a difference in global medicine by connecting biotech firms with clinical research partners across the globe.

“During the covid-19 pandemic, vaccines were very important, but clinical trial preparation took too long… companies couldn’t find information about clinical trials because they were too scattered to find,” said Jung as she described one of the most vexing problems facing the biotech industry. Turns out, the old way required biotech firms to call around to find research partners that had the right data sets and participants for their medicines and technologies, then negotiate contracts themselves and audit their potential partners in a time- and money-intensive process that typically took months.

Nothing a good platform can’t solve. Mediai Plus’s FiCRO platform allows biotech firms to go shopping for global research partners — research partners can publish what data they have accessible, and how much they want for it, while biotech companies can easily search for what they need and make offers, instead of playing endless phone tag in the hopes of finding that right partner as quickly as possible. That process that took months? Mediai Plus cut it down to days, allowing biotech companies to launch clinical trials far more quickly.

The end result doesn’t just mean more money saved for biotech companies — on a global scale, it shortens the development time of potentially life-saving medication and treatments. Mediai Plus might not make a lot of headlines, but it’s hard to imagine having a more important impact than that as a startup.

This story has been brought to you in partnership with AVING News. All thoughts and opinions are 100% our own.

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