Market Trend

From Seoul to Singapore: How a Korean Startup Incubator Bet on Success in Southeast Asia

Jinny Kim
February 13, 2024
"We have to go global, whether it's sink or swim"

D·camp, known for incubating startups in South Korea, is building its global footprint.

It has created a global team and opened a center in Singapore in the first half of 2023. Official events such as D-Day are also hosted overseas in Japan and Singapore. In 2022, more than 40% of all employees traveled abroad to build local networks.

1월 디데이 현장. /사진 제공=디캠프
(Source : d·camp)

D·camp was started in 2012 as a 'Bank-led youth startup foundation'. It has been investing and incubating over 3000 companies in the Korean startup industry for over 10 years.

Nine startups have grown into unicorns, including Woowa Bros (Baemin), Bucket Place, Viva Republica (Toss), and Carrot. In the 10 years since its founding, d·camp's economic impact has been valued at $20 billion, according to the company.

(Source : d·camp)

As the pandemic came to an end, the company intensified its international expansion.

In 2023, d·camp closed a $10.5 million (₩14 billion) commitment to the new global fund. The fund was established with the participation of Strong Ventures in the U.S., IMM Japan and Global Brain in Japan, Golden Gate Ventures and Cento Ventures in Southeast Asia, and Korea Investment & Finance Corporation Southeast Asia. In total, the funding is valued at $170 million (₩234 billion).

To better understand why and how d·camp, which has focused on investing in Korean startups, is accelerating its overseas expansion, we interviewed Mr. Siwan Kim, head of d·camp's Singapore center, about d·camp's global strategy and perspectives, especially on the Southeast Asian startup market.

(Credit : d·camp)

1.Please give us a brief introduction to the d·camp Singapore center and you as the director.

Hello. My name is Siwan Kim and I am the Director of d·camp Singapore.

"D·camp Singapore" serves as a hub for d·camp's startup support and investment in Southeast Asia. My responsibilities range from connecting Korean startups expanding into Southeast Asia with local networks to investing in local venture capital funds.

Prior to joining d·camp in early 2015, I specialized in corporate finance in the IB department of a financial institution. After getting interested in the innovation created by startups, I switched careers and joined d·camp.  

After joining d·camp, I became Head of Investment at d·camp before moving to Singapore in August 2023. This marks my second time living abroad in almost a decade, after living in France for three years in my early to mid-30s. Currently, I enjoy settling into life in Singapore.

2.Why did you decide to select 'Singapore' among other bases for global expansion?

For several years now, Korean startups have been going international and Koreans have been starting their own businesses overseas.

D·camp recognized this earlier than anyone else, and for several years, we have been supporting Korean startups to enter the Southeast Asian and Japanese markets, as well as those who want to explore the market.

Based on these experiences, it became clear to us that we needed to be more proactive in covering the Southeast Asian region. As a result, we set up a center in Singapore, which is the hub of Southeast Asia.

(Source : Unsplash)

The question of 'why Singapore' can be related to 'why Southeast Asia'.

There are many regions and countries where Korean startups are expanding, but I think Southeast Asia has the most potential (probability of success*return if successful) than any other region for Korean startups.

In addition, the brand of Korea is currently highly regarded in Southeast Asia due to K-POP, etc.

Furthermore, as the economy grows, fields that require technical expertise, such as artificial intelligence and energy, are gaining attention. I believe that Korean startups can be competitive in these fields.

In particular, Southeast Asia is a largely digitized and mobile market with an internet penetration rate of over 70%. The average age of the entire Southeast Asian region is in the early 30s, and the MZ generation is at the center of the economy.

Therefore, we envision Southeast Asia as another land of opportunity for Korean startups that are relatively ahead of the curve and have strengths in the digital sector.

3.Southeast Asia is obviously a hot spot for a number of reasons. Among them, you chose to head to Singapore.

Given all of these factors, Southeast Asia, more than any other market, is a destination where you have to try different things.

In Southeast Asia in particular, Singapore is the outpost of choice for most companies and investment organizations around the world to reach Southeast Asia.

The reason is that Singapore complies with global standards in terms of laws and institutions, and English is widely spoken. Singapore is one of the most globalized cities in the world.

Fintech Startups in Singapore - Fintech Singapore
(Source : Fintech Singapore)

Also, it's a country that has a lot of cultural diversity, so it is fair to say that international companies are unlikely to be rejected for their products or services.

So I encourage Korean startups to tap into the SG market if they want to expand into Southeast Asia, as this will increase their chances of success.

In this regard, d·camp also decided to base its Southeast Asian business in Singapore.

4.It's not easy to establish a foothold if you don't have connections, so how did you get started?

We didn't just set up an office in Singapore to start our Southeast Asian operations.

For nearly two years, our global managers have been traveling to Southeast Asia on long-term business trips. During this time, we've been able to build strong relationships with prominent local organizations and co-host official events such as D-Day with them.

In doing so, we confirmed the possibility of a Singapore-based business in Southeast Asia. After building a decent reputation in the region, we officially opened our local center in Singapore in August 2023.

(Source : d·camp Global Singapore Centrer)

5.How do people within Singapore evaluate the d·camp Singapore center?

It's still a bit early to assess the new office, as it's only just opened. However, I do feel that one of its strengths lies in the fact that it has an immediate and organic connection with local startup ecosystem players.

(On the flip side) in Singapore, I often meet global investors who are interested in the Korean market. They consider d·camp as a key channel to enter Korea. In this sense, the brand power that d·camp has built up over the years not only in Korea but also in Southeast Asia is a big help.

For now, we are focusing on Singapore and expanding our network in Southeast Asia to help Korean startups in various ways. We are expecting full-scale results from this year (2024).

6.There must be various local collaborations to support startups, what are you currently doing?

Currently, the d·camp Singapore center is mainly aimed at connecting Korean startups with the networks they need when expanding to Southeast Asia, from local government agencies to relevant organizations and venture capitalists (VCs).

To further solidify and scale our local network, we hold a networking event, ''Moktalk”, on the second Thursday of every month.

It brings together (incoming) startups, local stakeholders, and local startups to share market information and help them establish themselves in the local market, gathering scattered resources in one place. And this year, we plan to co-host it with other powerful local entities to make it a well-known event in the market.

In the future, we plan to provide all-round flexible support to Korean startups or founders so that they can successfully enter Southeast Asia and start their own businesses, rather than just making a track record based on numbers.

(Source : d·camp)

7.What are the most significant market trends you're watching at the d·camp Singapore center?

Southeast Asia is experiencing the same macroeconomic downturn as Korea. Due to these issues, the local startup investment market is in a slump, making it difficult for startups to attract investment.

However, given these market conditions, I anticipate that there will be more mergers and acquisitions (M&A) among existing early to mid-stage startups, relatively well-funded unicorns, and near-unicorns. This implies that the center of gravity has shifted from emphasizing growth to strengthening companies' capabilities to achieve profitability.

Therefore, in this context, we assume that there would be a lot of collaboration opportunities for Korean companies to settle locally.

For local companies, Korean startups are more likely to be attractive because of their technological background. In my opinion, it is necessary to have a strategy and execution that utilizes the difficult market conditions as an opportunity.

8.What advice do you have for startups looking to enter the Southeast Asian market from Singapore?

I still tend to assume that the Southeast Asian market is considered to be relatively easier than the US or Chinese market from outside.

However, based on my short experience in the region, it is imperative for Korean startups to prove themselves when entering the Southeast Asian market, especially the process of convincing local players of your own authenticity.

If you are looking to start or expand your business in Southeast Asia beyond simply exploring the market, you should take into account things like installing a local presence for localization, maximizing your exposure as a local market player.

It also entails making a clear case for what your competitive advantages and points of differentiation are when competing with local companies, as well as convincing the regional market.

Most importantly, beware of lumping the Southeast Asian market together and viewing it as a single region.

In reality, each country should be treated as a single market, with different cultures, histories, languages, and economic levels. We recommend that you objectively analyze which countries and markets are best suited for your business before heading to Southeast Asia.

(Credit : d·camp)

9.What are your future plans and goals for the d·camp Singapore center?

In 2024, the d·camp Singapore center will be in its second year. While we have been focusing on securing local networks, we are looking forward to further developing and strengthening those networks.

Moreover, we hope to inform Korean founders and startups about the possibilities of the Southeast Asian market so that they can take on their first steps in the region.

Entrepreneurship is a lonely path, especially when it's an attempt to go global. With that in mind, d·camp is here to build a community for Korean entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia.

In order to accomplish this goal step by step, it is crucial to create the brand and reputation of d·camp by showing the actual activities of the organization in the region. This is what we plan to focus on this year.

*Want to know more about d·camp Global and the Singapore Center?👉

Written by Jinny (Underdogs)



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Jinny Kim
underdogs. Media Manager & EO STUDIO. Freelance Writer