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[Editorial] Venture investment

Efforts required to jumpstart M&A market

President Park Geun-hye championed her creative economy vision at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She suggested creative economy as a way out for countries experiencing slow growth amid high unemployment and income inequality.

At the same time, she pitched Korea as an attractive place to invest to the participants in the forum. She held one-on-one meetings with the CEOs of some of the world’s top corporations to persuade them to invest more in Korea.

Park’s efforts to attract investment from global companies are commendable. Korea badly needs large-scale inward investment as domestic companies have lost their appetite for investments.

One area where Korea especially needs foreign investment is the venture sector. In Park’s creative economy vision, venture companies are supposed to play a central role, as economic growth led by large, export-centered corporations has reached its limit.

So the government has come up with a host of measures to create a sustainable venture ecosystem, which helps venture companies pass through the three stages in their life cycle: entry, growth and exit.

The ecosystem is still a work in progress. It provides substantial support to venture entrepreneurs in the entry phase. But for those in the growth and, especially, exit stages, it is not as helpful as it should be.

Investors will not put their money in venture companies if they cannot exit their investments for a return. Normally, their exit scenarios involve initial public offerings or sales of the companies through mergers and acquisitions.

In Korea, neither of the two exit vehicles is easily available. It takes 14 years on average for a venture company to launch an IPO on the Kosdaq. M&As of venture companies are even rarer than IPOs. It’s little wonder, then, that investment in venture companies remains low in Korea.

To stimulate venture investment, it is imperative to spur M&As, given the difficulty in shortening the time required for IPOs. M&A deals would increase if large domestic corporations became serious about acquiring venture companies to obtain their creative technologies.

Big Korean corporations have started to take over foreign venture firms to acquire new technologies. But they are still not interested in purchasing domestic venture firms, although there are many promising ones.

One reason may be the concern that they could be seen as the strong preying upon the weak. This concern is not unfounded as Korea differs from Silicon Valley, where big companies grow by gobbling up competent venture firms.

One way to draw the attention of Korean corporations to local venture firms is to stimulate foreign investors’ M&A activities in Korea, as foreign companies’ interest in domestic firms is often seen as proof of their technological superiority.