Korea ranks high among OECD countries in terms of total investment in research and development. But it ranks low when it comes to R&D productivity. Addressing this paradox would go a long way toward creating another venture boom and attaining President Park Geun-hye’s vision for making Korea a creative economy.
According to a recent OECD report on Korea’s innovation policies, the nation spent $49.2 billion in R&D in 2012, ranking sixth among the organization’s 34 members. When seen in terms of R&D spending as a share of GDP, Korea’s 4 percent was second only to Israel’s 4.4 percent.
But Korea’s performance in R&D productivity leaves much room for improvement. It is not that Korea’s investment in R&D produces little output. The nation’s research institutes, private or public, produce a large volume of papers and patents.
For instance, the OECD report says Korea performs well in terms of the total number of scientific publications, ranking for some years around 12th globally. It also shows that Korea is a leading country internationally in regards to the number of patent applications filed by universities and private research institutes.
The problem is the low level of commercialization of these R&D outputs. For instance, only 1 in 4 technologies developed through state-funded R&D projects is transferred to private companies. The rate of commercialization is even lower. Fewer than 1 in 10 such technologies actually make it to the market in the form of services and products.
Aware of the problem, the government has been stepping up efforts to facilitate the commercialization process. It has set up various institutions and programs to this end, including start-up incubation centers, industry-academic collaboration foundations, technology licensing offices at universities and technology holding companies.
But its efforts have not been quite successful. One reason is the lack of cooperation among the government agencies involved in these efforts. For instance, a company that is supported by one government agency cannot expect to receive support from another when its current support program is discontinued.
Commercializing R&D outputs takes much time and involves risks. So companies need support throughout the entire commercialization process, ranging from the start-up phase to the final stage of bringing their products to the market.
This means government agencies need to change their approaches and set up a collaborative and integrated support system.
The OECD report offers a comprehensive set of advice for the Korean government. For instance, it recommends that the government establish a more business-friendly education system, address cultural and other barriers to start-ups and support public-private innovation partnerships.
The government also needs to promote technology financing to help small and medium-sized companies secure funding based on accurate appraisal of their technologies. For many SMEs, the lack of funding is the biggest obstacle to commercialization of their R&D outputs.