The Korea Herald


South Korean unicorns take big leap with greater global presence

Large M&As, IPOs reflect maturing local startup scene

By Kim Young-won

Published : Feb. 21, 2021 - 15:42

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E-commerce startup unicorn Coupang is best known for its same-day delivery service. (Coupang) E-commerce startup unicorn Coupang is best known for its same-day delivery service. (Coupang)

Going global has been a long shot for many South Korean startups despite their advanced services and products. But planned stock listings and mergers and acquisitions of Korean unicorns, including those for Coupang, Woowa Brothers and Hyperconnect, are raising expectations for local companies to grow their international reach.

“The series of recent megadeals made in the startup sector here have moved the value of the entire Korean ecosystem up a notch,” said Lim Jung-wook, chief of Naver-backed venture capital firm TBT, forecasting other Korean startups may receive a greater amount of interests among global investors.

Earlier this month, Coupang made headlines in Korea as well as in the US as the Amazon-like e-commerce giant unveiled its initial public offering plan as it filed with the Securities Exchange Commission to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

According to its filing, it posted 13.24 trillion won ($12 billion) in sales last year, the most among online commerce platforms here, while hiring nearly 50,000 employees and operating around 100 logistics facilities across the nation.

Despite the stunning sales figure, the company lodged an operating loss of 580 billion won with its accumulative operating loss hitting 4.5 trillion won. It is widely thought that the unicorn, currently valued at some 55 trillion won, will not be able to make a debut in the equity market because of its heavy losses extending over years.

“Because of strict financial regulations, listing shares in the domestic market for cash-burning companies like Coupang may be a far-fetched idea,” a market watcher in the startup sector said.

In the case of video chatting app operator Hyperconnect, which will be acquired by US dating app operator Match Group for $1.73 billion, the company has garnered immense popularity among Middle Eastern users for years. Its video-chatting app Azar is extremely popular in the Middle East, where conservative and strict cultures limit social interaction between men and women.

Founded in 2014, the startup has grown to become a company with 100 million subscribers in 230 countries. Most of its users are from the Middle East, India and Europe, which may have been an appealing point to the US company.

Woowa Brothers, operating the nation’s largest food delivery service Baedal Minjok, was acquired by German food delivery behemoth Delivery Hero for 4.8 trillion won last year. The acquisition is the biggest M&A deal of a Korea unicorn by a foreign company on record.

Following suit, other Korean startups are gearing up for IPOs behind the scenes and trying to expand their presence in global markets.

Danggeun Market, a community-based online marketplace, runs secondhand marketplaces in the UK, Canada and the US, while audio livestreaming firm Spoon Radio has launched personal radio services in 20 nations, attracting 3 million users. Along with online grocery services firm Market Kurly, both companies are believed to become unicorns this year, a designation for startups valued at 1 trillion won or higher.

Viva Republica, which operates money transfer app Toss, is rumored to be reviewing cross listing of its shares in Korea and other nations, such as the US and Hong Kong.

Among companies that have been in the limelight in the IPO segment are accommodation reservation platform firm Yanolja and mobile game developer Krafton, both of which are preparing to go public as early as this year.

“Given the planned IPO schemes in the pipeline, the IPO market will likely gain further momentum this year after big deals like those for SK Biopharmaceuticals, Kakao Games and Big Hit Entertainment last year,” said Choi Jong-kyung, an analyst at Heungkuk Securities.

By Kim Young-won (