Twenty-first century South Korea is a byword for hyper-modernity.

In infrastructure, everything from broadband web to public toilets is world class. In industry, Korean-made products and components are central to the tech, white goods and shipbuilding sectors globally. In culture, an explosion of pop music and dramas is a driving a tidal wave of interest in the nation.

Yet the country has never innovated a new consumer product category, nor won a science Nobel.  Some suggest Korea’s educational and corporate systems crush creativity, and young Koreans dub their country “hell” due to the pervasive power of its social culture, which has engendered senses of unfairness and lack of opportunity.

One man believes he has a solution: Turkish-American academic Ogan Gurel, 54. The former neuro surgeon and business consultant plans to run for the presidency of the Daegu Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) one of South Korea’s leading research institutions. There, he believes, he can fire a magic bullet to unleash innovation.

 

Samsung – and the weight of ‘Korean Gravity’

A graduate of New York’s Stuyvesant High School, Harvard University and Columbia Medical School, Gurel, an expert in protein electro magnetics (PED), has carried out a brain surgery residency in Boston, and conducted research at French neutron research facility the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL).  In business, he has worked in computational chemistry, written a novel, and undertaken healthcare consulting at Booz, Allen Hamilton.

He landed in Korea in 2010, when then-Samsung Chairman Lee Keun-hee was signaling aggressive moves into healthcare, to work at Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, the group’s brain trust. Gurel was involved in Samsung’s tech strategy, RnD management and collaborative innovation, under the group’s chief technology officer.  “It was a tremendous learning experience,” he recalled. “I had the opportunity to present at HR events for new employees to talk about RnD strategy, and I studied and researched Samsung and the way it worked quite deeply.”

Samsung, like other Korean companies, benefited from economies of scale, sophisticated production, fast execution and motivated HR. However, it was not innovating. “When I arrived at Samsung, [Lee’s} vision was transforming Samsung from a fast follower to a leader,“ Gurel said,

He was stoked. “There was a real excitement at Samsung Electronics about not just developing existing areas of medical technology – they had just acquired Medison, an ultrasound company – but also radically new technologies,” Gurel said. “The incumbent giants – GE, Philips Siemens and other healthcare companies – were genuinely afraid. If this strong, well-capitalized new entrant came in with disruptive technologies, it could be game over for their cash-cow businesses.”

Yet corporate culture was frozen. “I think everyone understood [Lee’s vision was] an essential course of action, but the company was stuck in the fast-follower mindset.”

That mindset – to follow leading firms, staying competitive by adding incremental innovations (faster chips, thinner panels, more widgets on gadgets) while out-producing them – had worked for decades, but is unsustainable as a strategy.

“The essence of [business] strategy is differentiation, and differentiation is a challenge in Korea,” Gurel said. “Back in the 1980s, everyone the USA was morbidly afraid of the Japanese, with their operational excellence, but this was not a strategy of differentiation, it was something that others could copy and surpass. Samsung is now better at some things – like TVs – than Sony. But, the Chinese will soon follow. This is the dilemma for Korea.”

Lee’s vision did not percolate through the ranks. “On a macro level, the strategy had been to follow and do better than leading companies,” Gurel recalled. “On a micro level, individual strategies were to follow what the boss said.”

In 2014, Google chief Serget Brin gave an interview in which he said that Google was not going to move into healthcare, citing regulatory and liability barriers. Apple was dropping similar hints.  Gurel believes that there was a very specific reason for these communications.

“My sense is that the audience for some of these comments was, in fact, Samsung, knowing that Samsung would follow them,” he said. “I don’t know this for sure, but immediately after, we were having strategy discussions around these statements, and I think much of the senior leadership took this at face value. A very conscious decision was made at Samsung Electronics not to enter the hard medical side – citing the same fears of regulation and liability.”

Gurel was gutted.” I felt this was a lost opportunity for Samsung – and for Korea,” he said. Also in 2014, Lee suffered a serious stroke and has been in a coma ever since. His son, Jay-yong – who Gurel declines to discuss – took over as de facto leader. Samsung fell back onto a familiar path: Making incremental innovations to existing technologies and moving into biopharmaceuticals, but as a generic, not original, manufacturer.

Disappointed, a number of foreign researchers left Samsung – Gurel among them. He joined a startup incubator, CampusD, in Seoul. There, he discovered similar problems.

“It was a fabulous facility, created by forward thinking management, but fell short of its ambition because of fear of really doing something different and globally engaged,”Gurel said.  “I call it ‘The Korean Gravity’ effect. There is so much ambition at the beginning, and understanding of the need for change – but the general group feeling is uncomfortable with standing out and being different.”

He left. After a year teaching medical courses to executives at medical equipment manufacturers worldwide, Gurel returned to academia at DGIST. A new president of the institution will be elected in early 2019. Disregarding the ethnic barrier, Gurel will apply.

American Ogan Gurel aims to reorganize a Korean research institutes into a global benchmark for academic convergence. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
American Ogan Gurel aims to reorganize a Korean research institutes into a global benchmark for academic convergence. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

How to trigger innovation

DGIS is the most recently established of Korea’s elite science and technology institutions and the smallest (175 faculty, 750 undergraduates and 480 graduate students). Arranged around a typical department system, its academics are evaluated by the number of reports they place in academic journals.  Gurel believes “transformative leadership” is required.

“We call ourselves a convergence university and we have a global mission, but somehow it seems like the same ‘Korean gravity’ effect rules,” he said. “We don’t really see convergence and don’t see as much global engagement as a top-ranked global university should.”

He offers two solutions. Firstly, he wants to globalize by incentivizing professors to focus on collaborative research with overseas colleagues and institutions. This would have three benefits.

“One: It is difficult to produce a poor-quality paper in collaboration with others,” he said. “Two: It pushes the Korean scientific community to engage with the outside world. Three: It actually gives greater awareness by the outside world of the good work we are doing.”

Second is the need for convergence.  At Samsung, Gurel had been astonished at how fire-walled the culture was: Once, after he lunched with members of a different team, his fellow team members were taken aback and suspicious. “The future of Korea is not around a specific tech like 5G or AI, though these are necessary components,” he insisted. “Innovation is very much about bringing different ideas together.”

The key to effective innovate comes from business. “The best companies – and this is a central tenet of marketing – do not focus on technologies, but on solving customers’ problems,” he said. “A company that says, ‘Our vision is to be the best ultrasound company’ will probably ultimately lose to a company whose vision is to provide the best and safest imaging of health and disease.”

To inculcate this mindset, Gurel offers a big idea: Restructure DGIST’s organization, not around academic disciplines, but around big-picture, real-world issues such as climate change, food security, human-digital interfaces, chronic diseases and aging.

“For example, a center for climate change would have people specialized in energy technologies, geology and and geophysics combining with people in business, in regulation and even in international diplomacy,” he said. “Some of these might be full professors researching [traditional] areas, but there would be flexible collaborations with experts worldwide.”

This would douse firewalls, promote globalization and engender new solutions, Gurel reckons, while offering a benchmark for academia worldwide.

“Discipline-based organizations date back to the Middle Ages,” he said. “DGIST is new and small enough to implement and to truly be a leader – not just in Korean education, but globally.”

Inspired by his experience at ILL – established after World War II to advance Franco-German amity – Gurel would also seek cooperation with a North Korean institution.  An invitation to DGIST’s existing collegiate rowing competition – which already hosts teams from Cambridge, Harvard, MIT and ETIHAD – could be the vehicle. “I think that the symbolism of this would send a powerful message of collaboration on multiple levels,” he said.

But to execute, Gurel must first win DGIST’s presidential election – and a negative precedent exists. Nobel-winning Stanford academic Robert Laughlin was booted from his headship of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in 2006 after faculty rebelled against his proposals to shift KAIST to the private sector, increase enrollment, and include popular undergraduate courses.  An embittered Laughlin claimed he was victimized as an outsider.

Gurel believes his own cross-silo background makes him a better candidate.

“[Laughlin] failed as he did not know Korea and did not apply the cardinal rule of consulting: ‘Know the client before you propose,’” Gurel said. “He was a very distinguished scientist, but not broadly experienced in the wider aspects of innovation and university management.  I have spanned Asia, Europe and the USA; I have done clinical medicine, basic science, business, consulting and management. I have been convergent my whole life.”