With China and other emerging countries quickly becoming more technologically competitive, South Korean companies could face losing customers to this new competition.
One notable effort to mitigate this possibility is being launched in the area of photonics, where Korea hopes to be one of the top five countries by revenue by 2010.
"One of the most important areas is high-brightness LEDs," says Taeil Kim, president of the Korea Photonics Technology Institute (KOPTI). Today, the quantity of production is much larger in Taiwan, he says, but the two countries are roughly matched when it comes to technological development.
"One of the problems is that the LED market, for mobile handsets, is kind of saturated now," he says.
"The Korean LED vendors are trying to extend applications to TVs and automobiles. However, in order to make it, we have to compete with Taiwanese companies and Chinese companies and Japanese companies too, in terms of price and quality."
Today, for example, Kim says about two-thirds of all LEDs used in Korea for cell phones are bought from foreign suppliers.
However, the worldwide market for LEDs is expected to grow and will reach $6.8 billion in 2009, twice the 2004 level, reports research firm Strategies Unlimited (Mountain View, CA). Growth will be driven by emerging applications such as illumination, automobile headlamps, and backlights for LCD monitors and TV screens.
"In the next 10 years, solid-state lighting technology will offer very big opportunities, replacing commercial lighting with LEDs," says Kim.
By getting ahead of the technology curve, Korea stands to grab a good share of this new market?and the research money has begun flowing in.
During the first phase of the plan, between 2000 and 2003, the government spent $500 million on photonics research and development infrastructure, according to Kim.
And the money will continue to flow, he adds. For example, the government plans to spend another $380 million by 2008 for solid-state lighting and LEDs.
"This is one of the strategic plans for competition with Taiwan and Japan," he says.
This plan also included the establishment of several research organizations, including the Advanced Photonics Research Institute (APRI), KOPTI, the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology, the Korea Association for Photonics Industry Development, and the ETRI-Optical Communications Center.
A view of the KOPTI campus located in Gwangju, South Korea.
To date, about 230 high-tech companies specializing in areas including semiconductors, optical communication, precision optics, and optical materials have now set up home in Gwangju, which means "city of light" in Korean.
It's no surprise: the city actively supports research and development projects, commercialization plans, and marketing and advertisement. In addition, photonics companies can rent space in the integrated photonics complex at about $1.50 per square meter.
On top of that, the city offers financing for construction, equipment purchases, and operating costs, and is working with the Korean government and private investors to create a dedicated fund just for the photonics industry.
Altogether, the city of Gwangju plans to spend $100 million between now and 2008 to create a cluster of 40 to 50 LED-related companies.
So far, nine such companies have moved into the business incubation center in KOPTI.
Last year the region's 230 high-tech companies recorded total sales of $1.2 billion, according to statistics from Gwangju's Investment Promotion Agency.
The city, located in the southern part of the country, aspires to be one of the world's top five photonics clusters by 2010.
That's not to say that industry groups are sitting back and just raking in the government tax breaks and research subsidies.
Yongjo Park, for example, reports his Photonics Program Team at Samsung's Advanced Institute of Technology won't receive support from the Korean government for their current project. His team is working on the development of laser diodes, used for second-generation optical storage and for next-generation displays.
"The rest of the world has economic problems with research budgets," says Clare Byeon, senior research scientist at APRI. Byeon, an American, came to Korea three years ago, attracted by the interesting projects going on in that country.
"There's a big initiative from the government here, and that's pretty unique. Right now, Korea has very exciting things going on."
According to Byeon, Korea is already one of the top nations when it comes to semiconductor materials and display materials.
"And in the rest of the field, it's pretty much on the leading edges," he adds. Byeon works in the area of nonlinear optics, but also is conducting a study of various new materials, such as semiconductor materials and nanostructures.
As part of his job, Byeon is also in charge of international relations and international research collaboration. He's personally involved with collaboration efforts with Cambridge and Manchester universities in the United Kingdom. The institute also works closely with scientists from Japan, China, Germany, and France.
In addition, some of the scientists are involved with industrial projects, including LG and Samsung, Korea's two biggest companies working on photonics.
"One of the focuses of the government initiative is combining academia, industry, and the national government in a systematic approach to gathering all the resources," he says, "so that they can make high-tech, leading-edge products. And, so far, it's working. It's not going to happen in a day, it's a big project. But so far, I think they are moving pretty fast."
Businesses in Korea are also investing in a brighter future in other ways, such as by buying state-of-the-art equipment. Often this equipment is purchased from companies abroad.
For example, EpiValley Co. Ltd., located near Seoul, ordered two Thomas Swan CCS reactors, deposition systems that can increase manufacturing capabilities for high-brightness LEDs, from Aixtron AG based in Aachen, Germany. Samsung Electro Mechanics also bought an MOCVD (metal organic chemical vapor deposition) system from Aixtron.
Meanwhile, Samsung's main competitor?LG Innotek?purchased and put into production the GaNzilla II MOCVD system from Veeco Instruments Inc. (based in Woodbury, NY). Veeco says that its system can increase wafer yield, material quality, and the brightness of gallium nitride-based LEDs.
This burgeoning photonics region presents a key opportunity for companies to take advantage of Korea's success.
Maria Trombly is a freelance business and technology writer based in Shanghai, China.