Why the APAC head of Google for Startups sees enormous growth potential for AI startups in Asia

In his role as head of Google’s startup support arm in Asia Pacific, Mike Kim sees promising growth opportunities for AI startups in the region, thanks in part to government support for increasingly important technology, a large talent pool, and a rushed populace.


TThe Impatience of Asian Millennials and Gen Zers is one of many reasons why Mike Kim, head of Google for Startups Asia-Pacific, sees strong growth potential for artificial intelligence startups in the region.

“Young people in Asia want things now,” Kim says in a video interview via Google Meet. “AI enables people to access some of the best resources, whether in healthcare or finance, at their fingertips. That’s why people are so excited about this technology.”

Kim knows all too well Asia’s need for speed. Raised in Silicon Valley, he worked for about a decade in the United States at technology companies such as LinkedIn and mobile game maker Zynga. Then, in late 2014, Kim, a Korean, moved to Seoul to join Woowa Brothers, South Korea’s leading food delivery startup, and experienced the country’s fast-paced culture firsthand. “We call it ‘ppalli-ppalli’ [culture] in Korea,” says Kim, which means “quick, quick” in Korean.

Two years later, Kim joined Google for Startups as Manager of Partnerships in Asia Pacific. A year later, he was promoted to lead Google for Startups for Asia Pacific and relocated to Singapore, another dynamic startup hub in Asia, where Google has its regional headquarters. In his role as head of Google’s startup support arm in Asia Pacific, Kim sees promising growth opportunities for AI startups in the region, thanks in part to government support for the increasingly important technology, a large talent pool and a rushed population.

Kim points to Seoul-based AI For Pet as an example of a fast-growing AI startup in Asia Pacific. Founded just three years ago by Euna Hur, AI For Pet runs a smartphone app that can detect eye and skin diseases in cats and dogs using the phone’s camera and AI algorithms. The startup is working to expand its diagnostic capabilities to include gum disease and joint abnormalities.

“Would you like to go to the vet, queue and wait a few hours to see – maybe in 24 hours – why your dog is sick, or take a quick one-minute picture of your dog at home and get answers?” says Kim. According to the startup, more than a million samples of imagery labeled by veterinary experts were used to develop AI For Pet’s AI models.

AI For Pet has already raised millions of dollars in funding from investors including the state-owned Industrial Bank of Korea, Korea Asset Investment Securities and POSTECH Holdings, an accelerator backed by Pohang University of Science and Technology, one of South Korea’s leading technology universities becomes . Last year, the startup graduated from Shinhan Square Bridge Incheon, a startup support program funded by South Korea’s Shinhan Financial Group, Korea’s Ministry of SMEs and Startups, Incheon City Government and Celltrion, the drugmaker of Korean billionaire Seo Jung-jin. is supported. And earlier this month, AI For Pet graduated from Google for Startups’ Cloud Academy, a three-month program that provides startups with mentoring and training in data analytics and machine learning, among other things.

Asia’s rapidly aging population is another reason Kim is bullish on AI startups. According to a 2019 United Nations report, the region is home to the seven fastest aging populations in the world: South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Macau, Maldives, Thailand and Hong Kong. Japan already has the oldest population in the world – a title it has held since the mid-2000s.

By 2040, the Asia-Pacific region will be home to more than half of the world’s elderly population (aged 65 and over), according to research firm Euromonitor. “While Japan will remain the oldest country in the world with the highest proportion of people over 65 through 2040, South Korea and Singapore will rise to the top five oldest countries, driven by decades of low fertility rates,” Euromonitor said in a report.

“If you have aging populations like Korea and Japan that need to gravitate toward more hardware and robotics, the technology or software in the robot uses AI,” says Kim. “AI can support a company when there aren’t enough people to hire. So countries facing a massive demographic cliff will use AI even more because they need it.”

Latona in Japan helps companies do this. The Tokyo-based startup offers AI-powered hardware and software that helps automate and digitize processes. In December 2020, Latona launched an AI-powered app called OMOTE-Bako, which digitizes front and back-end processes for hotels and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), such as reservations and check-in. Last year, the startup received about $10 million in investments from SoftBank Corp. billionaire Masayoshi Son and Japanese wealth manager Sparx Group.

Latona is led by CEO Kyoko Otawa, who co-founded the startup in 2018 after serving as a technology and financial advisor at IT consultancy Accenture and as a consultant at billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani’s Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten. In 2020, Otawa was one of seven female founders in Asia invited to participate in Google for Startups’ Immersion: Women Founders program, which offers mentoring and networking opportunities. And in May, Latona completed the Google for Startups Accelerator program for Japan, where the startup received training on Google products like its TensorFlow machine learning platform, mentoring from Google employees and industry experts, and networking opportunities.

Kim also sees a big opportunity in the fast-growing fintech space, particularly in India and Southeast Asia, where millions of people don’t use banks or other traditional institutions. “You can reinvent the way people bank and invest, and many can use AI technology to do that,” says Kim, citing NIRA, based in southern India’s tech hub Bengaluru, as an example.

Founded in 2017 by Nupur Gupta and Rohit Sen, both formerly of Goldman Sachs, NIRA operates an app that offers small personal loans (up to 100,000 rupees or $1,250). For example, AI technology can be used to speed up credit checks and loan approvals. In 2019, the startup completed a mentorship program in India run by leading US accelerator TechStars and completed Google for Startups’ India Accelerator program.

Almost a quarter of all Indian adults, or 230 million people, are still unbanked, according to the World Bank. “There’s a huge unbanked population,” says Kim. “So in some ways this is a big challenge, but in other ways it’s a great opportunity.”

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