Visiting with Dr. Steve Ahn, KAIST K-School Professor and Founder of Leadis Technology

Dr. Steve Ahn from KAIST K-School with National Taiwan University Global MBA students

Earlier this week, the NTU Garage – National Taiwan University’s startup incubator – hosted Dr. Steve Ahn, a professor from Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology. Just call it KAIST. Dr. Ahn gave a room full of MBA students a presentation titled, “My Journey from an Engineer to an Entrepreneur.”

Before KAIST, Steve Ahn founded a company delivering color LCD drivers for cell phones (amongst other innovations) and took the company public. At KAIST, he’s a leader of the K-School, their 1-year entrepreneurship program.

Even though he has an EMBA from INSEAD – Tsinghua University and teaches business school, he says he wouldn’t have done things any differently. Maybe that’s exactly why he’s teaching. I suppose when you’re someone who’s made the choices he has, it’s hard to question them, anyway. Besides, what’s the point of looking back? His connections do help get companies to bring their problems to K-School for students to solve. That’s a huge asset for any school that stakes a claim on innovation and entrepreneurship.

What I ended up learning from Steve Ahn was his attitude towards, well, everything. I say this because usually these presentations are too preachy, or self-serving. But Steve can balance humble and humble brag as well as anyone else I’ve met. Very matter of fact and open about what the process was like between leaving Samsung to start his own venture, Leadis Technology; taking the company public, and leaving it to take on his bucket list.

He’s basically the kind of professor that can talk you into KAIST K-School without saying much because he’s just the way he is. He also sounds more and more like the world’s most interesting man once you get to know how he spent his time, after selling his stake in Leadis.

  • Climbing mountains. Mt. Fuji, 20 times.
  • Moved to Beijing to learn Chinese at Tsinghua University
  • Cooking school in Spain and France
  • Spent a year as a winemaker in Melbourne, Australia
  • Built his own home on Jeju Island
  • Walked the Camino del Santiago in Spain
  • Returned to Europe to learn how to make his own furniture (see below)

不錯,不錯 (not bad, not bad)。

Lessons from Dr. Steve Ahn’s Journey

Korean companies tend to hire top talent from universities to innovate from within, instead of buying startups and companies — unless they’re in a field like artificial intelligence or dealing with Industry 4.0.

South Korea was able to get ahead of Japan in certain areas, because compared to Japan, there are fewer companies in Korea hiring the top talent. Also, a massive amount of resources, “do or die,” was put into it.

Getting investors isn’t necessarily more or less difficult in Asia, even though Leadis was headquartered in Silicon Valley. It depends on product-market fit.

You want your IPO to go quickly because the window of opportunity to get the most money may close quickly. I always felt this was important because the longer you wait, the more people speculate about your competitive position. Speculation decreases confidence, and less confidence cuts your valuation.

March-April is the best time to walk the Camino del Santiago. It gets too hot in the summers. Great, since I was thinking of doing it in April.

Before the Korean War, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea. More natural resources. What’s his point? The world can change quickly.

Dr. Steve Ahn at National Taiwan University