Dong-Su Kim: In the Words of a Top- Tier Strategic Investor
Sri Peruvemba, July 19, 2022

DONG-SU KIM LIGHTS UP WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT STARTUP companies and entrepreneurs who he has helped with capital and strategic advice during his career spanning two and a half decades. Kim is the CEO and board member of LG Technology Ventures. As the founding CEO, he started the enterprise from the ground up. Under his guidance, LG Tech Ventures manages more than $400 million of fund assets and invests in early-stage information technology, automotive, manufacturing, life sciences, energy, and advanced materials companies. Limited partners include LG Electronics, LG Chemical, LG Display, LG Energy Solution, LG Innotek, LG Uplus, and LG CNS. Some notable investments include Amwell (NYSE: AMWL), Arcellx (NASDAQ: ACLX), Datafleets (acquired by LiveRamp), Deel, MakinaRocks, Moloco, OTI, SES (NYSE: SES), and Sandbox. In 2021, LG Tech Ventures invested $75 million in 18 deals. Previously, Kim was vice president and general manager of Samsung Ventures America, where he managed offices in Menlo Park, Boston, London, and Tel Aviv. He led investments in more than 30 companies in diverse sectors, including semiconductors (Soft Machines, Verisilicon, Wave Computing), equipment (DCG Systems, IMS, Reno Subsystems), materials (Nanosys, NexPlanar, Voltaix), and storage systems (Pure Storage). Between two tours at Samsung, he was a director at Asia Evolution, an investment bank covering mid-market financing, private placement, and M&As. His first stint at Samsung was as director at the Technology Strategy Office. As a member of the CTO’s staff, he was respon- sible for strategic venture investments and technology alliances. He also worked in technology planning at its Telecom R&D center, responsible for searching new research topics. Kim started his professional career as a technical leader in the Fiber Optics Business Unit developing fiber optic components. His past board of director appointments include Datera, Digital Specialty Chemicals, Femtometrix, Inpria, Reno Subsystems, SBA Materials, SVXR, D2S, DCG Systems (acquired by FEI), NexPlanar (acquired by Cabot), Voltaix (acquired by Air Liquide), Panasas, and Pixtronix (acquired by Qualcomm). Kim also served on the Investment Advisory Committee for Sierra Ventures. He has an MA and a PhD in electrical engineering from Princeton University and a BS in applied physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).


Sri Peruvemba: Over the years that I have known you, I always remember you as an investor and board member. What do you like the most about this line of work?

Dong-Su Kim (DSK): As an investor, I meet [with] a lot of com- panies. I am constantly learning something new; every company I review has some interesting technology or a business model I hadn’t seen before. For a naturally curious person like me, this is a source of great learning. I meet extraordinary people in this job. Startup company founders are usually amazing people; they are hardworking and interesting to meet. I enjoy helping such people succeed by providing them with capital and advice. I have a great job.


Sri: What types of investments are you making?

DSK: Yes, I did. My father was a diplomat, and he served overseas. I spent quite a few years in Latin America growing up. During elementary and middle school, I spent three years in Chile, two in Ecuador, and one in Panama before going back to Korea. My family believed that the United States had the best university system, which is why so many of us go to school here, isn’t it? They sent me off to a small boarding school in Washington, DC (St. Albans) to complete high school.


Sri: Growing up, you had quite the international background, didn’t you?

DSK: Yes, I did. My father was a diplomat, and he served overseas. I spent quite a few years in Latin America growing up. During elementary and middle school, I spent three years in Chile, two in Ecuador, and one in Panama before going back to Korea. My family believed that the United States had the best university system, which is why so many of us go to school here, isn’t it? They sent me off to a small boarding school in Washington, DC (St. Albans) to complete high school.


Sri: Do you still speak Spanish?

DSK: Yes, I do still speak some Spanish. With my for- mative years spent in Latin America, I have a greater appreciation for the culture; people in Latin America enjoy life a bit more than we do, I think. I can see their point of view.


Sri: What did you study in the United States?

DSK: I found that I was good at math and science; while in high school, in the 80s, computers were the in-thing. They were thought of as the future. I wanted to stay close to science and computers, so after grad- uating high school, I went to Caltech; my undergrad was in applied physics. For my PhD, I still stayed in the science domain, went to Princeton, studied opto- electronics; it was physics oriented but within the electrical engineering faculty.


Sri: Most students with advanced degrees from the United States choose to remain in the States to pursue their career. What prompted you to return to Korea?

DSK: As a Korean citizen, I had mandatory military service to complete, so I went back. I also had a strong interest in learning and understanding Korea—my motherland—so it was a good opportunity. I did not have to serve in active duty; with my PhD, I was allowed to work in a government-approved job for five years. Samsung offered me such an opportu- nity to work in their R&D; given my background, I was quite suited to work on fiber optic components research.


Sri: Samsung is a major success story globally. What was it like when you started in 1997?

DSK: Samsung was growing rapidly. It wasn’t quite a top-tier company at that point, but they became a force; they did many things right. While I worked with very hard-working colleagues, the corporate culture outside of work is family-like; a lot of socializing is expected of you. It took a while to get used to; it was a competitive work culture. Given my background in physics/optics/sensors, I was given the opportunity to work in the Fiber Optics Components division. My background from Princeton came in handy. Professor Stephen Forrest was my advisor; he pioneered OLEDs and sensors. Though I worked on sensors, I did learn quite a bit about OLEDs as well. The fiber optics market was doing well when I started, but even hot markets turn, and this one turned quickly. By 2001, the market had crashed, and Samsung decided to exit. I then had the option of another R&D role, but I was always interested in business, so I volunteered for a role in technology planning and alliance strategy; we were finding R&D partners. We met with universities and R&D centers. Our ventures team helped introduce me to various entities that we could partner with.

Kim Dong-su is standing on top of a mountain

Sri: Was that your foray into the world of venture capital? Did you have to start from the bottom? 

DSK: There was some mystique with the world of venture capital; I wanted to give it a try. The head of the corporate ventures team decided to take on the risk of hiring me—I had little business background at that time. He sent me to a crash MBA-like course in 2005. In this role, I was doing technical due diligence, and after some training, was doing my own deals altogether. There were two teams then, the Electronics Ventures team and the Samsung Ventures team. I helped both by explaining the technology to those without the background, so they appreciated me, and I did not have to start at the bottom. I was one of the team from the get-go.


Sri: You were working for the most prestigious company in Korea, in a job that you wanted, so why leave?

DSK: There was a consolidation at that time, and my new role was no longer with the ventures team. I was in this state of discontent when an opportunity popped up. The former head of Goldman Sachs in Korea started a boutique investment firm, Asia Evolution, and he wanted someone with big company structure/experience. I was quite excited to go work for them since I had no experience in the traditional financial industry. I started there in 2008; it was an investment bank, a very intense work environment. I learnt to go out and earn every dollar. You are not learning just financial skills; you learn to be a survivor, you find customers, you are constantly hustling.


Sri: You were there for a year and half and Samsung lured you back?

DSK: While I liked investment banking, I wasn’t using my technical skills; all I was doing was hustling. I wanted to get back to venture capital. Samsung called and offered me a role in Silicon Valley, something I always wanted to do.


Sri: New role, different country, at the epicenter of venture capital; how was it?

DSK: I was quite excited. When I arrived, the markets had just crashed. Valuations in 2009 were down quite a bit, and lots of good companies were looking for funding. It was a good time to get started; there was a lot of work to be done. We had a small office. I covered both displays and semi- conductors; we grew the business to over $100 million per year in deals. We opened an office in Boston; I also managed the European office in London and the one in Tel Aviv. I did many semiconductor deals and used to say that my job was to help Samsung keep up with Moore’s law. In the display/touch space, we invested in Nanosys, Pixtronix, and Cambrios. Michael Pachos who you also know, came in and took over the display portfolio from me and grew it further.


Sri: As a strategic/corporate investor, did you partner with pure VCs, and how was that experience?

DSK: We worked with tier-one VCs like KPCB, Sequoia, and others. Their portfolio companies wanted to work with Samsung, so they introduced us to deals. I embraced the opportunity and built a network. If I did not have the Samsung name behind me, it would have been harder to meet these VCs and their portfolio companies. They are top tier for a reason; they do certain things really well. I was most impressed with how they helped their portfolio companies and grew them nicely. They have the capital, the network, and they provide good advice on the board, particularly good governance. They aren’t passive investors; they really try and help. Once you experience this, word spreads. Good companies come to you for help, so they end up having access to the best deals. To top-tier investors, it is not about investing in the best companies; it’s about building the best companies. I learned all of this by watching the best.


Sri: Wow, you had front row seats to the Silicon Valley experience. Do you have an example of an investment you did that brought you both joy and great returns? What was unique about that company? The tech? The CEO?

DSK: I do indeed. Inpria, an Oregon State University spin-off based in Corvallis, is a great example. I met with Andrew Grenville, their CEO—great scientist. They were making EUV photoresists and had seed funding, but VCs would not invest. I liked them instantly, believed in their mission. During due diligence, I consulted with my R&D team, who confirmed that their technology was good, and that the incumbent technology had hit its limits, so Inpria had potential. Their valuation was single digit millions of dollars in 2013. We led the round and continued to lead the future rounds. They did extremely well and recently got acquired by JSR for half a billion dollars. We had taken a fundamental technology, backed them from the beginning, devel- oped a close-working relationship, and helped them in their journey. I love seeing good people succeed.


Sri: Who were some of your more frequent co-investors?

DSK: This business is very dependent on the par- ticular investors you work with, not just the name of the firm; but the individuals you work with can make a big difference. I worked closely with Quinn Li at Qualcomm Ventures, Sean Doyle at Intel Capital, Anand Kamannavar at Applied Materials, and a few others that we co-invested with.


Sri: In your current role as CEO of LG Tech Ventures, you built everything from the ground up. I remember speaking to you literally when you started. How has that journey been?

DSK: I always wanted to build an organization from scratch, and that was the opportunity offered to me in 2018; I could base it on a good corporate venture model. I would make decisions here in Silicon Valley, have the freedom to invest in more companies and technologies, and be faster. Its relatively easier than building a product/tech company, and the LG group was very helpful. I get to focus a bit more on OLED; there aren’t that many investors in the materials space. We are looking at OLED, microLED, light-field dis- plays, sensors, and speakers used in displays, etc. We hired Rob (McIntyre), Taejoon (Park), and Anshul (Agarwal), who all came in with strong backgrounds; they have been doing great. I am fortunate to have them on the team.


Image about the Comments reagrding warable device

Sri: You meet a lot of entrepreneurs in your line of work. What do you look for before investing, and what advice do you give them to increase their chances of success?

DSK: With any entrepreneur, I am usually impressed by their passion and drive. I am also interested in unique technologies and business models. I advise entrepreneurs to think through what they do best. Don’t come to me and say that you will build the next-generation display technology and do it all by yourself. Instead, show me that you have identified your core competency, have thought through how you will do better than say LG or Google or Apple. How do you plan to build partnerships and leverage your position to build a company? I like to see more focused startups with a plan and not the ones with merely grandiose dreams.


Sri: After initial funding, what is your advice to CEOs on sustaining the business in terms of ongoing fund- ing, key areas they should focus on?

DSK: I would say, from day one, be careful about who you receive money from. The investor should be committed to your journey; they should have both the money (not a fund that is closer to the end of its life) and bandwidth to support you. Your first raise must be sufficient to get you to the next milestone, and remember that the milestones are typically delayed, so plan for it. If you think it takes a year, plan for 18 months. You need the right team; hire good people. Don’t fuss about the compensation or stock options; your people will make or break your business. Your investors will provide you with free advice and help you; they will introduce you to other investors and potential customers. You should reach out to other industry CEOs and constantly learn best practices.


Sri: Your job is quite hectic with various portfolio companies, several LPs, a team to manage, travel, family time, etc. What are some of your personal habits that keep you going?

DSK: The most enjoyable thing I do is play golf. I picked up golf at an early age while in South America and continue to play. It’s a frustrating game at times. It’s frustrating enough to take my mind off my job, or else I am thinking of my job all the time. I do some basic exercise, spend a lot of time with my team. We do team dinners and outings to understand each other and be able to get things off your chest, which is hard to do in the office.


Sri: What’s your take on mentors?

DSK: I have been fortunate to have good mentors. They don’t have to be famous or very experienced. While at school, I learnt more from postdoc Dr. Chin-Ping Chao than from my professors. Getting daily advice from some- one you can learn from is more important than meeting a famous person once a quarter for 10 minutes. J.J. Kwon, who took a gamble on me early in my career, was a very helpful mentor. Colleagues like Dr. Ben Yu at Sierra Ventures is constantly available to give me good counsel.


Sri: If I were a fresh grad that just joined the display industry, and I want to aim for a CEO job in the future, what are some things I should be investing my time in? 

DSK: Fresh grads should find what they are good at; this is better than to follow your passion. Define what you are good at, and it will eventually become your passion. Professor Scott Galloway at NYU advises young people to do exactly this. Always think of first principles, the technology, figure out how things work. The rewards won’t be immediate, but they will serve you well. Think of people and their passions, why they behave the way they do. It will help you understand them better. If you understand the other person’s point of view, you can serve them better.


Sri: From your vantage point at LG, one of the leaders in the industry, where do you see the display industry going? 

DSK: The display industry needs a new driver; the current technology is so good. OLED TVs or LCD/QD TVs at the high end are available at a reasonable price. How much better can it get? It’s not easy anymore. It’s possible that the market might not demand better displays in the future. 3D displays have been an underachiever in the past; even movie theaters have tried them and failed. The satisfaction of watching 3D content wasn’t as enjoyable as watch- ing the same on a very large 2D display. Light-field displays are interesting to me. The drive could come from AR/VR; the performance of displays in these applications are not there yet. It’s heavy, the resolution is low, it’s expensive. If AR becomes inexpensive and light enough to wear comfortably, people will wear them. It does not have to be standalone; it can be connected to your phone. Displays are a key component to make AR/VR successful and truly wearable. Once the quality and performance are there and the price is reasonable, everyone will wear them like earbuds.


Sri: Thank you kindly for sharing your story, your experiences, and your insights.


Sri Peruvemba is an associate editor for Information Display. He is the CEO of Marketer International in the Silicon Valley and works with high-tech companies in board and advisory roles. He can be reached at


- Originally published at | July/August 2022