Lee Seung-gun, the founder and CEO of fintech startup Viva Republica, is the latest to join a growing group of self-made billionaires in South Korea, where family-owned conglomerates have traditionally dominated its economy.
Earlier this week, Viva Republica, which operates the finance app Toss, announced that it has raised $410 million in a round of financing valuing the eight-year-old startup at $7.4 billion. The investors include New York-based Alkeon Capital Management and Altos Ventures in Silicon Valley. Other investors in previous rounds include PayPal, Singapore sovereign-wealth fund GIC and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.
A spokesperson for Toss confirmed that Lee’s stake in Viva Republica is worth more than $1 billion after this week’s funding round. Forbes estimates that Lee owns slightly less than 18% of Viva Republica, worth $1.2 billion (after discounting the valuation because the company is private).
Based in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam neighborhood, Viva Republica was established in 2013. Two years later, it launched Toss as a money transfer service. Since then, Toss has expanded its services to provide loans, check credit scores and invest in stocks, among others.
Toss says on its website that it has over 18 million accumulated users in South Korea from an overall population of 51 million. Viva Republica reported that revenue more than tripled to 390 billion won (about $330 million) in 2020 from the previous year, while losses narrowed to 72.5 billion won from 115 billion won.
Before starting Viva Republica, Lee, who graduated from the prestigious Seoul National University, was a dentist at a hospital affiliated with the Samsung conglomerate. He got the idea to build Toss after being frustrated trying to transfer money through mobile phones. “Toss is how financing should be,” he told Forbes in 2017. “We completely redesigned experience and accessibility in financing services on mobile, and we hope we can provide it to every mobile user in Korea.”
Lee is the latest in a growing list of Korean entrepreneurs to join the three-comma club in recent years. Coupang founder Bom Kim, Bang Shi-hyuk, the founder of the agency behind K-pop sensation BTS, and Chang Byung-gyu, the chairman of online gaming company Krafton, all became billionaires in the past few years.
On this year’s Korea’s richest list, for the first time since Forbes released the inaugural list in 2005, a self-made entrepreneur, Celltrion cofounder Seo Jung-jin, held the No. 1 spot. Previously, the top perch has always been occupied by one of the head honchos of either the Samsung or Hyundai conglomerates, second-generation heirs who inherited their fortune.