Starting off as a small R&D (Research and Development) company, Bioara has expanded into a global company in less than six years. Bioara now exports premium fermented cordyceps extract, Bonchowi, to 13 countries and cultivates cordyceps through automated smart farms. Recently, it won the Seoul Business Agency’s Seoul Awards for its outstanding product and was certified an Excellent Company of Seoul by the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Ewha Voice met CEO Kim Hyo-jeong, the leading figure of Bioara’s success and alumna of Ewha’s Department of Nutritional Science & Food Management, to discuss her experience.
Before founding Bioara, Kim worked as a food product developer and nutritionist. Although she loved her job, she yearned to develop a health product of her own. The ingredient that caught her immediate attention was cordyceps.
Cordyceps is a renowned medicinal mushroom that grows from the nutrients of insects. It is recognized as one of the three major herbal medicines along with red ginseng and velvet antlers. According to Kim, cordyceps not only works as an antioxidant but also boosts the immune system and reduces inflammation — making it a true panacea.
Only four months after founding her company, Kim had to fight an unexpected battle with sarcoma cancer. Due to her severe tumor condition, she was sent to an organ transplantation center immediately.
“It broke my heart when I met patients at the center who were on the verge of death,” Kim said. “Knowing that pursuing a path in anticancer R&D is arduous, I wanted to avoid that career as much as possible. However, after being a cancer patient myself, I decided to dedicate my life to conducting cordyceps research and extracting their strong immune and anti-cancer ingredients for the well-being of people.”
Even after surviving cancer, Kim faced countless dilemmas in running her business. In order to protect Bioara’s research data from competitors, she needed money to pay for patents, trademarks, and spawn registrations. Yet, she had no interest in seeking external investments. She could not allocate funds in marketing because most of Bioara’s investments were being poured into R&D. To make matters worse, China, the company’s major exporting country, banned sales of Bioara’s cordyceps for containing 10 times more active ingredients, substances that allow medicines to have an effect in one’s body, than Chinese cordyceps.
“We decided to rely on one marketing strategy: product is marketing,” she said. “We invested in R&D even more to develop a high-quality cordyceps extract and promote it to the global market.”
Bioara’s strategy was a success. It seized an opportunity to promote Bonchowi as a product representing South Korea at a global exposition. Foreign markets began to gradually recognize Bonchowi’s exceptional cordyceps ingredients. Kim claimed that some of her happiest moments while running Bioara include when the president of a foreign pharmaceutical company in search of the best cordyceps visited for supplies, and when the company won the Innovation Award at the Shanghai Expo, the largest exposition in China.
Despite hitting major milestones, Kim continued to seek better quality cordyceps. As cordyceps is vulnerable to heavy metal and bacterial contamination which can cause problems during cultivation stages, she decided to implement smart farms to provide a sterile cultivation environment. Through automated smart farms, cordyceps can grow in an optimal environment that is adjusted every moment.
Bioara continues to experience ups and downs. Due to COVID-19, Bioara faced difficulties in the export market again as many overseas businesses shut down. However, Kim and her employees have pushed forward, shifting their focus to the domestic market. In 2021, Bonchowi entered major department stores and local pharmacies, increasing sales by 30 percent compared to the previous year.
Kim strongly encouraged young and old alike to start a business. Her secret to a successful startup does not originate from business strategies, but depends on the quality of one’s character. Based on the teachings of her mentors, a successful entrepreneur must be responsible, virtuous, active, persistent, and patient.
“Running a company is not like studying — you are not doing it alone,” she said. “Before expanding your network, it is essential to become a reliable individual in order to meet good people who lead and help you along the way. You must be in the position to embrace people with virtue to achieve the same objective, share the same dreams, and work together as a team.”
Bioara has long-term plans to develop new cordyceps-based drugs. In the meantime, Kim wants to focus on globally promoting the excellence of Korean cordyceps and open the company’s first cafe in South Korea that sells cordyceps-based coffee and tea in 2022.
“I hope Bioara is recognized as a company that presents a healthy future where people can appear younger, live longer, and stay happier through Bonchowi,” Kim said. “Personally, I want to remain a key figure who created a company where young people dream of becoming a part of Bioara and work as bio-warriors for a disease-free world.”