Owin bets big on in-car payment via cigarette lighter [Interview]

In the foreseeable future, internet-connected cars could become the next e-commerce platform, where drivers can fill up gas and pay for a cup of coffee, all without having to leave their seats.

A Seoul-headquartered startup Owin is already rolling out the technology for making in-car payments a reality via the 12V power socket, also known as the cigarette lighter.

It’s simple. The driver has to plug Owin’s flagship product Car ID into the cigarette lighter. The thumb-size device then assigns a unique digital ID to the car, allowing it to communicate with nearby stores through a Bluetooth signal to process orders and make payment.

Found in 2015 by CEO Shin Sung-chul, who ran game companies in the past and Chief Strategic Officer Jung Do-kuen, who worked as a creative director at Cheil Communications and as a design professor, the two-year-old startup has already started servicing several gas stations, restaurants and cafes in mostly Seoul’s Gangnam area.

This was all possible, thanks to Owin’s burgeoning partnership with local conglomerates. It has tied up with oil refiner GS Caltex, telecom operator LG U+ and credit card firm Shinhan Card to service the product. It is betting big on fledgling partnerships with both small and large companies to drive further growth and tap into more retail areas.

“Owin’s business is about creating partnerships with companies that can work together in the connected commerce arena,” Shin told The Investor in an interview earlier this month at its headquarters in Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, central Seoul.

“Our goal is to successfully launch the service based on strong partnerships and ultimately become a global platform for e-commerce in connected cars.”

The following are excerpts from the interview with Owin founders CEO Shin and CSO Jung.

The Investor: How did you start the firm?

Shin: Since 2013, we have been brainstorming on how to jump into the Internet of Things business. We had many ideas, but in the end, concluded technologies related to cars are a good place to start because it is one of the priciest goods and widely used by people. So we established the firm in February 2015 and developed our ideas into the product.

TI: Who are your team members?

Shin: Owin is a team of about 30 people, including three co-founders Shin, Jung and Kim Jae-hyung, who is an advisor and in charge of patent issues. Most of our employees are researchers and we plan to add more staff as our business is growing.

TI: Which are the places customers can use Owin’s Car ID services?

Shin: At the moment, our service is available at 14 GS Caltex oil stations across Seoul. We plan to expand that number to 50 by end of this month and 200 by the year-end. Maybe from next year, consumers will be able to use the service at all the GS Caltex stations across the country.

As for food and beverages, the service is available at 15 cafes and restaurants, which users can look up on our mobile app Pick. We are planning to add more outlets in different areas.

TI: Who are Owin’s potential partners in the domestic market?

Shin: We are currently talking with a major local car brand, as well as social commerce companies to grow our partnership and expand the network.

Jung: The connected car arena itself is still at the nascent stage where many different companies are trying out new things. What Owin is aiming is to become a networking solution platform that allows firms from various areas to come together and be part of the larger connected car alliance to provide effective service to customers.

We established the “Car Commerce Alliance” in March with GS Caltex, LG Uplus and Shinhan Card. In October, we are hosting the second round of the alliance conference, inviting more than 200 firms. We are planning to add more firms to our alliance through the conference.

Owin’s Car ID device and its mobile app Pick.  Owin

TI: Security is a major concern for connected car technology. How do you assure Owin’s product is secure?

Jung: Security is a less of a concern because our product is not connected to the car’s inner network. Instead Owin’s Car ID is plugged into the cigarette lighter for the power source and to receive signals, which works separately from the car’s network system. Also, the information for payment authentication changes every two seconds, which makes it almost impossible to break into the system.

TI: What are your plans for entering the overseas markets?

Shin: We are actively seeking ways to enter the overseas markets. But when introducing our product in other countries, we need many local partners to service the product properly. It’s a big scale of business, so it is important to have a successful launch in Korea, and enter the overseas markets later.

The preparation is coming together. Earlier this year, we formed a partnership with Japanese marketing agency Shinto Tsushin to help us enter the country. We have already started talks with a Japanese car brand.

Last September, Owin established a unit in Singapore with the funds we received from Singapore-based accelerator Airmaker. The Singapore unit will serve as the foothold for our advancement into Southeast Asia.

Jung: Our ultimate goal is to enter the US and European markets in the future. Hopefully, we will tap into global markets from next year.

TI: Are you concerned that conglomerates or other companies will roll out a similar technology?

Shin: As for the technology, other companies could roll out similar products. But we consider our network and business model as part of our core assets. Owin’s business is building relationship with various players based on our device. So it would be hard for other companies to catch up with what we have built so far.

TI: How much investments has Owin raised so far?

Shin: We have received about 2 billion won (US$1.75 million) from a large company in Series A funding. We are looking into attracting more financial investors to expand our network and for global entry.

In 2015, we also received US$100,000 from Google’s early-stage startup fund Google Cloud Platform, which includes access to its network and technology.

TI: Where do you see Owin in the future?

Shin: We want to become a key player in the future connected car commerce industry, by establishing a platform that will be widely used globally. We would also like to go for an IPO in the future.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)

The Investor Profile

Description: Owin is a startup that develops an in-vehicle payment product and platform for connected car commerce.
Founders: CEO Shin Sung-chul, CSO Jung Do-kuen and Advisor Kim Jae-hyung
Headquarters: Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Total equity funding
2 billion won (US$1.74 million)/ Series A / Undisclosed
Website: www.owin.kr

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