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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

South Korea: At Work in Korea‏

November 9th, 2010 · 4 Comments

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On Saturday morning I got back in Seoul at the Holiday Inn Seongbuk after my first full day in Korea. Friday was a “work day” on this trip that seamlessly combines business and pleasure.

The phrase “work day” has to go in quotation marks because I enjoy my work so much that I don’t usually draw a boundary between it and vacation. And yesterday that would have been impossible even if I had tried.

My friend and hostess, Margaret Leesong, came to my hotel in mid-morning to take me to Wonju city, where her company, i-SENS Inc., built its factory to make test strips for its blood glucose monitors.

Margaret is a remarkable woman. Charming and vivacious, she looks much like an attractive young Korean woman, and is the i-SENS director of international business relations. But she is the mother of three children with her husband, Alex Leesong, who also is an i-SENS executive. And legally she is not a Korean — she is an Australian citizen.

Margaret Leesong

Margaret Leesong

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Born in Korea, her name was Minsun Song when she married Inkeun Lee. In the States they changed their first names to Margaret and Alex respectively and combined their family names. Margaret lived in the States from 1973 to 1978 and then again from 1988 to 1996, when she moved to Australia, remaining there until 2005. After her college years at Seoul University in 1996 she earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from Purdue University in Indiana and an LLB (law degree) from the University in Sydney in 2000. She speaks flawless English and even told me that she dreams in English.

Her college and postgraduate education took 13 years to complete. I asked her what drove her to seek her extensive education.

She claims to be a not unusual example of Korean culture. She attributes the country’s quest for education to its Confucianism, which permeates its culture. Mentioning that education has been the main engine of Korea’s spectacularly rapid growth, Margaret says that while Communism seems to have killed Confucianism in China, it is alive and well in Vietnam, which in now beginning to take off. My father, who had a lifelong quest for education, which he achieved against long odds, also seems to have had much of the Confucianism ethic imbued in him.

When Margaret met me at the hotel on Friday morning, we took a taxi to the bus station, where we took a two-hour ride to Wonju, a much smaller city of about 300,000 people in northeastern Korea. From there a driver and tour guide from the company picked us up and took us to the factory.

This factory makes all of the test strips for the two dozen or so blood glucose meters that i-SENS sells around the world under both its brand name and that of many other companies as an OEM. In the U.S. its best selling meter is the CareSens N (the “N” stands for no-coding). The factory has a capacity of producing one billion test strips per year, making it one of the five or six largest such factories in the world.

We started our visit by meeting the two founders of the company for lunch in the company cafeteria. We had the standard lunch of the day except the cafeteria staff added a salad for me and for the chief technology officer, who explained to me that salad isn’t typical lunch fare in Korea. Of course, lunch also included kimchi, which I have had at every meal in Korea.

Lunch at i-SENS: Margaret, Dr. Nam, Four Visiting Professors, Dr. Cha, Me

Lunch at i-SENS: Margaret, Dr. Nam, Four Visiting Professors, Dr. Cha, Me

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About 135 people work in production at the Wonju factory. Another 128 or so people work in administration, sales, marketing, R&D, and other departments of the company offices in in the Seongbuk district of Seoul, near the hotel where I am staying.

The CEO, Geun Sig Cha, was one of the two men who founded i-SENS in 2000. Dr. Cha has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Michigan and has a second full-time job as a professor of chemistry at a university in Seoul. The CTO, or chief technology officer, Hakhyun Nam, has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Michigan State University and also has a second full-time job as a professor of chemistry at a university in Seoul. Drs. Cha and Nam have worked together for more than 18 years in the same field.

I had not even expected to meet the company’s two leaders and much less have such a pleasant and relaxed conversation with them over the course of many hours. When I did meet the CEO and CTO, I expected them to be stiff and standoffish. Quite the contrary, they were most welcoming and pleasant and cheerful, telling me that they have followed my work for many years.

After lunch, Margaret, Dr. Cha, and I toured the clean rooms of the factory. Completely decked out in hair coverings, robes, and slippers, we went in through an air shower that removed our dust. The factory struck me as being quite different from the other strip-making factory that I had toured a couple of years ago, Roche’s factory for making Aviva meter test strips in Indianapolis.

Touring the i-SENS Strip Factory with Margaret and Dr. Cha

Touring the i-SENS Strip Factory with Margaret and Dr. Cha

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Drs. Cha and Nam were interested in my comparisons of the two factories. The amazing thing was that they had never seen a factory for making test strips before they build their factory between 2000 and 2003, when it went into production. Dr. Nam told me that his team designed the factory on their own, scaling up from the logic of laboratory design.

The other thing that surprised me most about the factory was that the employees seemed to have a good job. Far from working in the robotic environment that I assumed all factories in Asia had, their work conditions are pleasant and almost relaxed. And, of course, far from being the grimy, dirty environment I associate in my mind with factory work, their working conditions are as clean as we can have.

i-SENS is privately held, owned by its employees including not only Drs. Cha, Nam, and Leesong (i.e. Margaret), but also including staff like factory workers. I think that this ownership accounts for a lot of the good vibes I felt there. A venture capitalist firm also owns a part of i-SENS.

Ironically, the man who designed the factory that helps millions of people around the world to control their diabetes himself became diabetic a couple of years ago. Dr. Nam told me that he started feeling very thirsty and also got so tired when driving from Seoul to the factory in Wonju that he often had to pull over to take a nap at a rest stop. Of course, he knew about diabetes but was sure that diabetes wasn’t the problem, because nobody else in his family has diabetes. In wasn’t until his wife, who was then a nurse and is now a professor, suggested that he check his blood glucose that he knew.

About eight months ago, he bought a meter set from his company as a present for one of his friends. Of course, he bought an i-SENS meter. He set the time and few other basic parameters of the meter before he gave it to his friend. He then checked his own glucose level as a test. To his surprise, his blood glucose level was above 400 mg/dl, which he and I both know is incredibly high (a non-diabetic level is about 80 to 100). He couldn’t believe it. So he kept on testing — with similar results. That was really bad news because he knew then that either his work producing blood glucose meters and test strips or his body was faulty.

His body had failed him. Or, perhaps more accurately he had failed his body. With two full-time jobs he had tried to survive on fast food and little exercise. But, as Margaret says, Dr. Nam is a logical and determined man. He immediately changed his life, realizing that control of diabetes comes largely from more activity and less and better food. He began to run regularly and changed his diet to one based on a low level of carbohydrates. For example, he drastically reduced the amount of rice to less than 50 grams (a normal Korean meal provides a bowl of rice that alone contains about 200 grams); rice is one of the two staples of the Korean diet (the other staple, kimchi, could hardly be more healthy). He has never taken any diabetes medication and has now reduced his A1C level to the normal range of 6 or less.

He still had to eat out often, but by testing his blood glucose every half hour after a meal he began to see that apparently similar meals at different restaurants produced quite different blood glucose levels. As a result, he used blood glucose testing to evaluate not only foods but also restaurants, a neat trick that I hadn’t heard of before.

I asked Dr. Nam to write his story in greater detail, because I knew that it can inspire others to follow his course. And Dr. Nam agreed to write it and send it to me by the end of the year so I could post it on the Web.
All i-SENS employees wear badges with their photos around their neck. Margaret pointed out that Dr. Nam’s photo shows the face of a man who was much heavier. I took a photograph if Dr. Nam holding up that picture near his present face.

The Slim Dr. Nam with his Heavier Photo

The Slim Dr. Nam with his Heavier Photo

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After our tour of the factory, we all went back to a conference room where Margaret narrated a video presentation about the company. Then, rather late on Friday afternoon we left the factory. Our driver and tour guide, a Mr. Lee from the factory took Margaret and me to Chiaksan National Park, a few miles beyond Wonju. There we hiked a half hour up a trail along a mountain stream with oriental white oak and hornbeam trees that were beginning to change their color to brilliant red. We hiked up to Guryongsa, an ancient Buddhist temple complex.

Stupa and Temple Buildings

Stupa and Temple Buildings

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Temple Bell Building

Temple Bell Building

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Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

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One of the shots was of a praying mantis, the only being that we saw at prayer.

A Mantis Prays at Guryong Temple

A Mantis Prays at Guryong Temple

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By the time we left the temple the light had faded. We decided to go to dinner there rather than wait until we returned to Seoul, when it would be close to our bedtime. I’m so glad that we ate there, because we chose a traditional Korean restaurant with traditional country food. As usual, I took photos, including one of a cook preparing our meal. I got her to smile by saying, “kimchi!” The only word of Korean that I know, photographers in Korea use it the same way that we say “cheese” when we want people to get ready for a photo.

We ordered a hot and spicy fish stew that was delicious. It also came with 11 side dishes, including four or five forms of kimchi, a couple of delicious root plants related to ginseng, and tasty seaweed. The three of us came nowhere close to finishing all that the restaurant offered us. We sat on mats on the floor at a low table. While we at the fish stew with a spoon, I fumbled for the side dishes with chopsticks.

Service in a Traditional Korean Restaurant

Service in a Traditional Korean Restaurant

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Mr. Lee took us to the bus terminal for the long ride back to Seoul, where Margaret eventually got a taxi to take me to my hotel while she went the other direction in another taxi. Finding taxis was easy, but finding a driver who knew how to get to the Holiday Inn Seongbuk wasn’t. The first three drivers she asked had no idea where the hotel is. Finally, she found one who also didn’t know where it is but had a GPS in his taxi. He got me to my home away from home about 10 p.m.

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Posted in: Asia

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 MJ // Dec 4, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Hello.
    I saw your blog while I was looking for a job in South Korea. Actually, one of my friends who is from the U.S. wants to get a job in Korea but not as an English teacher. He is an User experience designer. (UX/UI designer, interaction designer) and has 3 experience. What does he need to get a job in Korea? How can he find a job in his field?I would be very pleasure if you get me any information that you know. Thank you for your time.

  • 2 David Mendosa // Dec 5, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I hope that someone else can help. But I don’t know.

    David

  • 3 Paul // Oct 20, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Very interesting. I sell I-Sens’s meters/strips in Puerto Rico, and feel very proud to represent an outstanding brand like CareSens N. Your experience in Korea make me feel more confident that I’m helping people here with a very accurate meter.
    Thanks for your notes,
    Paul.

  • 4 David Mendosa // Oct 20, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Dear Paul,

    Thanks for writing. They are good people and have a great product.

    David

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