A building at the University of California, San Francisco, where Samsung is working on an alliance to validate medical devices.Samsung Electronics

Samsung Electronics already has a smartwatch, and is positioned to play a broader role in the wearable device movement. But there’s an issue looming for gadgets focused on health and fitness, one the company is moving to address with an unusual alliance.

The South Korean giant on Friday is announcing a joint project with medical professionals at the University of California, San Francisco. Their goal: to create a new test bed for the medical sensors and related technology that startups and other companies have lately been churning out, hoping to scientifically validate their effectiveness.

Michael Blum, a cardiologist who is UCSF’s associate vice chancellor for informatics, said there has not been rigorous enough testing to give patients and doctors confidence in using many health-related devices. So adoption of such products has not come as quickly as it could have.

“The reality is, some of this stuff is going to work and some of it isn’t,” Blum said.

The testing effort will be called UCSF-Samsung Digital Health Innovation Lab, and based at the university’s Mission Bay campus south of downtown San Francisco. Financial details of the alliance aren’t being disclosed.

The project is the latest sign that the technology wave called the Internet of Things is gathering momentum–and prompting the creation of many new startups.

Spearheading the effort from the Samsung side is Young Sohn, a semiconductor industry veteran who recently joined the company and holds the title of president and chief strategy officer. He heads up a new outpost in Silicon Valley called the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center, which engages in a range of activities to aid startups and benefit from them.

For example, Samsung has set up a $100 million fund that backs entrepreneurs in fields such as electronic components, systems and technology infrastructure. Ten investments have been made so far.

The company also has set up what investors and tech executives call “incubators,” which are office spaces that house and assist startups in a variety of ways. Samsung is also assembling a team of “innovation fellows,” or veteran tech executives that will help coach young entrepreneurs, Sohn says.

Sohn says Samsung concluded that the old ways of encouraging innovation simply weren’t fast enough. “So we started betting rather than just waiting,” he says.

Samsung is definitely interested in creating a business in health-related products, but it is not plunging full-bore into medical devices that require government approvals, Sohn says. That won’t be the focus of the technology to be evaluated by the new center in San Francisco.

Blum said evaluations by agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration come into play with devices used to make medical diagnoses and decisions on treatment. The San Francisco center, by contrast, will focus more on consumer-oriented technology that gives people information to keep them well, he said.

Many of the devices in the health field are designed to exchange data with smartphones, where specialized apps can help interpret the information and in some cases transmit it to the Web.

Samsung, as the biggest maker of smartphones, naturally benefits from the trend and helps encourage it by packing more processing power in its handsets. “You are carrying a supercomputer around in your pocket,” Sohn says.


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