Samsung Joins Medical Revolution
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  • BRUSSELS – Young Sohn has joined the digital medical revolution. He is building a platform for devices and apps that let consumers manage their fitness and ultimately, he hopes, their healthcare.

    Many others are trying to create this revolution, but few are as high profile as the chief strategy officer of Samsung Electronics. They too want to create bracelets and watches and smartphones and apps that disrupt today's medical establishment.

    At a developer conference in San Francisco this fall Sohn will publish hardware interfaces for Simband, an open specification for a bracelet that can accommodate a wide array of fitness and medical sensors. At the event he also will release software interfaces for writing programs and cloud services for the platform.

    An alpha version of the Simband is already in the hands of about ten developers, mainly startup companies. Sohn is also courting giants such as sensor maker Bosch whom he planned to visit on a swing through Europe.

    "This whole area is in a very early stage and many startups need a platform, so our goal is to have 50-100 companies that plug into these interfaces," said Sohn in an interview at the annual Imec Tech Forum here.

    Samsung will ship its own beta products at the fall event and anticipates commercial versions next year. It also aims to spend $50 million of its venture funds on startups who develop sensors or software for its platform.

    So far it has announced two partnerships. The University of San Francisco will help validate its sensors, presumably at its medical school facilities. The Imec research institute is the first announced partner with a sensor, a multifunction device that measures electrocardiograms, bio-impedance, skin temperature, acceleration, and more.

    "Think of it as Google Glass, our view of a wearable platform," said Sohn.

    Young Sohn talks about his Simband initiative at the Imec Tech Forum in Brussels.

    Of course, Google already has its own recently announced platform called Android Wear. Sohn says Simband is not specifically tied to Android but will use Tizen and other mobile Linux variants including one developed by a software partner in England called TicTrac.

    Samsung formally launched its initiative just days before Apple launched HealthKit and HomeKit, medical and home automation APIs in its iOS version 8. The APIs echo the name of the open-source WebKit software and leverage Apple's existing Made for iPhone program, supported by chip and software companies including Broadcom, Cypress, Marvell, and many others.

    Samsung may be a bit late to the revolution but it brings big guns and will attract followers, said veteran technology analyst Richard Doherty, principal of Envisioneering (Seaford, N.Y.). "Samsung has clearly lowered the bar to entry by using its semiconductor and manufacturing clout to deliver a very powerful biomedical sensor array," Doherty said.

    Sohn has his personal chops, too. The EE earned an MBA at MIT, then spent ten years at Intel before rising to lead a string of companies including Agilent.

    He served on the boards of ARM, Cadence, and Cymer and was brought in as CEO to take startup Inphi Corp. public. Now he is taking his corporate firefighter role to the next level at the world's largest electronics company, helping lead an important next stage of its mobile battle with Apple and others.

    Next page: To the tricorder and beyond

    To the tricorder and beyond

    Donald Jones also wants to drive this revolution. While helping Qualcomm establish its digital health group, he created a $10 million competition to see who could create a real tricorder, the fictional gadget used to diagnose and treat everything from illnesses to gunshots in the TV series Star Trek. Winners will be picked in 2016.

    Now as the chief digital officer of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, Jones works with dozens of mainly startup companies already making tricorder-like gadgets or apps for treating diseases such as diabetes or heart disease or asthma or for simply delivering medications in a better way. The sector has become the fastest growing area for venture capitalists and a magnet for crowdsourcing, Jones said.

    "We think watches will be a convenient way to interact with medical devices... smart patches are a billion-plus unit opportunity... [and] bodies will be nodes on the Internet," Jones said in a presentation at the Imec event.

    Not everyone wants a revolution in medicine.

    "Consumers are ready, the real question is whether traditional medicine is ready -- but consumers will push it over the top," Jones said, giving examples of gadgets and apps already attracting millions of users.

    Viva la revolution: A sampler of digital medical trials at Scripps.

    "When the consumer has transparent information about quality, convenience and ratings for health care providers, governments will have to start responding," he said. But "borders around practicing medicine will blur, and governments will have trouble with it," he predicted.

    Next page: Regulatory and security challenges

    Regulatory and security challenges

    The medical revolutionaries like Young Sohn face big challenges.

    "When you go from working outside to inside the body, it’s a totally different game," said Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, responding to a question from EE Times after a talk at the Imec event.

    You start needing to work with the U.S. FDA and other regulatory agencies. You need to do clinical trials and prove you are right. It takes 5-15 years with long term investments.

    The [consumer and medical] industries will have to learn from each other about how to bring electronics to the body. It's not an easy thing. It can cost $5 billion. The regulatory and payment environment has to change.

    Stoffels knows from experience. "In our world, we invest three to five billion dollars on a new product that can fail a week before a planned launch," he said, noting J&J spends nearly $2 billion annually on clinical trials.

    "I patented several biomedical sensor systems years ago," said analyst Doherty. "Dealing with the FDA and many overseas regulators is very different than anything my science and engineering training prepared me for," he said.

    Handling regulators is likely to be a hurdle for every medical wannabe from the smallest Kickstarter startup to consumer giants such as Samsung. "Philips, GE and Siemens employ large contingents of tech-savvy people just to interface with those agencies," said Doherty.

    Jones notes the medical revolutionaries have some unique weapons. Startup Scanadu pre-sold its device on Indegogo and with each sale customers had to agree to be part of a clinical trial. The $1.34 million it raised broke the record for the crowdsourcing site.

    Samsung's Simband includes a 14x34mm GHz-class SoC with two ARM Cortex A7 cores, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

    Privacy is the other big challenge. "Trust is there until broken, and once broken is never the same again," said analyst Doherty.

    The problem is compounded by the fact the new gadgets and services run on wireless networks. "Anything wireless is also open for signal interception or interference," said Doherty. "Also, clinics and hospitals have strict RF signaling rules," he added.

    For his part, Sohn compares Samsung's planned services to a bank that stores and secures personal medical data that consumer can access and share whenever they like with whomever they want.

    "You can be responsible for your bioinformatics," says Sohn, repeating one of the big promises he and many other digital medical entrepreneurs say will come with the revolution.

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