Ina Fried

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Samsung Sets Up Shop on Sand Hill Road, Launches $1.1 Billion in Venture Funds

young_sohn_samsungSamsung Electronics said on Monday that it is launching two venture funds worth a total of $1.1 billion as well as a strategy and innovation center on Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road.

A $100 millon Samsung Catalyst Fund will focus on early-stage companies while a $1 billion Samsung Ventures America Fund will target companies of all sizes.

In addition to the Menlo Park office, the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center will have offices in Korea and Israel and be led by Samsung Electronics’ newly installed president and chief strategy officer, Young Sohn.

Sohn is holding a press conference in Menlo Park momentarily to discuss things.

1:08 pm: Sohn says he hopes to demystify Samsung a bit, even though the company is already a $188 billion company and the ninth biggest global brand. All this from a company that started out making black-and-white TVs.

Sohn goes through all the different stuff Samsung makes today, from medical equipment to TVs and phones to memory and chips, cameras and other “white goods” appliances.

1:09 pm: Sohn whips out his Samsung Galaxy phone. He notes that prior to joining Samsung he, too, carried a different phone, but insists once you get used to Samsung’s big screen it is hard to go back.

1:12 pm: Sohn, by the way, is a former Intel, ARM and Agilent executive who has also served as CEO of a couple companies and, until recently, was on ARM’s board of directors.

1:13 pm: Sohn puts up what is a popular Mary Meeker chart these days showing how the PC used to dominate computing but that is changing with iOS and Android.

“We are in a very disruptive time,” Sohn said. When there is a disruptive time, Sohn says, there is lots of change, and Samsung wants to make sure it is on the right side of all that change. “We want to be a leader in innovation.”

1:16 pm: Lots of things are improving, from displays to wireless networks to processing power. One thing that hasn’t, though, is battery technology, which only improves at a paltry 10 percent per year.

Samsung makes all kinds of devices, Sohn said, all of which are getting smarter and more connected.

But, he said, “We’re not there yet.” We’ve got some way to go, both to add smarts and connect devices in the cloud, and that is an opportunity for both Samsung and entrepreneurs. Security is also a big area where improvement is needed, Sohn said. “Solving the security problem will be one of our big challenges,” he said.

1:19 pm: There are both policy issues around privacy as well as technological security issues, both of which need to be solved.

As for big data, Sohn notes the difference between lots of data and actual insight. So what if you are generating a Library of Congress’ worth of information every 15 minutes? “Do we know what to do with that data?” he said.

1:21 pm: In the past, Samsung has been very focused on doing development in Korea.

More than half of employees are outside Korea, Sohn said, but the company needs to better reach out to “global hotspots” for innovation.

Samsung said it is important that it make its own technology. By manufacturing, he said, you see the limits of the technology. You can also be more nimble as the market changes.

(Samsung is pretty good at this. One great example of this was Samsung scrapping its original 10-inch tablet design in favor of a thinner model following the introduction of the thinner iPad 2.)

Making stuff is expensive, though. The company spent $23 billion on capital expenses last year. (I originally had this as its R&D budget but Samsung says the figure is for total capital spending.)

1:25 pm: Another Samsung hallmark is being willing to pursue multiple strategies and letting the customer decide.

Sohn didn’t get into this level of detail, but this can be seen in the fact that Samsung has phones running Android, Windows Phone and Bada, PCs running Windows and Chrome OS, as well as the fact it offers devices in practically every screen size from one to 15 inches.

1:27 pm: Samsung has done some M&A but Sohn says to expect more deals.

“Some are small, some are larger,” Sohn said.

Sohn talks up recently announced expansions of the company’s business in San Jose and elsewhere in the Bay Area. “We are really a part of Silicon Valley,” he said.

Here’s that Mary Meeker chart Sohn referenced earlier, showing the wane of the PC.

photo (35)

Samsung has been making a lot of moves in the Valley of late, including setting up shop in Palo Alto and hiring David Eun to help out on the media side of things.

Eun will be speaking in about a week at our D: Dive Into Media conference in Southern California.

Samsung’s venture arm already has $1 billion in assets under management and did about 20 deals last year worth about $160 million.

But too little, Sohn said, is being invested in basic materials science these days. That’s an area that Samsung hopes its increased venture presence will help.

“We are a very patient company,” Sohn said.

“We’re here to innovate. We think we have a lot to offer.”

1:37 pm: It looks like the $1 billion U.S. venture fund has quietly been going for a while now, though Samsung hadn’t really talked about it.

While lots of companies are running away from basic science, Samsung is digging in.

Asked about whether the Apple lawsuit plays into Samsung’s U.S. investment, Sohn hedged for a second before saying:

“I don’t think about that particular topic at all. I feel very free to innovate.”

Sohn notes his work is focused on the components side of things rather than content, which is Eun’s area.

1:41 pm: Reporters are pressing Sohn for details on how much of that $1 billion venture fund is new. He doesn’t give details, but says that the company would probably be among the three biggest corporate investors.

The $100 million early-stage fund seems to be the only all-new part.

That fund, Sohn said, is about kick-starting things when something is just at the idea stage.

As for where Samsung might do acquisitions, Sohn talked about filling in strategic gaps, but wouldn’t be pinned down.

“We typically don’t comment on the details for obvious reasons,” he said.

1:46 pm: As for the Silicon Valley innovation center, Sohn didn’t say how many employees the company has.

“We are early stage and we are growing,” Sohn said, again without giving much in the way of numbers. “We have a very open budget in terms of going after these areas.”

Sohn did say he isn’t a big fan of hiring hundreds of people to focus on innovation but prefers smaller teams.

By the way, Sohn noted he has been on the job for about four months now.

1:50 pm: Asked about whether Samsung is just catching up to other companies like Intel and Qualcomm that already have venture funds, Sohn said that “everyone has a slight[ly] different flavor.”

Samsung, he said, wants to invest early on and also wants to invest in long-term bets that may take a long time to come to fruition.

It’s difficult to keep all of Samsung’s U.S. efforts straight, but it sounds like Sohn’s innovation center is focused on components and hardware and quite separate from Eun’s accelerator in Palo Alto.

While he is largely focused elsewhere, Sohn says that “software is very critical to our success.”

1:56 pm: A reporter just asked Sohn to clarify all its incubators and accelerators and labs.

Sohn notes that while has only been at Samsung four months, he has worked with the company for 20 years as a partner in various ways.

“I recognize it is a large organization that is hard to navigate,” he said.

In Silicon Valley has R&D, Samsung Ventures, sales and marketing as well as his new innovation group.

“There are multiple locations,” he said. “Each business has their own purpose and we don’t want to hinder their business need.”

Of course, there are other companies, including one that does batteries. (I’d fund a startup that made sense of all of Samsung’s subsidiaries.)

Sohn mentioned his innovation center is likely to expand beyond Korea, Israel and Silicon Valley.

“I think Boston is very critical,” he said. “Austin is very important.”

Europe could also see a location. Cambridge has been a wonderful source of innovation, Sohn said, noting his background at ARM.

“That’s part of our game plan,” Sohn said. “Instead of waiting for them to come to Korea, we are going to reach out.”

Sohn won’t say how many employees are at the Menlo Park office, beyond that it is in the double digits.

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