Yoky Matsuoka is many things — a former aspiring professional tennis player, mother of four kids, and EECS extraordinaire.
She’s also the vice president of Google Health and holds more than 250 patents.
Matsuoka stopped by the Sutardja Center’s Newton Lecture Series on January 29 to chat with Tsu-Jae King Liu, dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering. She began her talk by recounting her “unconventional” route to Berkeley, which was initially intended to help her become a professional tennis player.
After an injury put her tennis career on hold, Matsuoka dove full-force into studying EECS, intending to build a tennis-playing robot. Fast forward a few years to 2007, when Matsuoka became a MacArthur Fellow — colloquially dubbed the “Genius Award” — for developing prosthetic devices and rehabilitation strategies for people who suffered brain injuries.
“When I was going through Berkeley, often I was the only female in the room, to the point where I would go home and look in the mirror and go, ‘Oh, I’m a girl!’” Matsuoka said. “This award allowed me to come out of my shell a little bit and say, maybe if I say some things, people might learn something that’s useful.”
When she opted to pursue graduate studies, Matsuoka said she did so because she “felt less educated by what (was) out there in the world.” While studying at MIT, she discovered her passion for combining neuroscience with robotics to improve people’s lives, eventually translating that interest into a non-profit foundation called YokyWorks.
The foundation was built using the grants from Matsuoka’s MacArthur award, and has helped several clients over the years. Matsuoka recalled a young swimmer who received a waterproof arm extension after she lost her right arm. YokyWorks also helped a girl with cerebral palsy who now uses a wheelchair with an attachment that communicates for her based on her movements.
“Now YokyWorks is trying to focus on the software side, (especially) the learning disability aspect,” Matsuoka said. “We have some innovative ideas that we want to implement. It’s exciting to feel the impact that we have.”
After spending several years as a professor at the University of Washington, Matsuoka left academia to work at a startup called Nest, where she worked on building consumer products. Nest was eventually acquired by Google; not too long after, Matsuoka became Vice President of Google Health. She even fit in a stint on Apple’s Health team between positions at Google.
Currently, Matsuoka serves as board director at Hewlett-Packard, or HP, citing her interest in learning how to govern and manage a large company. Matsuoka acknowledged that finding a balance between her busy career and motherhood was tough — “There are days when I’m a horrible person for Google, but a good mother, and vice versa!” — but said she was happy doing it all.
“When people say ‘How do you do it?’, I say I don’t,” Matsuoka said with a laugh. “It’s completely impossible is what I decided; but if you ask me if I would do it again, I would.”