Interview with Yoky Matsuoka

November 2, 2009

Series: Entrepreneurial Toolbox

"If we give young girls or anyone else a sense of purpose for what they are doing," says Yoky Matsuoka, "they will become more interested in doing it well."

Yoky Matsuoka

Yoky Matsuoka is Torode Family Endowed Career Development Professor in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. At the Neurobotics Laboratory, robotic models and virtual environments are used to understand the biomechanics and neuromuscular control of human limbs. In parallel, robotic and virtual environments are developed to augment, replace and enhance human sensorimotor capabilities.
Dr. Matsuoka's work has been recognized with a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and acclaimed as one of “The Brilliant Ten” in Popular Science Magazine and the "Power 25” in Seattle Magazine. In addition, she was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), an Anna Loomis McCandless Chair from Carnegie Mellon University, and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society Early Academic Career Award.
She received her Ph.D. at MIT in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the fields of Artificial Intelligence and Computational Neuroscience in 1998. She received an M.S. from MIT in 1995 and a B.S. from UC Berkeley in 1993, both in EECS. She was also a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT and in Mechanical Engineering at Harvard University.
Matsuoka regularly welcomes young people to her Neurobotics Lab to learn about robotics, and hopes that they will be inspired to openly embrace the fields of math and science as she did.

Yoky Matsuoka


An Interview with Yoky Matsuoka Torode Family Endowed Career Development Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Washington

Date: November 2, 2009

Entrepreneurial Toolbox Interview with Yoky Matsuoka [intro music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi. This is Lucy Sanders, the CEO for the National Center for Women & Information Technology, or NCWIT. This is another in our Entrepreneurial Toolbox Series, and these are a set of interviews that are really related to skill sets for entrepreneurs. So, each one of these interviews has a particular topic; some about networking, some about failure, some about understanding Silicon Valley. In this interview, we are going to talk about using technical innovation for social good. I'm very excited about that topic, because we all know that technology really can be used to improve the world. With me is Larry Nelson from, Internet radio. Hi, Larry.

Larry Nelson: Hi. I'm so happy to be here, and looking forward to this interview with Yoky. One of the things I have to say is NCWIT has so many excellent interviews. We archive them all, not only at, but also, and looking forward to it.

Lucy: Well, welcome, and welcome Lee, Lee Kennedy, who is a serial entrepreneur, and CEO of a new company called "Bolder Search."

Lee Kennedy: Thanks, Lucy.

Lucy: As well as an NCWIT. So, we are interviewing a fabulous person today, Yoky Matsouka, who is at the University of Washington on the Computer Science Faculty. I want to spell her research area of focus, because it took me awhile to learn how to pronounce it.

Larry: Yes.

Lucy: N-E-U-R-O-B-O-T-I-C-S, neurobotics, is that right, Yoky?

Yoky Matsouka: Yeah. That was great.

Lucy: Oh, good. See, I could say that. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the "Genius -Award, " and really attributes her research in areas of "Transforming and understanding how the central nervous system coordinates musculoskeletal action, and of how robotic technology can enhance mobility of people with manipulation disabilities." Wow, what a wonderfully rewarding topic to be thinking about. There is this great segment with Yoky on "NOVA" where she is talking about what she does, and Rodney Brooks, who is one of our board members is featured with her. So, it is a great segment for people on "NOVA Science Now". So, Yoky, welcome. Tell us a little bit about what is happening at your new foundation called "Yoky Works."

Yoky: Actually, the background of Yoky Works comes from something that I was doing on my own. So, places like National Science Foundation encourages faculty to get involved in Education and Outreach Peace, and I have taken that seriously. I have realized that my research reaches out for people maybe 30 years down the line, because that is what research is about. We are supposed to shape the landscape of science and engineering, and not necessarily help people now. So, I have taken that, but at the same time I realize that robotics can help people with disability now, which I wasn't doing in my lab. I thought, "There has got to be a way to help people." So, one person at a time, I sort of picked from the list of emails that I have received about what their disabilities were and the request to help them, and I have built robotic or simpler devices to enhance their life in some way. Sometimes it was just a little device that allowed for example, anbrella to get tilted in the right direction on the wheelchair, because people in the wheelchair turned out to get really wet. Because rain never comes from the top, it always comes from the side, especially when they are moving pretty fast with their electric chair. So, those are little things that I have worked on, on my own, or a communication device for a kid who could barely move anything but a thumb. Now, I thought that doing that on a larger scale, that is something I do on the side, out of my own pocket would be really nice to do. That's the fundamental beginning of Yoky Work and we take on again clients; so they call it. So there are people with some disabilities that we can enhance and then we take on volunteers. Ranging from high school, middle school students all the way to what we call re-launchers, people who might have prioritized raising family first and now they have reached the point where they're looking for a material to re-launch themselves into a career or something fulfilling to do. So those are the list of volunteers that we have to team up and solve problems for people.

Lucy: Well Yoky, that's a great background of Yoky Works and what's going on there, we'd like to hear about what kind of technologies you're working on now.

Yoky: OK, for Yoky Work, again I try to hit something between what we do in the lab setting and something that is available in product. For example, people with Parkinson's have what is called micrographia, not everybody, but a good percentage of them and those people when they start to write letters the letters get smaller and smaller and they will actually have to lift off the paper and think about it and reset themselves to start writing again and then they will soon the letters will get smaller and smaller again. This maybe solved by pretty much shaking around a little bit of the limb to wake up and reset the neural system and if we could do this without having them lift off the paper but having another system. That's giving basically wake up, wake up, wake up signal. Then it might just make it that much easier to write. So we build little, maybe like a watch, that shakes in a certain way, which makes people write better.

Lee: Wow, that's so interesting.

Lucy: That's so amazing, I want to relauch. [laughter]

Yoky: So that will be the sort of project that, its one of those things that don't exist in that market because you know its not proven and maybe even it doesn't have big enough market. So those are the reasons why things may not exist out there. Its one of those things that...It is not research it is actually something that we use on people and see if it works. Well, some of those things could result in publications, but that's not our goal.

Lucy: And that project is through Yoky Works?

Yoky: That project is through Yoky Works, and I can tell you what I do in my lab.

Lucy: Love to hear that.

Yoky: There are sort of two flavors in my lab right now, one is we build anatomically correct robotic hand, its so photogenic that pretty much every picture up there you see, me and usually have this ghostly looking hand next to it. We are building something that's looks a lot like human hand in a robotic form certainly its for serving future prosthetics, but the real primary reason for building it is for us to use that engineering tool to learn more about how human hand works. The way we're looking at is from both hardware and software, and when I say hardware, it's by a mechanics, like bones and tendons and joints and skin and how they integrate together. In all of that we don't know a whole lot about exactly how human hand works, and so what the salient features of the hands are. May be it is important that the pinky works independently from the ring finger? Is that more important than maybe certain side motion of the thumb? If we were to provide one extra motion in the prosthetic-hand which one is more important. Those are the things people just haven't been able to look at and we provide the tests that to be able to evaluate those things. Also, by having human replica hardware then we will be able to then put in neural signals from people and then to again experiment and see what kind of neural signals are really allowing that motion to happen. By then we can also figure out what the abnormal inputs are like and trying to come up with solutions for fixing that.

Lee: That's amazing.

Larry: That's absolutely incredible. Yoky, we are talking about the Yoky Works Foundation and you mentioned a little bit earlier in this conversation the word clients. I usually think about paying clients for a profit making organization and yet obviously that's not true here. Is there a reason why you went non profit rather than for profit?

Yoky: Yeah. That's a very good question. This was actually a discussion we had at the company early on. We could certainly build devices and charge money from people who need those devices and make money, but just did not capture the spirit for what we are really after. All of us including myself, we're not here to make money off people who have disadvantages in how they live their lives. We just want to help them. Just that whole spirit of all of us. The moment we said "how do we make profit? How do we make money" we just didn't feel right. We just felt like "that's not what we are here for." So we decided "You know what? We are going to let that part of us go and for this organization we are going to focus on helping people for no money."

Lee: I think that is wonderful.

Larry: Yeah.

Lucy: A great answer. So Yoky works as a collaborative of brilliant thinkers. A number of people working on some really advanced technology and it needs to be organized in some cohesive way. What kind of secrets do you have for our listeners about managing a whole race-horse stable of brilliant thinkers?

Yoky: Well, I don't know if I'm good at it, but believe I do it. My general philosophy is that everybody is very different and they all come with their own set of skills and expectation that I have to learn and they have to learn how to work with me and then over-time it evolves into a relationship that works. We do it in a more organizational way. Of course we have some hierarchy. We make sure that there are some people that are in charge of, for example, specific projects and then they also manage a set of engineers or students. I can't manage all of them individually, but at least having this certain level of higher expectation of certain people who manage people and then having them report to me works pretty well.

Lucy: I think it is just really complicated when so many brilliant thinkers and yet I'm sure there is a high degree of collegial respect. That really helps as well.

Yoky: I think, again, it is all about finding out what that brilliant thinkers are good at. Everybody is different and brilliant in different ways. Some are better at marketing, some are better in building things, some are better at coming up with ideas on what to build things. If we can resource those things right, then we are very productive.

Lee: That is a great point.

Larry: Yeah, absolutely. Yoky, let me ask you this question: Change is in the air and you are attempting the impossible it seems like everything we have seen on your website and the things that you are working on in the future, could you tell us about the vision of your foundation?

Yoky: The reason why I paused is, naturally when people are after a vision, naturally I have my own vision, but I have been pounded on what a vision is in the business sense. Apparently I'm not right so... [laughter]

Lucy: No, no, no. No, no. For this interview you are right. [laughter]

Yoky: That is the reason I have to pause ... My vision is to enable pleasure with simple engineering solutions. So, there are people who want to play music but just can't. Can we come up with simple engineering solutions that would enable them to have that pleasure? Some people are more basic than that. Some people cannot communicate. They cannot say yes or no when they are in pain. And somebody is asking, "Are you still having pain?" Can we enable them so that they can express themselves? And again, that would lead them to be able to have that pleasure. So, whether it's a hobby or necessity we'd like to provide that step with not extremely complicated research solutions or something you can buy off the shelf for $200 dollars, but something in between.

Lee: That's really wonderful.

Lucy: That sounds like a fine vision.

Larry: I like it.

Lucy: Who's telling you that's not a vision?

Larry: Yeah. [laughter]

Yoky: I think business people like to appear one very focused vision. And also, another way I think I'm potentially in trouble with the business idea is I also at the same time want to help the volunteers reach their dreams of having meanings in their life. I think having people who felt like maybe it was just fine and very rewarding being in a house and leaving their kids. But now at some point they said, "When they're at school I'd like to have something else to contribute to the society." And I think just having them exposed to this effort is giving them pleasure and that's also extremely rewarding. That is part of the vision for my company. But I think that's where I get in trouble. That I have two kind of separate visions.

Larry: Will you and John McEnroe just stay in trouble? [laughter]

Yoky: That's my goal.

Lucy: That's absolutely right, I'd say that's a fine goal.

Lee: One of the questions we have around collaboration is there is lots of technical entrepreneurs, investors out there looking for things to invest in and put their time in. Do you see how these people could help you in your mission?

Yoky: Yes, definitely. I think my foundation can take on more work and then can affect more people if I had technical entrepreneurs who want and can contribute their technical expertise. Also, we are looking for funding which enables a lot more. We are running on extremely tight budget namely called "Yoky's pocket". And again, the more people who are interested in being part of this effort we would benefit greatly. And also, I think that this is something that is not a hard thing to copy and do it in other parts of the country. That's also great, where people can learn what we do and if they think they can do something similar and starting somewhere else. Again, that's a multiplication of our effort in some way. Even if we don't directly communicate.

Lucy: And when you think of contributors, not only computer scientist, but do you have like orthopedic surgeons that are working? What kind of contributors would be the most helpful to you?

Yoky: All of the above. Turns out, we had people with management skills and backgrounds. People who were a nurse before. People who are physical therapist and people who are engineers. We just ended up ...because people who are appealed by this effort just are not necessarily engineers or computer scientist. And this multi disciplinary approach is extremely important for realizing something like this. Turns out, if a bunch of engineers approached a seven year old girl who has cerebral palsy and we really took on an engineer problem it won't appeal to them as much as having our nice interface person. Having somebody who can plan strategically about what the project should be. And even teaching some the computer scientist and engineers how to approach this problem. So, it's a very innovative and multi disciplinary team.

Lucy: And I see that in working with a company that is also working in the area of Parkinson's but they're putting speech therapy over the web and it is very healthy disciplinary with the right kinds of interfaces and things that work for people with Parkinson's to keep their audio level up.

Yoky: Yeah.

Lucy: It's very multi-disciplinary. This is just so stunning to me. You've had such success. We're really curious. Who influenced you along the way. Who were your mentors, role models, et cetera?

Yoky: This question comes up a lot. Then I keep thinking. So far, I really feel that; stay consistent to my Nova show. That people like John McEnroe and Rodney Brooks. People who really the pushed the boundary beyond what other people might have thought of. I just really get inspired by those people. It partly comes from my Japanese background where in general...These are generalizations. But in general, in Japan people are taught to fit in a mold more than here in the US. My parents actually discouraged that. I've grown up always thinking that I'm different. I don't have to fit in a mold. Then when I start to see people like John McEnroe and I saw that he doesn't fit in a mold. He actually does quite well because of it sometimes. Same thing with my Ph.D. advisor Rodney Brooks who has not fit in a mold. Again, just pushing the boundary and then not fitting the mold and just still be OK with it. Then changing the world. I think all of that is very inspiring to me.

Larry: Yes, I can really tell you that we all enjoyed that video. We'll make sure that we put a link to that video on the website as well as to your foundation. Now let me ask this question. If you were sitting right now with a person who was an aspiring entrepreneur, what advice would you give them about starting a non-profit?

Yoky: Interesting. One thing that I have learned from my process while I kept my job as a professor is that don't underestimate the amount of time it takes to get those things going. I thought, "Hey, I'm doing this on my own already. I will scale up a little bit." Then suddenly I had a lot of people who were interested in this non-profit. Suddenly it required a lot of time. I think partly I underestimated how much time I needed to really put in to have a successful non-profit. I need to keep learning to spend more time to make sure that it continues to be successful. So I think that would be for those people who are thinking about casually starting a non-profit on the side, that it is a time-consuming operation.

Larry: Yeah.

Lee: That's good advice.

Yoky: Also another thing is that I've heard a lot of situations where a lot of people disagree with the business model. Like the famous story about Fed Ex. How the business school students came up with the idea. They basically failed it because it was thought that it was a bad idea. They pushed through and now it was a great idea. I really believe in that. If you believe in the good idea, no matter what people might say, I think it is OK to keep pushing as long as there are resources and other people who believe and help you with it. That sort of thought has helped me through some of the tough times through start-up and organization.

Lee: That's probably the best advice you can give any entrepreneur. Keep pushing.

Larry: Lucy was here in the background saying, "Yes, I love my job and I love non-profits." [laughs]

Lucy: I know they take a lot of time.

Larry: You're right.

Lucy: I know they take a long time.

Lee: Yoky, you've earned many prestigious distinctions. Did the Genius Award change your life? If it did, how?

Yoky: It really changed me. The way it changed me was very different from what most people might imagine. For example, some dollars that come with the award. That didn't change me a bit, unfortunately. Really what affected me was the amount of attention and to some extent, the press that came with it. Which allowed me to send some of the messages that I was always sending but it was almost like an amplifier. I was able to actually make statements like this. That Yoky Works is an important thing helping disabled people, building devices. Trying to recruit more women in the field. Having more opportunities to give presentations and talks to those populations, whether it's the middle school kids or societies for women. All those come around a little bit easier. It's not that I've changed the way I do things, but it just greased up those wheels a little bit more. It made is easier to reach to more people with some of the things that I'm thinking and I was doing. Also, the way I kind of see it is that it's like surfing. You see opportunities that create some initial swells and waves. If you let those go, maybe the next swell will come. But it turns out if you actually take those and ride with it, the next opportunity...the next swells will come up again. So I see the MacArthur Fellowship to be something that provided me with swells. I'm riding those surfs; the waves; right now.

Lucy: I love that. If you don't get out there and take the first wave, then a lot could pass you by.

Lee: A lot could pass you by.

Lucy: So Yoky, is there anything that we should have asked you about using technology for social good that we didn't? Anything that other aspiring entrepreneurs might want to know?

Yoky: I think one of the things that...It might be some of a repetition of what I've already said....The current society, unfortunately, is run by what makes money. Some times great technology that could have huge impact on society are just not being developed. Because it just doesn't make money. It doesn't have enough population to serve. I find that to be just unfortunate side-effects of our society. I would love to see more, not just helping disabled, but different ways it can affect society which may not make a whole lot of money. But if people don't hesitate, just because vc's won't give them money as a way to not do things, but just still do it. It might require that they keep their normal job on the side and that makes things a little bit harder. But I would like to see more and more of that to happen.

Lucy: In closing a lot of our great research labs had a business component and had that kind of an inspirational component where the technology and the research....The end result for business wasn't known. That's why it was research. In fact, Rick Rashid from Microsoft has given this most eloquent description of why we need to do this kind of research. Some of it is to discover new things, but some of it is also to adapt to new situations that you never thought would ever come along. You need to build your toolbox of possible responses. So really great inspirational story and we're glad you're out there. I'm 55 years old, and I'm hoping for all kinds of breakthroughs.

Lee: Quickly.

Lucy: Quickly, quickly. Yoky, thank you very much for talking to us.

Yoky: Thank you very much for asking me. This was really fun.

Lucy: Our listeners can find these interviews at the NCWIT site and at

Lee: I would mention if you enjoy what you hear, please talk about it. Put the link on Facebook, Twitter, Diggs, StumbleUpon. Help us get the word out.

Larry: There you go.

Lucy: Tell everybody about Yoky's great work.

Larry: Thanks, Yoky.

Lucy: Thank you.

Lee: Bye-bye.

Yoky: Thank you. [music]