UW’s Matsuoka Stays at Nest, Brain Research Center Gets New Director

2/22/12Follow @curtwoodward

Multi-talented scientist Yoky Matsuoka is making it official: She won’t return to the University of Washington, choosing instead to focus on her new job as vice president of technology for Silicon Valley “smart thermostat” startup Nest.

It’s a loss for the UW computer science and engineering department, but not a huge surprise. Matsuoka—a past winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant”—took a leave from the university in spring 2010 to work on a research project at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA.

She quickly moved from that position to her spot at Nest, a consumer device company founded by former iPod project leader Tony Fadell.

Yoky Matsuoka

We’d been hearing that Matsuoka would soon officially resign from UW, and Ed Lazowska, a top professor in the computer science department, confirmed the move in an e-mail. Matsuoka is expected to formally hand in her resignation in the middle of next month, he says.

“It’s a significant loss, of course—Yoky is superb. But these things happen,” Lazowska says, noting the flow of high-profile engineers and scientists that move between UW, other universities, and major tech companies around the world.

One notable example of that exchange is Brian Bershad, a former UW professor who joined Google as its Seattle site director and recently transferred to work for the search company in Russia (he was replaced at Google Seattle by cloud-computing expert Doug Orr).

Nest’s digital thermostat employs machine learning to adjust home temperatures and adapt to user preferences. It’s also a slick-looking, physically well-designed unit that definitely calls the founder’s Apple heritage to mind.

Nest’s pleasing industrial design, interesting computer science guts and star-studded founding team have earned the startup a lot of interest and positive public exposure recently. That, in turn, has drawn a patent-infringement lawsuit from thermostat industry stalwart Honeywell, which claims that Nest is copying everything from its round shape to its digital user interface.

At the UW, Matsuoka worked on advances in human-computer communication that could make it possible for injured people to precisely control devices like prosthetic limbs with their brains. She spurred the creation of a National Science Foundation-funded lab—the Research Center on Sensorimotor Neural Engineering—that is led by UW, with major partners at MIT and San Diego State University.

Lazowska says Tom Daniel from the UW biology department will take over as director of the center, which won an $18.5 million NSF grant last fall. Daniel had been officially serving as deputy director under Matsuoka.

(Matsuoka and Lazowska are both Xconomists, part of our roster of guest columnists.)

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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