Thomas C.K. Yuen defied chronic kidney disease for decades, enduring lifelong dialysis sessions while becoming an Orange County tech mogul and philanthropist.
The Newport Beach resident and co-founder of AST Computer, SRS Labs and PrimeGen Biotech died Feb. 13 at age 70.
Calling him a mentor with a “heart of gold,” friend and former colleague Michael Farino said Yuen left a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.
“He made a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands of people in OC, providing them tech jobs and kicking off a massive PC industry here,” Farino said by email Thursday, March 3. The two worked together for 13 years at SRS Labs and PrimeGen.
Yuen immigrated as a teenager to California from Hong Kong in 1970, attending UC Irvine where he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1974. In the nascent years of the tech boom, he and friends Albert Wong and Safi Qureshey formed a consulting business for developing computer hardware for companies including IBM.
The trio then founded AST (Albert, Safi and Tom) Research, capitalizing on the exploding market for expansion cards used in personal computers. The company would go public in 1984.
Two years later, the team at AST ventured into manufacturing, launching AST Computer after acquiring another Orange County tech firm, Camintonn, for $6 million. Industry followers will recall that Camintonn was founded by David Sun and John Tu, creators of Kingston Technology, another local tech titan.
Tom Yuen’s company SRS Labs marketed sound technology that made standard speakers achieve a surround sound effect. (File photo by Mark Avery, Orange County Register/SCNG)
AST Computers grew into a Fortune 500 company worth billions by the 1990s.
Wong, recalling their college years together, said Yuen was “a true visionary.”
“He had a knack for dreaming up big ideas and improving upon existing ideas in ways that were simply fascinating,” he said. “While some of the innovative things he would propose to create sounded impossible to develop, he had a charismatic approach that inspired and motivated engineers like me to bring his ideas to life.”
Born in 1952 to a poor family, Yuen persevered in his new life, enduring years of weekly dialysis sessions to manage his chronic kidney disease, which was diagnosed in 1980.
“Tom never slowed down, he just adapted,” Qureshey said.
Yuen exited AST in 1992 over what the Los Angeles Times called a power struggle with the board of directors. A vow to retire at the time didn’t last long. Yuen bought a majority stake in the Hughes-spinoff SRS Labs, a sound startup, for $2.7 million in 1994.
The Santa Ana company was known for developing “3D” stereo sound using just two speakers. The technology would be used by music studios, in automobiles, computers, home theater systems, flat-screen TVs and smartphones. SRS Labs went public in 1996 and was sold in 2012 for $148 million.
The tech visionary with a chronic disease then pivoted to stem cell research in the early 2000s, buying a majority stake in Irvine-based PrimeGen Biotech. He invested millions of his own money to fund research at the company, which develops stem-cell-related strategies for human and veterinary medicine.
CEO Tom Yuen stands in the staging area of the cleanroom of the VetCell offices in 2012 in Santa Ana. The company creates stem cell therapies for dogs to treat osteoporosis. (File photo by Michael Goulding, Orange County Register/SCNG)
“He took it upon himself to learn everything there was to know about stem cells and personally funded the company’s R&D operations for 20 years with the hope that someday his team’s discoveries would save lives,” said Wai Szeto, a friend of 40 years and a former business associate.
In 2006, Yuen donated $1 million to the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UC Irvine.
“The gift comes with no strings attached,” the 54-year-old Yuen said at the time. “My illness exposes me to a lot of people who are sick and suffering. And I believe stem-cell work holds the promise of treating a multitude of age-related and chronic diseases.”
Apple’s new budget iPhone will be faster, more expensive
Beefing up its cybersecurity, Google buys Mandiant for $5.4B
Ukrainian drone enthusiasts sign up to repel Russian forces
Apple’s low-cost 5G iPhone SE expected at March 8 event
Son of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella dies at 26
In addition to years of philanthropic contributions to UC Irvine and the Providence Speech and Hearing Center, he served on the UC Irvine Foundation board of trustees and the board of directors at the speech center, a CHOC health affiliate.
Yuen is survived by his wife Misako “Misa” and daughters Jennifer and Constance.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 12 in Costa Mesa. Attendees are asked to RSVP by email to Stacy Pham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The family has asked that instead of flowers, friends and family donate to two causes he was passionate about:
–Stem Cell and Kidney Disease Research and UC Irvine at secure.give.uci.edu/ThomasYuenMemorialGifts
–Providence Speech and Hearing Center (affiliate of CHOC Health) at raiseup.choc.org/honor/TomYuen