Tom Yuen was on dialysis for 42 years, and I’m sad to learn that the serial entrepreneur who cofounded AST Research passed away at age 70 on February 13. But I’m glad to know that he beat the odds on his kidney disease for far longer than doctors expected.
I met Yuen and the AST Research cofounders back in the 1990s when I worked at the Los Angeles Times in Orange County, California. I wrote a profile about why he was so driven back in 1992.
Yuen was born in Hong Kong and he immigrated to the U.S. in 1970.
Yuen told me back then that he married a Japanese woman. And that was controversial for his Chinese family back in those days. He felt some pressure to be successful. Then, in 1973, he was diagnosed with a kidney disease and was told treatment would cost $15,000 a year. As an engineer at Hughes Aircraft, he was making $12,000 a year at the time.
Yuen was laid off from that job in 1974, and he looked through the images of a corporate annual report and saw mostly white men in the executive ranks. He decided that he would have to start his own company to get ahead and become financially successful in order to save his own life and take care of his family. (He is survived by his wife Misako and their children Jennifer and Constance.
Yuen started AST Research in 1979 with Albert Wong and Safi Qureshey — an act that broke the glass ceiling. In 1980, Yuen’s kidneys failed and he learned he would be on dialysis for the rest of his life. That sent him into overdrive.
The trio of founders had a Three Musketeers ethos, and the name of the company was based on their first-name initials. They created the company just ahead of the dawn of the PC era as IBM launched its PC and opened the door for clone manufacturers to make DOS-based computers. AST started out making components and eventually made its own PCs.
The company went public in 1984 and it grew to thousands of employees and billions in sales. It became a Fortune 500 company and helped put Orange Count on the map for tech industry prowess. Yuen left the company in 1992.
AST was acquired by Samsung in 1997 and eventually shut down in 1999. Yuen also purchased the 3D audio firm SRS labs in 1993 and acquired PrimeGen Biotech, a stem cell research and development firm, in 2002. He also became a prolific and generous donor in Orange County.
“Though he was sick for more than 40 years, the incredible support of his wife and determination to provide his children the best life possible drove Tom to live an extraordinary life. In business, he was brilliant, focused, a bit of a risk taker and ultimately very successful. In life he was caring, compassionate, and had an unyielding desire to help people,” said Wai Szeto, business associate and close friend of Yuen for 40 years, in a statement.
A memorial service for Tom Yuen will be held March 12, 2022 at 2:00 p.m. Pacific Time in Costa Mesa, California. Please RSVP by contacting Stacy Pham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make a Donation
To commemorate Yuen’s passion for philanthropy, the family has asked that instead of sending flowers, friends and family donate to two causes he was truly passionate about:
· Support Stem Cell and Kidney Disease Research and UC Irvine – https://secure.give.uci.edu/ThomasYuenMemorialGifts
· Support Providence Speech and Hearing Center (affiliate of CHOC Health) – https://raiseup.choc.org/honor/TomYuen
Yuen’s influence had a legacy in tech. In 1986, AST acquired a small memory manufacturer called Camintonn, whose principals David Sun and John Tu went on to form Kingston Technology.
“Before AST, Tom and I were college roommates, and it was clear even back then that he was a true visionary. He had a knack for dreaming up big ideas and improving upon existing ideas in ways that were simply fascinating. 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,” said Wong, cofounder of AST Research, in a statement.
“Making money was never a primary driver for Tom, instead, he was more interested in taking on significant challenges, learning from them, and seeing if the market would reward the fruits of our labor,” said Qureshey, cofounder of AST, in a statement. “After his chronic kidney disease diagnosis, Tom never slowed down, he just adapted. He was brave to deal with everything he had going on, yet he also managed to maintain a positive attitude and an uncanny desire to succeed.”
Among his accolades, he earned a TechAmerica Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the UCI Alumni Association’s Extraordinarius Award in 2014.
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