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Technology

Panasonic poaches Google robotic expert for smart-home tech

Yoky Matsuoka will set up a team of specialists in Silicon Valley

Yoky Matsuoka served as chief technology officer of smart-home device maker Nest.   © Reuters

OSAKA -- Panasonic will bring a Google vice president and robotics expert into its leadership team Thursday, drawing on her experience in the American technology behemoth's smart home business to enhance its own connected appliances.

Yoky Matsuoka, previously chief technology officer at Nest before the company was folded into Google by parent company Alphabet last year, will serve as a director-level fellow at Panasonic. She will remain based in Silicon Valley, setting up a team of several dozen locals, mostly engineers, to develop software to improve the user-friendliness of Panasonic appliances and other hardware.

The move is part of Panasonic's strategy in recent years of adding outside talent to its top ranks to rethink its business from the ground up.

Matsuoka earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was involved in the 2009 founding of Google X, Google's "moonshot factory," which focuses on breakthrough technologies. She briefly joined Apple in 2016 to help lead its health technology operations before returning to Nest in 2017.

Matsuoka was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007 for her work in neurorobotics, which combines neuroscience, robotics and artificial intelligence. 

Panasonic sees outsiders and their different ways of thinking as a catalyst for radical but necessary change. The company's profit margins are narrower than those of its peers, at 5.1% for the year ended in March compared with 10.3% at Sony and 8% at Hitachi.

"Our existing team can think of only existing things. We're having people come in who can challenge our business model," Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga said.

Past moves in this vein include the 2016 hiring of Eiichi Katayama, then an analyst at Merrill Lynch Securities Japan and now Panasonic's chief strategy officer. Yasuyuki Higuchi, previously CEO of Microsoft Japan, moved to Panasonic in 2017.

The Japanese conglomerate also brought in Wataru Baba that year from the Japanese arm of German software provider SAP. Baba now heads a Panasonic innovation hub in Silicon Valley.

The idea has spread to other big Japanese companies as well. Toyota Motor hired Gill Pratt, formerly head of robotics research at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and now a fellow and head of the automaker's artificial intelligence unit. Hitachi poached Brad Surak from GE Digital, where he served as chief operating officer, in 2017.

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