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Entrepreneur Drove Computing and Audio Forward Through Decades of Disease

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Thomas Yuen pioneered early personal computing and audio technology while fighting a hereditary, chronic kidney disease.
Photo: PrimeGen Biotech

Thomas Yuen was working in 1980 as an electrical engineer in Southern California when his kidneys failed and he learned he would require dialysis treatments for the rest of his life. The news gave him two things: a sudden need to earn much more money than he was making, and a drive to seize what life he had left.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Yuen co-founded AST Research, a technology hardware maker that got its start making expansion cards for International Business Machines’ first personal computer. The cards added memory, a clock,…

Thomas Yuen
was working in 1980 as an electrical engineer in Southern California when his kidneys failed and he learned he would require dialysis treatments for the rest of his life. The news gave him two things: a sudden need to earn much more money than he was making, and a drive to seize what life he had left.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Yuen co-founded AST Research, a technology hardware maker that got its start making expansion cards for
International Business Machines
’ first personal computer. The cards added memory, a clock, storage and several ports to early computers, and were an instant hit, former colleagues said. Mr. Yuen and his co-founders, Albert Wong and Safi Qureshey, grew the company from a tiny office routinely rattled by landing airplanes into a Fortune 500 manufacturer with revenues of $1.14 billion by 1992.

“He was never satisfied with what he’s building,” Mr. Wong said of the early AST days, when Mr. Yuen encouraged an intense focus on the end user’s experience.

As PC clone-making became less profitable, Mr. Yuen left AST in 1992 and poured $2.7 million of his own money into SRS Labs, a newly created audio technology licenser. Mr. Yuen, SRS Labs’ owner and chief executive, guided a push into three-dimensional audio technology for consumer electronics that is considered standard today.

He was passionate about the technology, friends said, even as his disease, known as Alport syndrome, worsened his own hearing. DTS Inc., another sound licenser, purchased SRS Labs in 2012 for $148 million.

Mr. Yuen spent the final decades of his life funding and promoting stem-cell therapy research, in hopes of finding treatments for chronic diseases like the one that runs in his family. He donated to the University of California at Irvine’s stem research department and spared no expense outfitting his own R&D firm, PrimeGen Biotech, which has been accumulating stem-cell patents since 2004, according to Steve Gershick, the firm’s chief financial officer.

A passionate learner, Mr. Yuen was up-to-date about the intricacies of his company’s research almost until his death on Feb. 13, friends and family say.

Mr. Yuen was born on Sept. 10, 1951, in Yangzhou, China. His father, a housekeeper and chauffeur, followed an employer to Hong Kong with his family when Mr. Yuen was a toddler. Mr. Yuen immigrated to America and attended community college before transferring to U.C. Irvine to study electrical engineering.

Those who knew him say that a desire to provide for his family drove Mr. Yuen from the beginning of his career. “His entire personality was to make sure AST was going to be successful,” said Wai Szeto, a longtime friend and colleague. Mr. Szeto said he and Mr. Yuen shared a first-generation-immigrant “paranoia for success,” and that Mr. Yuen evolved from a volatile firecracker of a leader to a kind, gentle, patient mentor.

Mr. Yuen’s daughter Jenny Yuen said her father would often come home from work and smoke a cigar in the backyard, having long conversations with his family about how to experience and enjoy life. A onetime president of his prestigious Hong Kong high school’s photography club, he hunted for vintage cameras at flea markets and held on to the first camera he owned, a gift from his brother-in-law. Even this year, his daughter said, she saw him meticulously cleaning his collection, and Mr. Szeto said he still swapped photos of cameras online.

Sitting through hours of dialysis several times a week for years, he came to love films, Ms. Yuen said, sometimes tearing up at old classics and newer blockbusters like
Disney’s
“WALL-E.”

In recent years, she said, Mr. Yuen became infatuated with ballroom dancing, and even after he lost mobility would watch his wife and friends take lessons, bobbing his head to the music.

He is survived by his wife of 48 years, two daughters and an older brother.

Mr. Yuen’s relationship with his disease and his love of life and family inspired friends and former colleagues, including Allen Gharapetian, who worked with Mr. Yuen at SRS Labs and maintained a friendship over the past decade.

“Every moment counted for him,” said Mr. Gharapetian.

Write to Stephen Council at Stephen.Council@wsj.com

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